Is too much praise for players a bad thing?

Had an interesting call from one of our coaches yesterday. One of the parents on their team got very upset with them during a game. I get a few of these each year. 90% of the time the cause for parental anger is one of two things: unfair allocation of playing time (ie. their kid isn’t getting to play the minimum prescribed time for the age/level) or the coach is too harsh and their child is upset at the steady stream of critical comments.

This one was different. The parent apparently cracked when, after a player missed connecting with a cross, the coaches praised the effort anyways. “That’s it!” he yelled, according to the coach. “At some point, you’ve got to tell them it’s not good. That they’re doing something wrong and they need to do it differently, do it better. It can’t be ‘well done’ all the time.”

A few weeks ago I had a parent on another team say that the constant stream of praise from their coaches was really just a “celebration of mediocrity.”

The first team is a younger boys divisional team and the second an older girls divisional team. It should be noted that both are having challenging seasons from a results point of view so there’s probably some residual parent frustration over that and some of the comments can be attributed to A-Type Personality venting.

But it does raise the very important point of the role of the coach on several fronts. How do you motivate? How do you make corrections to things that are happening on the field and effect change in players? How do you keep spirits high during a tough season? How do you teach values like accountability in a team setting? How do you foster confidence without getting tuned out if your message is unchanging? How do you instruct without alienating?

I look at this praise vs criticism dilemma not so much as a dichotomy but as a shifting continuum that is a function of the player’s age, individual temperament and level of play. This is obvious. Who would treat a U8 house player the same as a U18 Metro player? The constants, for me, through these shifts though are: establishing and maintaining the trust of your players that you are on their side while also increasingly demanding accountability in terms of commitment, effort and dedication to improving as a player.

Put simply: start with constant praise for effort and enthusiasm with particular kudos for following instructions for all kids through to U10. As they hit U8 to U9 start mixing in some questions, posed directly to them, about what they are doing and what might have been another option. When they answer correctly, praise them and encourage them to do just that the next chance they get. Bring them into the equation and get them to buy into how they can improve by (hopefully) coming up with answers themselves. People are just more likely to act on something if they feel they were at least partially involved in the discussion and solution.

As they hit divisional soccer at U11, particularly at higher levels of play, your job as a coach is to shift gears and make corrections to individual technique and basic team play (shape, movement, decision-making on and off the ball) more and more. They need instruction and it’s why the term ‘coachable’ starts to enter the lexicon more and more. This necessitates constructive criticism and coaches need to know that their instruction is being taken on by players and not dismissed as a petty critique or ignored because the player disagrees. It’s still outweighed by plaudits but you’re moving towards a framework for increased accountability in your players.

Remember too that just as much communication between people is non-verbal, not all positive and negative statements need to conform to stereotypical whoops, hollering and clapping for praise and clipboard smashing, epithet hurling, temple pulsing anger. Because both of those get tuned out by kids as the hit adolescence. If you can keep both types of instruction at a relatively steady tone, you will get more buy in.

When you get to the point where you’re coaching teenagers most of them are already somewhat skeptical of adults and even more are aware of when adults are being disingenuous with them in their praise. If all they hear is praise, even when they know they’ve messed up, they’ll quickly start to tune you out and some, particularly the brighter and more sensitive ones, will start to feel patronized. Same goes for the completely negative message. No kid needs or wants to hear that.

If you want your message to be taken seriously, ensure it’s genuine and pay attention to the medium. In this case tone is the medium and it can be a great equalizer. All messages to players should be calm and measured both for praise and criticism. Both should be specific to show you’ve been paying attention to them as individuals and if delivered in proper portions (still considerably more praise than criticism), the compliments will be believed because they know they’ll be told honestly and calmly about their mistakes. And the criticisms are more likely to be taken to heart and attempts made to fix them if they trust that it’s being said to make them better players and not from anger or spite.

I want my players to trust that I’m their ally and I have their best interests at heart and know that requires me to be genuine in my comments to them whether it’s praise or pointing out a flaw in their game. I want them to know that being successful means overcoming challenges and being willing to respond to instruction in a positive way. By the time they’re well into their divisional years, for the most part, I hope I’ve created a pathway so  that my praise isn’t taken as absolute confirmation of their playing genius and that the criticism is not taken as personal.

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11 Responses to Is too much praise for players a bad thing?

  1. K says:

    Spot-on, Gregor! The bit about question-and-answer is so critical as well. I am glad you pointed that out. But yes, don’t give praise when it isn’t due. However, there isn’t anything wrong with praising an “idea” and the discussing how to correct the technique to assist in making the “idea” work next time. Well done!

  2. Phil Hernandez says:

    This seems to my untrained eye to be a very good template or primer on how to deal with the praise/criticism dichotomy of coaching. (Indeed, it is not a stretch to suggest it is a model for many other superior/subordinate relationships.) I have a few comments.
    a. How would you, Gregor, advise parents to interact with their children when at-home soccer conversations arise (assuming that the parent is, as are most of us, ex-youth-or-higher-players with at least a basic understanding of the game)? Obviously those conversations will change over time as the child’s knowledge of the game and abilities grow. But in an ideal world, from the perspective of a coach, what would you have parents say or not say to their kids about the game, the way its played, or the way its being taught? I would guess the answer ranges from nothing at all thru encouragement only and reinforcement to additional practice all of which are dependent on the skill and knowledge of the parent but are their pitfalls to watch out for?

    b. I would add not being afraid to discuss individual aspects of technique/playing ability 1 on 1 with a player to your sensible approach. I have been in conversations with my daughter’s (excellent) club coach where he will occasionally say that he intends to talk to her about this or that. I always enthusiastically encourage that – not only because it helps my daughter but also because having the advice/instruction come from him is almost always better received. Even though kids as you say will start tuning adults out, the parents are the first to whom that happens!

    Nice piece Gregor.

    PH

    • Gregor says:

      Thanks Phil,

      Well without trying to sound like I’m telling people how to parent, I can say from personal experience with my three kids (one finished U18 last year, one is U16 right now and my youngest son is U9 – yes that means almost 16 consecutive years of having a teenager), I can say that I now say very different things to my youngest before, during and after a game than I did with my other two. I say way less and I say it much more simply. Before games, I tell him to concentrate on his first touch, pass the ball and be moving all the time. And that’s about it. A simple message reinforced regularly. During the game, I try to say very little to him directly but, as per the post above, I try to do it in the form of questions like “Is you head up?”, “What are your options?”, “Can he pass to you there?”, “Why haven’t the Stone Roses reunited yet?”…

      After the game, which is what you asked about, I ask him how he thought the game went and really one of the things I’m looking for is the point where he starts making cogent points that show he’s got a good read on what actually happened. He doesn’t yet but I wouldn’t expect him to. Beyond that, I ask him if he enjoyed it (he always does) and what he enjoyed about it. Nothing technical. He gets a bit of that from me when we go and kick a ball around in the park on our own.

      I’m a bit of an absentee assistant coach on his team (due to the nature of my job I can’t make most of his practices and a good chunk of his games) so I leave those who stepped forward to run the team to do the coaching and try not to undermine them in any way. He comes to our academy program so when I’m coaching him there I drill down pretty hard with the kids his age to correct basic technique so I’m not too concerned about bad habits forming (although he did tell me the last session I ran for his group, a lot of passing and receiving involving very specific touches, was boring so maybe I need to worry about that!)

      • K says:

        Haha, don’t worry. I was doing the “basic technique” stuff with some 10 year olds the other day and they were pretty bored too! Don’t worry – all they want to do is play the games!

  3. J says:

    maybe not bang on topic but, any advice on how to encourage / motivate the kids who seem to not even want to be there?

    I’m sure every U10 house team has at least one, we have a couple.

    I am sure that their parents are dragging them out the door for practice and it shows during the practice.

    Any tips?

    These are nice kids whom I’d be happy to have my son play with or have over for a sleepover but man ‘o’ man, get them on the field and it’s like, “I’m really sorry your mom is doing this to you kid because you’re obviously not digging this.”

    • Gregor says:

      It’s funny that you mention this J in the context of U10. I regularly tell my coaches that U10 is the hardest age group to coach because it’s the last year before (almost everyone) streams into different levels of play. So by this age you have the highly motivated player who lives for the game, watches it on TV, attends extra training and can’t wait to train and play games playing with players who are playing because (a) their parents are making them (b) it’s their first year and they’re seeing if they like it (c) kids who for physical development/coordination reasons can and will only play soccer.

      These different physical and motivational levels on the same team are a huge challenge for coaches. I’m a big believer that at some point, and this varies depending on the kid, players realize if they are contributing to a team’s effort or are negatively impacting performance. Those that have come to the realization that they are considerably behind their teammates in terms of performance often take this personally and start to lack motivation. It’s tough staying motivated when it seems everyone else can do things with the ball that you can’t. And when the stronger players on your teams stop passing to you and the other team’s stronger players start stripping the ball off you as soon as you get it, it gets pretty demoralizing.

      Our solution on the west side for the clubs we (Steve Kindel and I) are TD’s for (Pt. Grey, Dunbar and Kerrisdale) was to change the game format for our U9 and U10’s. Instead of expecting players of vastly different abilities and motivation levels to play with and against each other on the same field, we created two playing environments. Teams have 20-24 players and play two games on two adjacent fields. One field is for stronger players and the other is for developing players. We insist that for the first 6-8 weeks of the season that almost all the players experience both fields several times. As the season goes on, and the players settle in, the middle group gets smaller.

      What we end up with is two playing environments with the weaker players actually getting to participate and score the occasional goal (downplay the importance of who scores as much as you want but it’s very tactile for kids and when you see a U9/U10 player score for the first time in his career, he’s very happy, and doesn’t care if he’s on the developing field) while the stronger players are adequately challenged and feel more comfortable passing the ball to teammates because they have more faith that possession will be retained.

      With 20-24 players at training, you need some serious management skills but the teams are given at least four coaches and enough space for that many players. Once you address the logistics you’re then left with some options on how you want to group them and have some groups work on one element of the game while others work on something different.

      Does this solve motivational issues? Not all of them but it does help for the kids who aren’t motivated because they feel they’re not able to participate as fully as some other players due to a lack of experience or ability.

      For some, like you say, it’s not their thing and there’s not much you can do except to discuss it with the parents to see if there’s any ‘issues’ you should be aware of and to tell them that it’s obvious there kid is not having much fun and they’ll need to look at how long they’re going to persist in trying to bring him/her around to liking the game.

  4. K says:

    Now you are just taunting.

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