Coach educator, blogger and regular Player Development Project contributor, Mark O’Sullivan examines the true definitions of growth mindset and the effects of praise in player development.

At this time of year, the coach education courses are coming thick and fast. Nearly every weekend from January to May I will be delivering to coaches either of the first two stages of a fantastic curriculum developed by the Swedish FA. Each group I work with is unique. Coaches between the ages of 16 and 55 sit in the same room discussing personal experiences, training design, how we meet the child’s physical and emotional needs and the many issues that are presently polarising the debate around child and youth sport in Sweden. Opinions come in many shades as experiential knowledge and socio-cultural factors are so varied. This leads to many rich and rewarding discussions and hopefully with the material provided during the course helps guide the coaches (and me) towards developing a more informed opinion.

One thing that I have been reflecting on after leading these courses (with the aim of deepening my understanding of how the learner learns and how learning occurs) is the praising of effort by coaches. Richard Bailey in his Psychology Today article “The Problem with Praise” refers to a rationale that is commonly expressed by coaches during these courses. One of praise bolstering self-esteem and criticism harming it. “In effect this is the “gas gauge” theory of self- esteem, in which praise fills up the tank with good feelings and social approval and criticism drains it”. Later in the piece Bailey delivers a crucial line that us coach educators need to take with us in to the classroom saying, “poorly judged praise can do more harm than good”.

We need to discuss the how, why and what of coaches praising effort. What do they say and how is this interpreted by the learner? Why do they say it? What is that effort, does it lead to learning and if not how can we ‘nudge’ or guide the leaner to find a way?

“Always try to praise the effort, not the outcome. That’s the lesson that parents and teachers often take from my work. But it’s the wrong lesson, or it can easily become so.” – Carol Dweck

Praising effort has for many been interpreted as central to the work of Carol Dweck. This interpretation has created many misunderstandings. Recently Dweck has spoken out about the common misconception in equating growth mind-set with effort. She explains, “It really is about learning.”

When we are stuck between a rock and a hard place “we need a learning reaction”. We need to vary our approach to learn and improve. We can reflect on what we have done, the effort that got us here but we must be willing to investigate and develop new strategies. We need to seek out help from others. We need to learn to thrive in the storm of the challenge embracing setbacks on our way to learning. Navigating this storm is complex. A young player may display a growth mindset but suddenly a “trigger” can propel him/her back to a fixed mindset. This also applies to the coach.

I must ask myself how good am I at understanding these triggers and recognising a fixed mind-set reaction?

Dweck outlined a few common reactions to these triggers.

  • Anxiety in the face of new challenges
  • Negative voice in head
  • Looking for excuses
  • Defensive to criticism instead of showing an interest in learning
  • Envious and threatened by others when looking at their performance

Any of these sound familiar?

“Accept those thoughts and feelings and work with and through them. And keep working with and through them” – Carol Dweck

The process of helping our young players to learn to be learners is a complex one. In the training environment I want young players to become attuned to key sources of information so that they can become adaptable and creative and transfer this to the competitive game. Equally as important, as a coach I also need to be attuned to key sources of information in and around the young learner’s social environment how it is influencing them and what signals they are sending us.

Part of the art of coaching and designing a learning space is very much down to understanding these triggers that can constrain learning. When we feel development is being hindered or has stalled then we need to identify why this has happened so that we know what constraints are impinging on the learning process.

These constraints may change according to the needs of different individuals at different stages of development. Many of these “boundaries” that can influence performance, participation and personal development emphasise the individual nature of development over time. For example, changes in structural constraints caused by growth can be a delicate and sensitive time influencing the overall psychological state. Growth can be fast and disruptive where specific parts, tissues and organs have different growth rates. Just as important, Dr. Martin Toms points out that there tends to be a focus upon the biological and psychological yet “underpinning any athlete’s “bio-psycho” make-up is the socio-cultural environment in which they are brought up”. What are the “triggers” that can emerge from there?

All this implies that the young learner may only be receptive to change (learning) at specific periods of development. How we respond to this is critical.

I see a reference to these triggers in a previous blog, on talent Al Smith from Myfastestmile identified a big problem associated with the label “talent” in children’s sport. Simply the weight of expectation that comes with that word, particularly for the parent more than the child. This weight may trigger an unhealthy reaction from the young player.

“Everyone thinks only of themselves, they think only of themselves as a way to cope in their incredibly tough competitive situation. We must have a regular dialogue with these children. It is very important in their early years that through warm relationships they experience love and kindness.” – Tommi Hämäläinen (Talent development at Finnish Ice Hockey club HIFK)

These triggers are ‘rate limiters’ and identifying them is key. We need to adapt to our learners needs and also understand them better as people.

“From other discussions with coaches, I get the feeling that praise is easy to give but in most cases lacks the connection to learning and as a result the athlete misses out on information relevant to learning AND effort and how these two are related.” – Kristoffer Berg (Swedish Fkoorball Association/ http://www.innebandy.se)

“Poorly judged praise can do more harm than good”. Praise them like you should.

 

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Mark O'Sullivan
Mark O'Sullivan
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Mark O’Sullivan is a UEFA A licensed coach based in Stockholm, Sweden. Mark delivers coach education courses and has run many youth social projects, has his own blog – Footblogball – and he works with Espanyol Football a co-operation with La Liga club, RCD Espanyol. Mark is a regular contributor to Player Development Project magazine and has featured in our Masterclass Webinar series. Mark’s currently working on his book, ‘Coaching the Learning Game’ and it will be due for release soon.
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Comments

  1. Barney Ball

    Great article for coaches wishing to think more deeply about ‘praise’. For coaches wanting to develop their understanding of the concept of ‘talent’ , I suggest exploring the work of Francoys Gagne and his Differentiated Model of Giftedness and Talent.