Saturday, November 26, 2011
In past writings, I’ve asked everyone to look for the positive in youth sports. The point being, there is much more positive than negative, although the negative tends to get more attention. I apologize in advance for not following my own advice in this particular post, but there is something that worries me and I haven’t found a way to discuss it without being critical and a bit negative. So, I’ll be quick with it.
In a quest for perfect children, many parents, coaches, and teachers attribute a lack of competence to things outside the child's control, therefore maintaining the child’s belief that they are exceptional no matter how they perform. That's a bunch of gobblety-gook verbage. What I really want to say is we make too many excuses for our children. Do we really want our children to believe they don't make mistakes?
It is extremely important that we acknowledge the things our children and athletes do well. Even when performing poorly, there are things the child is doing well. Enjoy them and celebrate them with your children and athletes. Coaches should explain what was done well and why it was considered good. When it comes to sub-standard performances, be honest, supportive and brief. Mention what part of the performance didn’t quite meet the desired outcome, but quickly change the focus to a solution. It’s as simple as this “Maybe you didn’t catch that fly ball, but don’t worry about it, we’ll work on it at the next practice. Pretty soon, no one will want to hit balls your way.” Or, don’t mention it at all following the game and structure upcoming practices to work on the weak area. Just don’t make excuses! If Sally doesn’t catch a fly ball it’s not because it was a night game and she wasn’t used to the effect of the moon’s gravitational forces on the ball’s flight. Missing the fly ball was due to circumstances under her control. She needs to know that, so she can make improvements, fix the problem and become a better ball player. If she’s told the reasons for missing the ball were outside of her control, she will assume she doesn’t need to change, that next time, she will catch the ball if those outside forces will just get out of her way.
If we always attribute poor performance to things outside the control of the athlete, we are robbing the athlete of some great opportunities. The desire to learn is highly motivational. If mistakes are always blamed on someone or something other than the student, the student will have no reason to learn (they’re already perfect). How can an athlete, student, employee, etc. learn the process of setting proper goals and goal attainment if the reasons for not reaching goals are always blamed on someone else? Sally might say “Why do I need to change my goals or training? If the moon hadn’t been out, I would have caught that ball.”
Here’s a point most people don’t think about, but is the most critical point to be made. By making excuses for poor performance, we rob our children of the opportunity to feel the sense of accomplishment that comes with improving their skills. We take away the joy of becoming a better athlete, student, musician, etc. When Sally catches a fly ball in the next game, it should come with a sense of accomplishment and a celebration. If excuses were made for Sally, she didn’t believe missing the ball was her fault, and therefore, if she improves her skills and makes a catch, she might think “good thing the moon’s not out”, instead of “YES, I did it. If I get under the ball and keep my eyes on it, I can catch it. Just like coach told me.” Her first reaction attributes the catch to the changing of factors outside of her control and therefore, she feels no significant progress was made in her skill level. The second reaction is a celebration of improved skill and progress as an athlete. Both are reactions to her catching the ball, but they are very different due to feedback she received from her previous experiences. This example is a bit of an exaggeration, but it speaks to a by-product of excuses that most of us never think about. If every time a child performs we tell them they are excellent, no matter the outcome, and if we blame an obviously poor outcome on factors outside the control of the child, how will they know when they’ve improved? According to what we tell them, they are always excellent.
We must find and celebrate excellence in our children and we will if we look for it. We must also be real when it comes to performances that are less than expected. There are many great learning opportunities on the road from novice to expert. Learning to celebrate excellence is one of those. So are overcoming obstacles and improving our weak areas. A large part of what our children learn will come from how the adults in their lives react to their performances. Should we show them how to use the situation as an opportunity to improve and celebrate that improvement, or should we make excuses? Can we ask our children to be honest if we, ourselves bend the truth? Don’t fabricate greatness. Greatness will come with time. Success is relative to a person’s current goals and past performances. Focus your attention on success and excellence will follow. Doing so can make every game or performance a positive experience with honest feedback.
We can’t skew the meaning of excellence in our children’s minds. We must keep excellence real. Then, it will have meaning.