There’s a well known and very old Irish proverb that says “Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí” which directly translates to praise the youth and she will come, but broadly means praise the youth and they will progress. Being Irish, we also have a counter proverb that ridicules the first “Bual sa tóín í agus titfidh sí” which means “kick her ass and she’ll fall”.
Old wisdom needs new words sometimes to bridge the gap between generations. We generally consider praise to be a good thing and criticism to be a bad thing in our black and white binary way of defining things we want to easily remember. Of course as coaches we are looking to stimulate progress, improvement, change, development and so along the way we confront the possibility that what we’re seeing isn’t actually GOOD. Maybe it’s objectively pretty TERRIBLE. That being the case, what choices do we have in a world where praise is good and criticism is bad? The answer of course is feedback.
To help with clarity, let’s have a definition or three:
Praise: An expression of approval, typically general and non specific in nature. eg. “Great effort team, good job!”
Criticism: An expression of disapproval based on perceived mistakes or faults, also tending to be non specific. eg “Your kicking was very poor Tom”
Feedback: Information about a persons performance, primarily given as a basis for improvement. Specific, observable and actionable. eg. “You lost balance in the reverse turning kicks, perhaps try lining up your heel with the target before initiating the swing”
The single biggest difference between these approaches is the intent of the coach. If the relationship between coach and athlete is strong, nurturing and athlete centred even criticism can result in improvement. The opposite is also true. If the athlete feels like the coach really doesn’t care then even praise will feel hollow and worthless. The message will always be best received when it comes from someone you trust and who you’re sure cares about you.
We use praise particularly when group efforts are worthy of note or where the enthusiasm of the moment means that feedback is not appropriate and occasionally to cushion the feedback to follow. We use criticism sparingly, and only 1 to 1 where the intent is to shock or surprise the athlete to where they’re better placed to hear what you say next. We use feedback in 90% of situations where the intent is improvement. The formula is simple…
- This is what I saw… unemotional, unbiased, facts. No interpretive filter.
- This is what I think should have happened… Apply your coaches filter, use experience and context, be specific
- Here is how I think you could improve… Give a possible solution
- What do you think?… Arrive at a mutually agreed plan of action
- Let’s go!
With more experience, number 2 and number 3 gradually give way to number 4, especially in training. Using the wrong tool or communication style can be very damaging, and there’s almost no situation where criticism on it’s own does anything positive. Let’s follow the proverb, use praise and aim for progress (FEEDBACK) and not set our athletes up for a fall by kicking their ass.