Stephen Rollnick is a pioneer in motivational interviewing and in recent years has been applying his knowledge to sport. In this article, Stephen offers a psychology perspective on the key differences between praise and affirmation with young athletes.
“When you’re that young, it doesn’t take a lot to be encouraged, or discouraged . . . they raised my game . . . they saw something in me I didn’t see in myself.” (Sir Ken Robinson, educationalist)1
In my work as a psychologist and trainer in and around the medical and counselling fields, I notice quite a difference between praise and affirmation. Then more recently, when I started working in sport, I noticed the widespread use of praise, not just to acknowledge success, which seems natural enough, but as a motivational strategy or “sweetener” that presumably improves outcomes. Does it? I wasn’t so sure. Then I read James’ Vaughan’s article on how praise, and its withdrawal, affected his self-esteem and well-being as a young person, and undermined his creativity on the field. So I wondered about whether the use of affirmation in sport might have value. See what you think. Here’s an imaginary example:
A young player aged 15 in a tense match situation produces a long, low pass that dissects a defense and leads to the simplest of goals, an act of daring and creativity seemingly beyond his age. Imagine meeting him after the game, with a desire to focus on that wonderful pass and to encourage him to develop further. What might you say, and why? One of the most common coaching responses is to use praise:
Coach: “Well done, that was a cracking good pass that was” (Praise)
Player: “Thanks coach” (smiles)
Coach: “That’s one of the best I’ve seen you do. It will be good to see more of those…”
Player: “Sure, thanks”
Coach: “Have a good rest now and let’s see more of those passes next week, OK?”
Another choice you have is to use affirmation, and it might sound like this:
Coach: “That long pass, it seemed like you paused, and somehow saw this gap in their defence” (Affirmation)
Player: “Yeah, it felt like time stood still” (smiles)
Coach: “And in that moment you had the confidence just to go for the long pass” (affirmation)
Player: “Yeah, I just acted on it”
Coach: “It was your vision, and you trusted it” (affirmation)
Player: “Yeah I want to trust it more next time…”
Affirming is when you acknowledge something inside the player that’s already there, which cannot be taken away, like shining a light on something positive that you’ve noticed. It’s something for them to notice too, take ownership of and be inspired by. If praise is a judgment you pass down, affirmation is something you notice, an observation you share, about positive things in their performance, ability, attitude or behaviour that they can take ownership of and can feel proud about.3 You show appreciation and understanding and look out for evidence of qualities that might inspire them; in football I imagine this might be things like flair, determination, seeing spaces and openings on the field – a long list of positive qualities that could help them to develop as both people and players.
Here are some more examples of affirmation from my imaginary football world; notice how some of them are used in the face of failure, not just success:
“Well done, I’m impressed with your work today” (praise).
“There’s that determination again” (affirmation).
Player: “I’ve messed up here, right there”
Coach: “You tried hard, and you are good at noticing where things go wrong ”
Player: “Yes I did try, and I want to get this right”
Player: “I let the team down”
Coach: “You don’t like that because you are a loyal team player” (affirmation)
- You keep your head when under pressure
- That would have taken some courage
- You like to keep going and help others, particularly when you are losing
- You enjoy leading
- Even when things are not going well, you make solid decisions
Is the word “affirmation” really just a fancy word for a “compliment”? My experience is that they are different. A compliment is something I offer someone else, a judgment I make and it usually involves using the word, “I”. Notice how the coach’s ego is left out of the examples above, and they mostly start with the word, “You”.
Last week I was walking on Clifton Downs in Bristol with a friend and his 20 year-old son, and he took us to the very spot where he took a successful penalty in his club game the weekend before. “My mind was super calm Dad” he said, “and I took hold of this idea you pointed out to me when I was ten remember, playing cricket? You said I was always super calm under pressure, so I just stood there, remembered that, and stared at the grass before I took the kick, and then whacked it with no stress at all”. Was that comment from his father an affirmation? A learning exercise often used in training counselors is to ask them who their favourite teacher was and why? “They believed in me” is the most common answer I’ve come across. Affirmation is a direct way of showing someone that you believe in them.
Mark Upton wrote a gem of an article on the difference between teaching and learning just recently on this website. I wonder whether praise is more associated with teaching, and affirming with learning? If that’s correct it points to the likelihood that praise and affirming are not just communication techniques, but reflections of different views of how coaching helps players to improve?
I’ve often seen praise in sport being used as a motivational pick-me-up by a coach who has the answers and is trying to get the player to absorb them, for example, “Well done, that was exactly right, now see if you can……”. Or if things go wrong, “Well done, good effort anyway, don’t worry, now see if you can…..”. This sounds a lot like what I termed the use of the righting reflex in our healthcare work, the almost instinctive and often unconscious tendency to see a problem and immediately try to fix it for the person. Is that what concerns Upton about teaching?
In contrast, the use of affirming is an expression of a different approach to improvement, focused on developing strengths not just rectifying weakness, probably voiced thus: “You have most of what it takes to change; my job is to come alongside you and help you to see new approaches to old problems. How might I help you get unstuck and move forward?” Is this what Upton was getting at when he talked about supporting learning? It so happens to be the foundation for a conversation style called motivational interviewing but that’s the subject of another article sometime.
This article might be a call to tame the righting reflex. There surely is a place for the thoughtful and wise use of praise, and yet when used like its a habit, coupled with a view that coaches know it all, it might undermine progress.
Finally, what might the more regular use of affirming do to your coaching practice? If your mindset is based on a view of young players as people with strengths not just with deficiencies to be corrected, you should find yourself affirming quite spontaneously. Then you can practice some more. What effect might this have? The look on the players’ faces will give you immediate feedback, and in this sense they are your best teachers. Is that what Ken Robinson was getting at in the quotation at the start of this article? Were his teachers affirming him?
About the Author
Stephen Rollnick is Honorary Distinguished Professor in the School of Medicine, Cardiff University. He was a practicing psychologist in the UK National Health Service for 16 years, and then became a teacher and researcher on the subject of motivation and behavior change. He is a co-founder of motivational interviewing and has written many books on this subject, including the most recent one for school teachers, along with over 100 peer reviewed academic papers. He has trained people in many countries and continents, has worked extensively on behalf of children with HIV in Africa, and is currently pursuing an interest in sports coaching. He grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, now lives in Cardiff, Wales, and restricts his sporting life to tennis and being heckled by four children.