Rewind to June 2012: The Boston Celtics win Game 5 of the NBA Finals over the Miami Heat and go up 3-2 in the series.
The ever-present TV cameras catch the mood of the losing team as they head into the locker room after the devastating loss before a home crowd.
Listen to the kid who greets them from the stands:
I love this kid, obviously the product of positive parenting and positive coaching. But people who actually follow NBA basketball are miffed by this kid. One comment nails it: “The kid is clueless. He isn’t cheering on a rec club team.”
Oh, it starts out safely enough. Everybody gets a jersey. Everybody plays. Everybody probably even gets a trophy. “Good job, good effort,” everyone. Then that devil, the score, creeps in. So “We don’t keep score,” but the kids do. So “We don’t have standings,” but the kids know where they stand.
The “good job, good effort” mindset has become so widespread that Canadian comedian Peter Oldring created a satirical radio program about a soccer association in Midlake, Ontario that mandated playing without the ball in order to discourage the “negative effects of competition.”
The audio broadcast spoof records the coach saying, “Now who wants to pretend to have the ball first? When I say that Michael has kicked the ball down the field, we all have to imagine it’s down here.”
Good job. Good effort.
At some point with our kids and our team we get to that moment when “good job, good effort” offends rather than encourages. We haven’t gone pro. We may not have even gone to travel. But the game and how we play it matters. The outcome matters. Performance matters. Kids not only don’t believe you when you “good job” them, they’re angry. Because you’re lying. Just look at the score.
Honestly, I failed pretty miserably at this step in my coaching development. I took a travel team of adorable, hard-working but not-ready-for-prime-time players and tried to encourage them to success. It doesn’t work. The other teams clobbered us. I started wondering whether I was meant for the big leagues. (Turns out this wasn’t just a test for the kids.)
It was a “go hard or go home” moment for me. I’ve never been much for heading home. I had to figure out how to go hard and motivate my players to come with me. Competition was not the enemy; it was the catalyst.
What do you say to a team that has just blown a big lead, played down to the level of their competition, and missed easy opportunities to score? It’s not a good effort and they know it. If they can do better, they know that, too. So, what’s all the yelling about? I’ve been told boys don’t mind it. They’re used to it, maybe even expect it. I have seen girls take it personally, and that rarely improves their next game.
I’ve seen great coaches out there who do well transitioning players from the “everybody wins” team into the competitive ranks where outcomes carry weight. They keep it healthy and real with comments that are specific, constructive and actionable.
And they seize opportunities to praise players whenever they can. Tony DiCicco’s book, “Catch Them Being Good: Everything You Need to Know to Successfully Coach Girls,” is a great look at the impact of this with the U.S. Women’s National Team’s “99ers,” the legendary squad that won the 1999 Women’s World Cup in heart-stopping fashion.
Recently, a colleague shared a link with me called “Critic’s Math.” The premise was that one criticism can drown out a ton of compliments. I was surprised at how true it rang for me and for friends and colleagues. We toss aside the victories and rehash every play in the loss.
Perhaps it rings true for you, too. Or your players. You can lob tons of compliments at your defender, but the second she misses a tackle she dwells on it for the rest of the half. Or maybe your striker defeats himself with negative self-talk the moment he misses the easy finish. Glory-sapping moments, yes. But file ’em for later.
Hey, the “good job, good effort” kid may ring a bit hollow, but most folks I know could do with some pick-me-ups in the tense moments. Maybe:
- You got this
- Get the next one
- Plenty of time
- Gotta be better
- It’s just a game
What’s your mantra for game time? Share it in the comments. Let’s hear what works. And then, can we please send it to Ontario?!