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The impact of praise on young athletes

12/06/2017, 2:00pm MST
By Michael Rand

Praise can be a motivating force in just about any situation across all age groups. But it’s a force so powerful that we also must be careful with how we dole it out – particularly when it comes to young hockey players.

Too much praise for 8U hockey players from the wrong sources isn’t necessarily a good thing, says Dr. Dan Saferstein, sports psychologist for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He helps explain the impact of praise and how it relates to the motivation of young players.

Don’t overpraise as a parent

Saferstein has three grown children who played sports at a high level – including two who played in college.

“I’ll give you my take, but this might not be the popular take,” Saferstein said at the beginning of our conversation. “I’ve been around the block as parent and professional.”

Saferstein says parents should adhere to the motto of old football coach Lou Holtz, who said his job isn’t to motivate players but rather to not screw them up.

“You shouldn’t have to work to get your kid excited about hockey. If they’re not, maybe they’re not excited about hockey,” Saferstein says. “If you feel you have to heap praise on them to keep them in hockey, maybe it’s not right for them.”

By that, he means that if you have to keep telling your 8U player how great they are just to get them to show up, it could have negative consequences – problems he sees clinically and observationally in a hockey world that is increasingly parent-driven.

“Sports should be fun. The thing with praise is that you don’t want your kid to be a praise addict,” Saferstein says. “You want them to have some intrinsic motivation and intrinsic sense that they played well. Should haven’t to always tell them that. My kids knew they were good. I don’t think you should praise your kids in hockey any more than you should praising them for their homework or things they do in school.”

Find balance as a coach

For coaches, it’s a different story.

“I think with coaching, particularly with young kids, it should be teaching and an encouraging spirit. It shouldn’t be punitive, and you should be fair with all the kids and not just praise one kid – praise pretty equally,” Saferstein said. “Some kids are just better than others, and if you’re just going to praise the guy who scored all the goals it’s going to be the same few kids every time.”

Saferstein believes in a basic ratio when it comes to praise and criticism, particularly for levels as low as 8U: It should be about two-thirds praise, and one-third critique.

“And it’s always in the spirit of teaching,” he said. “As kids get older, you can be a little more direct in terms of what they need to work on. You don’t want them to feel like it’s a job at a younger age. When they get to 16, 17, on the college hockey path, and they truly want to get better, then at times, you need to be firm and point out what they really need to work on to reach their goals of playing at a higher level.”

Keep things in perspective

Saferstein is clearly not afraid to speak his mind, so here is another nugget that should help parents keep everything in perspective with their young players.

“There’s kind of a myth in sports that if you work hard you can achieve anything. It’s not true,” Saferstein said. “Talent is a big part of the equation.”

Saferstein had two sons who played soccer and a daughter who played softball. All three had talent, but he was still realistic about that talent.

“It’s important for parents to be realistic about where their kids fit in on the hockey landscape,” Saferstein added. “Not everyone is going to go on to play high school or college hockey.”

Find their own motivation

Saferstein circles back on the connection between praise and motivation to tie a bow on the two.

“What motivates kids in sports? Some kids have a certain level of competitiveness that’s innate. All parents want kids to have killer instinct but kids come with different temperaments,” he said. “The biggest thing is that you have to somehow keep their love of sports alive. If it starts becoming stressful or a burden or a job, then they’re going to quit because there’s a narrowing funnel in youth sports as you get older.”

So let kids find their own motivation. Don’t overpraise, lest you create a youth player who is only playing to receive that praise and is secretly very unhappy.

“I work with a lot of surprisingly young athletes who come to me because they’re terrified. These are kids who throw up before competition,” Saferstein said. “It’s not just the effort level, but also how to keep it calm and enjoyable that matters.”

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