Ski Racing: Don’t Praise Your Children!

November 14th, 2010

By Dr. Jim Taylor

Please be prepared. I’m going to go on a bit of rant now. I just can’t hold it in any longer. I see parents doing this constantly and it’s killing me because they know not what they do and they are actually hurting their children’s personal and ski racing development.

What am I referring to? It’s praise, that’s what I’m talking about. Now I know what you’re thinking: “What? Praise is bad? I can’t praise my children? This I have to hear.”

Okay, here goes. What is the most common praise you hear parents (and coaches) giving young racers in training and at races? “Good job!” “Good job” (and other variants such as “Way to go,” “Nice job,” and “That’s great”) have become knee-jerk reactions from parents whenever their kids do something worthy of acknowledgment. If I had a dollar for every time I hear that, I would be a wealthy man today.

What’s the problem with “Good job?” Well, it’s lazy praise, it’s worthless praise, it’s harmful praise. It has no value to children, yet parents have been brainwashed into thinking that it will build their children’s self-esteem and confidence. Plus, it’s the easy and expedient thing to say.

Let’s start with the purpose of praise: to encourage children to repeat a behavior that produces positive outcomes. Now you can start to see the problems with “good job!” First, it lacks specificity. It doesn’t tell young racers what precisely they did well and without that information they can’t know exactly what they should do in the future to get the same outcome. Second, “good job!” focuses on the outcome rather than the process. If you’re going to be lazy with your praise, at least say, “Good effort!” because it focuses them on what they did to do a good job.

Unfortunately, many parents have been misled by the “self-esteem movement,” which has told them that the way to build their children’s self-esteem is to tell them how good they are. Unfortunately, trying to convince your children of their competence will likely fail because ski racing (and life in general) has a way of telling them unequivocally how capable or incapable they really are through success and failure in training and racing.

The reality is that children don’t need to be told “good job!” when they have skied well; it’s self-evident. They do need to be told why they did well so they can replicate that behavior in the future to get the same positive outcome.

Research has shown that how you praise your children has a powerful influence on their development. The Columbia University researchers Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck found that children who were praised for their intelligence (or, in the case of ski racing, their natural ability), as compared to their effort, became overly focused on results. Following a failure, these same children persisted less, showed less enjoyment, attributed their failure to a lack of ability (which they believed they could not change), and performed poorly in future achievement efforts. Says Dweck: “Praising children for intelligence [or talent] makes them fear difficulty because they begin to equate failure with stupidity [or lack of talent].”

Too much praise of any sort can also be unhealthy. Research has found that students who were lavished with praise were more cautious in their responses to questions, had less confidence in their answers, were less persistent in difficult assignments, and less willing to share their ideas.

Children develop a sense of competence by seeing the consequences of their actions, not by being told about the consequences of their actions. The researchers Mueller and Dweck found that children who were praised for their effort showed more interest in learning, demonstrated greater persistence and more enjoyment, attributed their failure to lack of effort (which they believed they could change), and performed well in subsequent achievement activities. Rewarding effort also encouraged them to work harder and to seek new challenges. Adds the Clark University researcher Wendy Grolnick: “Parental encouragement of learning strategies helps children build a sense of personal responsibility for—and control over—their academic careers.” The value of this research to ski racing is, I think, pretty clear.

Based on these findings, you should avoid praising your children for their inborn talent (“You are such a gifted ski racer.”) because they have no control over the genetic ability that you gave them. You should direct your praise to areas over which they have control—effort, attitude, responsibility, commitment, discipline, focus, emotional mastery, fitness, technique, equipment preparation, the list goes on. You should look at why exactly your children did ski well and specifically praise those areas. For example, “You worked so hard preparing for this week’s race,” “You were so focused during the entire race run,” or “You kept fighting after that mistake.”

Here’s a risky move; don’t praise your young racers at all. The best thing you can do is simply highlight what they did. For example, if your racer just skied a tough part of a course really well, just say, “You really nailed that section.” Their smile of pride will tell you that they got the message you wanted them to get, namely, “I did it!” Nothing more needs to be said.

As another alternative to praise, just ask your children questions. You can find out what they thought and felt about their race, for example, “What did you enjoy most about the day?” and “What did you do really well today?” Allow your children to decide for themselves how they feel about their accomplishments, enable them to reward themselves for their good skiing, and encourage them to internalize what they observed about their own achievement efforts.

Or really go out on a limb and don’t say anything at all to your children. As I just mentioned, kids know when they ski well. By letting them come to this realization on their own, they learn to reinforce themselves and they don’t become praise junkies dependent on you for how they feel about their efforts and accomplishments. After a race, the first thing you can say to them is, “What do you want to eat?” If they want to talk to you about the race, they’ll let you know.

Here is my challenge to you. First, next time you’re at a race, take note of what parents say to their children. I’ll bet you hear “Good job!” (or some variation) constantly. Next, monitor what you say to your children in the same situations. Then, erase “Good job!” from your vocabulary. We’ve already established how useless it is. Finally, start to praise your children in the healthy ways I just described. When you have broken yourself of the “Good job!” habit, you can then pat yourself on the back and tell yourself, “Good job!”

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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5 Responses to “Ski Racing: Don’t Praise Your Children!”

  1. larry ennis |

    Thought provoking!
    I can neither completely agree or disagree with your offering. Would it make any sense if I beg the middle ground based on my experience with different children under different circumstances.
    If I’m reading you correctly, you warn that to much recognition could dampen incentive in a child, thus effecting his or her rise to their true potential. I fear that the lack of verbal praise and encouragement will cause many children to be lost between the cracks of our society.
    Jim, although my experience cannot match yours in the area of credentials, I have, never the less, spent many hours working with kids that were victims of severe physical disabilities. The great sadness of the perfect mind trapped inside the imperfect body makes the need for praise very important in my opinion.

  2. Tom Carter |

    Jim, even your rants are thoughtful! This all makes sense, whether thinking about kids and sports or academics or, for that matter, adults. However, I agree with Larry’s point, too, that some children need different kinds of reinforcement.

    A key point is your reference to the “self-esteem movement.” That’s been highly damaging, resulting in a generation or two of young people raised to believe that they’re already pretty much as good as they can be. If kids don’t learn young that there are winners and losers in life and that they can’t always expect to be among the winners, they end up being incapable of coping with the fact that they may not be so perfect.

  3. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    @Larry: You focus too much on my title; it was meant to be attention grabbing and contrarian. But I actually do advocate for praise in the post, just not the pointless and lazy “good job” type of praise. Especially for those with severe disabilities, they must be praised for what enables them to succeed. Of course, you want to help them feel good about themselves, but especially for those with disabilities, what will really make them feel good is being able to live their lives as they wish despite those disabilities.

    @Tom: Thanks for the good words (I’m not really a ‘rant’ type of person). To add to your point, though US students perform poorly compared to their international counterparts, they actually believe they are very capable. What this says is that there is a profound disconnect between actual ability and perceived ability. Sooner or later, the US students are going to get hit over the head really hard (metaphorically speaking) when they actually have to face those truly qualified students.

  4. Clarissa |

    “Sooner or later, the US students are going to get hit over the head really hard (metaphorically speaking) when they actually have to face those truly qualified students.”

    -In my 20 years of teaching, I have observed that those students who do have high self-esteem don’t give up when confronted with somebody with higher degree of knowledge and better-developed abilities. A person with a high self-esteem doesn’t see anybody’s excellence as a threat. they see it as an encouragement to get better and achieve more.

    I don’t think there can be “too much” praise or encouragement. Low self-esteem is a problem that plagues too many people. Anorexia, bulimia, alcoholism, drug addiction – all these issues are a result of low self-esteem, among other things.

  5. Dr. Jim Taylor |

    @Clarissa: I totally agree with you about the impact of self-esteem, both high and low. But you are conflating unfounded opinions of oneself with real self-esteem which is based on actual demonstrated competence.

    But I disagree with your view that there can’t be “too much” praise and encouragement. Praise and encouragement should be appropriate to the person and the situation. For example, a child shouldn’t be lavished with praise for doing something that is quite ordinary and easy to accomplish.

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