Positive Praise: Short-Term Results At The Expense Of Long-Term Success

Carol Dweck in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success speaks to what she calls a “fixed mind-set” versus a “growth mind-set”. Her work has been instrumental in outlining the transformational power that comes from changing how we – as coaches and athletes – think about failure.

Watch this short video that shows the effect of praise on mindset…

Praise For Smarts vs. Praise For Working Hard

As demonstrated in the video, and backed by research, what we choose to focus on in our positive praise can either help or harm. When you praise an athlete for working hard, they intuitively know that this behaviour is within their control. They know that they can then repeat it. This type of positive praise inspires more effort, resolve and commitment. It encourages athletes to welcome new opportunities to fail forward; knowing that their success hinges on necessary failures as a result of working hard at a task. Kids come to learn that success comes as a result of putting in the work. And, that work, that effort, that focus and that type of commitment are all actionable behaviours accessible to everyone.

Praising a trait has an unfortunate opposite effect. Qualities such as “smarts”, “talent”, looks, body type, etc. are all abstractions. An athlete has a tough time quantifying it. They can’t touch it, feel it, smell it; or, most importantly, replicate or amplify it easily. (At least not legally!) What Dweck and other researchers like her have shown is that, trait-based praise – although still positive – sabotages the future success of many young people. They end up taking fewer risks as a result of not wanting to appear less smart.

As the saying goes: Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.

What’s most compelling, to me, in Dweck’s work, is that a subtle barely discernible shift in what we emphasize when we praise athletes, can have a big impact on their approach.

Reflect. Connect. Apply.

Take a few moments now to reflect on your coaching communication style. Can you identify a specific instance where you praised your athletes (insert: students, kids, training clients, employees, etc.) based on their ‘smarts’ or ‘talent’?

I know I can. There are, in fact, countless instances.

I was first exposed to Dweck’s work a few years ago, and to this day, I still have a tough time rebuilding my praise habit.

Set An Intention & Practice Consciously

I still catch myself slipping into old (bad) habits of praise – both on and off the court. So now, I set a clear intention daily to apply this subtle shift in how I recognize and spotlight achievement. How?

— I script it into my practice plans.

— I get reps on other on people’s kids.

— I even practice on “my lady” (…!).

Whatever it takes. To me, this subtle shift in how we acknowledge others is one of those little things that will make a big difference—especially in the long run.


What do you think? Do believe in how we praise can impact one’s mindset? What will you do differently in your approach?

#thankthepasser: Big thanks to David Kittner (@YouthFitness) for sharing this one. If you’re involved in youth sports or you are a sports parent, you should check him out.