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Praise Effort, Not Skill

By April 9, 2015Blog

In Bradenton, Florida, Nick Bollettieri coaches tennis. In his 80s, Bollettieri has been coaching at the Academy that bears his name since the 1970s.  Most of the top players in the world have passed through his doors.  This is a tidy little essay he published a few days ago in the Wall Street Journal about his coaching.  It’s a great read.

As Mathew Syed wrote in Bounce, Bollettieri Academy appears a lot like any other first-tier Tennis school: rows and rows of courts; pros in white, sporting the Bollettieri logo; dozens of young athletes working on their two-handed backhand. The difference isn’t obvious until you look at the faces: grim, determined. Sweaty. Jaw muscles flexed, they’re clearly focused on doing better, and working hard to get there.  This is NOT the case at other Tennis centres.

Does Bollettieri somehow sift out the hardest workers? Is he so tough that the top contenders self-select?

No. Bollettieri does a lot of the things common to great coaches: he keeps messages simple. “Move to the left earlier,” he’ll say. He only tries to correct one thing at a time. And one other thing:

He praises effort, NOT talent.  “Good. You’re working hard.” “That’s okay,” he says, when a student hits a forehand long. “It’s not the outcome, it’s how you respond to the challenges.”  And kids DO respond: they work harder for Bollettieri than anyone else.

This is the main theory behind Carol Dweck’s Praise Experiments. Essentially, kids react positively to praise…at first. Long-term, though, it can hamstring them.

Dweck’s experiments showed that kids who were showered with praise were less likely to challenge themselves in the future (risking self-esteem,) less likely to progress much past their comfort level, and less likely to achieve a high level of accomplishment AT ALL. Praise a kid for finishing a test so quickly? They’ll learn to avoid things that they can’t win. Praise a kid’s amazing box jump skills? They’re LESS likely to try higher boxes next time.  After all, we all like being praised…why risk it?  Here’s a much more in-depth look at the subject, written by a teacher in Alberta.

The key is not to forgo praise, but to praise the RIGHT thing. And the RIGHT thing, says Bollettieri, possibly the most successful Tennis coach in the world, is EFFORT.

EFFORT is a constant. You’re either trying hard, or not. Trying hard leads to purposeful practice.  Conscientious effort is the delivery service for champions.  Encourage hard work. Acknowledge talent, but don’t make it the frame for your praise.

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