All posts by Dr. Jim Taylor

Interview on the Power of Golf Imagery

golfdashGolfDash blog interviewed me recently with a focus on the power of mental imagery to improve your golf game. You can listen to the podcast here.

Letting Go of Fear of Failure-Part IV

soccer failThis article is my fourth (and, I think, final) in a series exploring Fear of Failure in sports. If you missed the first three articles, you may want to catch up before reading this article (Part I, II, III). In those first three articles, I examined my evolving perspective on fear of failure and its root causes.

As I noted at the end of Part III, a recent email from a reader asked the obvious question, “I now understand why my child keeps getting in his own way in his racing. He has a fear of failure! So, what can I do about it?” This question led to extending my Fear of Failure series and discussing ways in which athletes can let go of their fear of failure.

Let me preface my thoughts by saying that there are entire books devoted to fear of failure and how to overcome it. Also, in severe cases, months of psychotherapy are required. My point is that, as with most things in life, there are no magic pills or quick fixes. At the same time, if you (as an athlete) or one of your children (as a parent) has a fear of failure, there are some things you and they can do to relieve the burden of fear of failure and begin to pursue success rather than avoid failure.

What Parents Can Do

A basic tenet of mine about child development is that “children become the messages they get the most.” What this means is that children weren’t born with a fear of failure. Instead, children develop their attitudes toward and beliefs about failure from the world around them.

Some of those harmful messages about failure, no doubt, come from our popular culture and from overly competitive coaches.

But, as sad as it is to say, fear of failure in children usually comes from their parents. They do so in three ways. First, as role models, if you react to your own failures by getting angry or despondent. Second, by sending direct messages to your children that failure is simply unacceptable (“You better win today.”). And, third, by your emotional reactions when your children don’t live up to your expectations, for example, getting angry at them after a poor competition. In all three cases, the message they get is “I can’t lose or I’ll really upset my parents.” The subtext of this statement which is so difficult for parents to believe is “If I lose my parents won’t love me.” And there is nothing more fear inducing in children than that.

All quite depressing, to be sure. But here’s the good news: If you can send unhealthy messages to your children, you also have the power to send healthy ones. And that is where you can first begin to turn your children’s fear of failure around.

The best way to change children is to change the world in which they live. In other words, if you can change your messages about failure, your children will get those new messages and begin to shift how they think and feel about failure.

Here are some practical steps you can take to ensure that your messages about success and failure are healthy:

  1. Look in the mirror and get feedback from your spouse about your relationship with failure and how you react to it.
  2. Be aware of your emotions the morning of a competition, when your children are competing, and the competition is over.
  3. If you’re unable to control your emotions while at competitions, stay home.
  4. Identify any unhealthy messages that you directly or indirectly send to your children about failure and in what situations you send them.
  5. Specify alternative healthy messages about failure that you can begin to send to your children about failure and the situations in which you should send them.
  6. Create a plan for what you will say and how you want to feel, so when you arrive at those situations you’ll be ready

Other practical things you can do include:

  • Never talk about results with your children.
  • Focus on process and fun when you do talk about their sport.
  • If they talk about results, either ignore it, redirect the conversation to process and fun, or change the subject entirely (e.g., “What do you want to eat?”).

What Athletes Can Do

Reality test perceptions. Fear of failure is about the perceptions that athletes hold about failure and, for the vast majority, those perceptions are entirely disconnected from the reality of their lives. They perceive that bad things will happen if they fail, but the reality is that nothing particularly bad, aside from some disappointment, will likely result from a failure.

For example, as I noted in a previous article in this series, the main causes of fear of failure include disappointing others, being perceived by others as a failure, and having to conclude that all of your efforts have been a waste of time. Yet, I’m going to argue that none of these things will happen. You can challenge these perceptions by asking your parents and friends if they will be disappointed in you (and, as a result, love you less), realizing that the most successful people in all walks of life failed frequently and monumentally on the way to success, and that you will gain far more than you will lose from your sport and learn many wonderful lessons that will help you later in life. So, I encourage you to reality test those perceptions and find out if your fears will come true (I’m pretty sure they won’t).

Take risks. The very nature of sport is that you cannot perform your best without taking risks. You won’t find real success unless you put it on the line. The problem is that when you take risks, you may fail. But, if you don’t take risks, you won’t perform well, which is the worst kind of failure.

I encourage you to make a commitment to taking risks for two reasons. First, to show you that you will be okay if you do fail. Second, that when you take risks, good things will happen (though not always, of course). You should start small, for example, in training, and slowly increase your risk taking in bigger competitions. In doing so, you get comfortable with taking risks, see that the downsides aren’t so down, and upsides are really up.

Adopt the “F&%# it” attitude. The “F&%# it” attitude (sorry for the bad language) means not caring too much about the results. It means being able to accept whatever results you have if you give your best effort and try to perform the best you can.

Take a leap of faith. Because there is no certainly in sports, if you really want to overcome your fear of failure and perform your best you must take a leap of faith. The leap of faith begins with the conviction that you don’t want to go down the path that you’re currently on any longer. The leap of faith continues with, well, faith, that if you let go of your fear of failure and give your best effort, good things will happen. The leap of faith involves having a basic belief in yourself, your skiing ability, and your sports goals. Recognize also that some misgivings are a normal part of the process—you can never be 100 percent sure that things will work out the way you want.

You must also understand that this leap of faith is not blind faith. Rather, you will have prepared yourself for the leap with a rigorous conditioning program, lots of work on your technique and tactics, and, of course, with a good dose of mental training as well.

Take your shot. Taking your shot is inherently risky, but it is far better to take your shot and lose than to never take your shot at all. You have only one shot at life; there are no do-overs. At the end of your season, career or life, there is one emotion and one question you don’t want to have to face. First, you don’t want to feel regret, which will certainly come if you don’t take your shot. Second, you don’t want to ask yourself, “I wonder what could have been?” Win or lose, success or failure, after a competition, you want to be able to say to yourself, “I left it all out there.” You may feel some disappointment if it didn’t work out that day. But you may also feel exultation knowing that you took your shot and it paid off.

The great thing about all of these steps to overcome fear of failure is that they build on each other. The more you do to overcome your fear of failure, the easier it becomes. And, as you do so, you will learn two important lessons. First, failure is fleeting and you will long outlive it. Second, when you let go of your fear of failure, you will perform better and be more successful than ever.

New Prime Ski Racing iPhone App (It’s Free!)

I’m pleased to announce the release of my new Prime Ski Racing iPhone app.  The Prime Ski Racing app provides you with the information and tools you need to ski your fastest and achieve your ski racing goals.

PSSR toolbox1. Allows you to assess your mental capabilities related to your ski racing to identify your strengths and areas in need of improvement.

2. Explores the range of mental areas that most impact your ski racing including attitude, motivation, confidence, intensity, focus, emotions, and mindset.

3. Offers you practical tools and exercises you can use every day to strengthen your mental ‘muscles’ including goal setting, daily actions, self-talk, mental imagery, routines, and quality training.

4. The Performance Log lets you keep track of what’s working and what isn’t.

5. Special bonus: access to the Prime Ski Racing library which includes dozens of my articles about the mental side of ski racing that have appeared on

Get the Prime Ski Racing iPhone app at iTunes now!


The Real Fear in Fear of Failure: Part III

Mitchell Gunn with permission

In the Part I in my series, Fear of Failure, I introduced you to the epidemic presence of fear of failure in sports these days. The article describes what fear of failure is and its causes. I also describe three ways that athletes attempt to avoid failure: they quit their sport, they cause themselves to fail, but have an excuse, or they become pretty successful (though never truly successful because they are unwilling to take the risks necessary). Finally, I discuss the importance of teaching athletes the value of failure.

In Part II of my series, I described the paradox I saw in athletes with a fear of failure who would, nonetheless, do things that actually guarantee failure (e.g., not prepare their equipment, not get totally ready before a competition, not give their full effort, give up after the smallest mistake). To solve this conundrum, I introduced the notion of total failure (giving it everything you’ve got and not achieving your goals) as the underlying cause of athletes’ fear of failure. I argued that fear of failure is grounded in, if experiencing total failure, having to admit that they just weren’t good enough. And no athlete with any aspirations wants to admit that.

In working with a athlete recently, I had another epiphany about fear of failure that has taken my understanding of fear of failure to a new level. The real fear is not failure, the meaning you attach to failure, or even total failure. Instead, the real fear of failure is about the fear of experiencing the painful emotions underlying total failure that athletes think they will feel if they fail. All of these athletes’ efforts are devoted to avoiding having to experience those truly unpleasant emotions that they believe will surely come with total failure.

What are these emotions that are so bad that athletes would actually cause themselves to fail (but with an excuse that protects them from those emotions) than give their fullest efforts and risk total failure: sadness, depression, frustration, despair, devastation, shame, humiliation, guilt. How’s that for a list of emotions to be avoided!

There are three aspects of this perspective on fear of failure that are particularly unfortunate. First, athletes’ perception that they will experience these painful emotions is very likely entirely out of touch with reality. Let’s start with the meaning that athletes attach to failure that causes these emotions. As I noted in my first article in this series, the most common are:

  • They will disappoint their parents.
  • Their friends will no longer like them.
  • They will be ostracized by their peer group.
  • They will be worthless people.
  • All of their efforts will be a waste of time.
  • They will experience the devastation of not achieving their goals.

But the likely reality is that none of these meanings attached to failure will come true. Sure, there are misguided (and sometimes downright crazy) parents out there who will show their disappointment (and perhaps even withdraw their love) in the face of their children’s failure, but there aren’t very many. Other than that, your friends will still like you, you will not be rejected by your peers, you will still be worthwhile, your time will still be well spent, and you will get over the fact that you may not achieve all of your sports goals (we all do!). In other words, if you fail, you will be disappointed, but you will be okay. And, to put this whole discussion in a broader perspective, if I may be a bit politically incorrect, failing to become a great athlete is a decidedly first-world problem.

Second, your fear of failure is utterly self-defeating; it does you no good at all. It creates a win (but not really)-lose situation. You win (again, not really) by protecting yourself from those alleged painful emotions, but you lose big time. You don’t achieve your goals. You kick yourself for not giving your best effort. And you continue a pattern of thinking, emotions, and behavior that not only hurt your sports, but will continue to haunt you in every aspect of your life.

Third, if you could just let go of your fear of failure and truly give it your all, that is, perform in your sport with total commitment, confidence, courage, and abandon, the chances are that you would find some degree of success. How much success depends on a lot of things unrelated to what goes on between your ears. I can’t guarantee that you would end up on top of the Olympic podium or playing in the MLB All-Star game, but, as I often say, good things would happen.

Moreover, if you risked total failure, contrary to being devastated by all of those painful emotions you worry about, you would actually feel wonderful emotions, such as excitement, joy, pride, and inspiration. Why? Because you gave your fullest effort and left it all out there. And, ultimately, that’s all you can do.

A recent email from a reader asked the obvious question: “I now understand why my child keeps getting in his own way in his sport. He has a fear of failure! So, what can I do about it?”

Given this question, I’m going to extend my Fear of Failure series to a fourth segment. Look for it next week.

Perfectionism is REALLY Bad

CaptureNew York magazine just published a really unsettling article on perfectionism, expanding on my own notions on the topic.  Let me state this clearly: Perfectionism is REALLY BAD! It may appear to lead to great success, but, to the contrary, it often results in a lack of true success and, more importantly, it will make you really unhappy. And if you have children, one of the greatest gifts you can give them is to NOT cause them to become perfectionists.

Among the findings of recent research:

  • Real perfectionism can be devastatingly destructive, leading to crippling anxiety or depression, and it may even be an overlooked risk factor for suicide.
  • For many perfectionists, that “together” image is just an emotionally draining mask and underneath “they feel like imposters.
  • The all-or-nothing, impossibly high standards perfectionists set for themselves often mean that they’re not happy even when they’ve achieved success.
  • The most successful people in any given field are less likely to be perfectionistic, because the anxiety about making mistakes gets in your way.
  • Perfectionistic people typically believe that they can never be good enough, that mistakes are signs of personal flaws, and that the only route to acceptability as a person is to be perfect.
  • Kids love to hear a parent or teacher talk about mistakes they have made or failures that have had to overcome…This can reinforce the ‘nobody is perfect and you don’t have to be either’ theme.

Fear of Failure – Part II (Total Failure)

Celtics-failure-to-score--001In my last post, Fear of Failure: Part I, I discussed the sad epidemic of fear of failure that I found to be rampant in America and that I see frequently in the young athletes with whom I work. I have discovered a new wrinkle to the fear-of-failure phenomenon that brings greater clarity to the problems that young athletes face in our increasingly intense, result-oriented sports world.

Let me begin by describing what I believe lies at the heart of fear of failure: every bad performance is perceived by athletes as an attack on their value as a person. This statement is powerful and truly harmful. Moreover, this perception is entirely disconnected from reality; it’s simply not true. Whether you succeed or fail in no way is a reflection on your fundamental value as people.

In essence, athletes with a fear of failure see failure as a mountain lion that, if it catches them, it will eat them. Given this perception of failure, it’s not surprising that athletes would do everything they can to stay as far away from that mountain lion as possible. But here’s a brief hint before we sink our teeth into this topic (pun intended): failure is a kitty cat, not a mountain lion. Yes, a kitty cat can hurt you; it can scratch you and bite you. But, and here’s the big point, it won’t kill you.

As I explored fear of failure in the athletes I work with, I was struck by an odd paradox. These athletes have a fear of failure, yet they end up doing things that actually cause themselves to fail by doing something that ensures failure (e.g., have a pessimistic attitude, don’t prepare well, or give up without a fight), even when success is within their reach. I was stumped by this conflict: Why would athletes who fear failure so much actually do things that guarantee failure?

As I noted in my last post, the failure I just described, which is a form of self-sabotage, safeguards athletes from having to admit that they really failed by providing an excuse for their failure. That excuse allows them to avoid taking responsibility for the failure, thus protecting them from feeling like a failure and feeling worthless.

One big problem with this strategy is that they still fail. And there is no “excuse” line on the result sheet!

Total Failure

This realization led me to the conclusion that young athletes don’t have a fear of failure, but rather they have a fear of total failure. I define total failure as “giving it your all and not achieving your goals.” When I ask young athletes if total failure is a good or bad thing, the response is unanimous and emphatic; it is the worst thing! So what is so bad about total failure? If athletes give everything they have and don’t achieve their goals, they have to admit that they simply aren’t good enough and there’s nothing more they can do. And that realization is very difficult for a young athlete with big goals to accept. Better for young athletes to fail with an excuse than experience total failure because it allows them to avoid the consequences of total failure (e.g., disappointment of others, wasted time, shame) and always leaves open the possibility of success in the future.

Yet I would argue that total failure is a good (though not ideal) thing because, even though young athletes may not reach their goal, they did everything they could to achieve it and, ultimately, that’s all they can do. To put this in perspective, I define total success as athletes giving it everything they have and achieving their goal. Is total success a good thing? It is a great thing! But total success and total failure have one thing in common: giving it everything they’ve got. So the real goal for athletes is to experience “total” something, whether success or failure, because, in either case, they gave it their all and  what more can they do. At the end of the day, will young athletes be disappointed in not having achieved their goals? Of course. But there will also be indelible satisfaction at having given their best effort and performed as well as they possibly could have. Also, the simple reality is that if athletes don’t give it everything they’ve got, they will have no chance of ever reaching their goals or achieving total success. If they do give it their all, there is a pretty good chance that something good will happen.


One of the most self-defeating aspects of the fear of total failure is that young athletes are unwilling to take risks on course. By definition, the greater and the more risks that athletes take, the greater the likelihood of failure. Yet, without risk, total success can never be achieved. Because athletes with a fear of total failure are more concerned with avoiding failure than achieving success, they focus on the downsides of risk and, as a result, hold themselves back and perform cautiously and safely rather than taking the risks necessary for success. In doing so, they, sadly, experience the frustration of unfulfilled promise and miss the exhilaration of having performed the best they possibly could have.

Cardinal Rules

There are two cardinal rules that I believe all athletes (and all people) should live by. Rule #1 is that I don’t want anyone to ask, at the end of a race, race season, career, or life, “I wonder what could have been?” That may be the saddest question anyone can pose to themselves because there are no “redos” in life. You want to look back and, win or lose, finish or crash, be able to say, “I left it all out on the hill.”

Rule #2 is that the one emotion I don’t want any athlete (in fact, any person) to experience is regret. Regret is defined as: “to feel sorry or disappointed about something that one wishes could be different; a sense of loss or longing for something gone,” in other words, “Darn it, I wish I had gone for it!” In the end, I want athletes to make the statement: “I gave it everything I had,” and experience two emotions: pride and fulfillment in having given it their all.

In sum, to achieve your athletic (and life) goals, you must embrace the following: “To achieve Total Success, I must be willing to accept Total Failure.” By doing so, you will have nothing to fear from failure and, as a result, will be liberated to pursue total success with unrestrained gusto.

Look for Part III of my Fear of Failure series next week.

Fear of Failure – Part I

fear of failureFear of failure is the single most common cause of performance difficulties for the young athletes who come to me for help. Whether they experience low confidence and extreme negativity, pre-competitive anxiety, a preoccupation with results, or severe self-criticism, in most cases, when we dig deep enough, we discover a profound fear of failure at its root. Moreover, fear of failure among young people in America today is at epidemic proportions. Fear of failure causes children to experience debilitating anxiety before they take a test, compete in a sport, or perform in a recital. It causes them to give less than their best effort, not take risks, and, ultimately, never achieve complete success. Why? Because they are terrified of what will happen if they fail!

Because of the powerful and painful presence of fear of failure in the lives of young athletes (not to mention students and other young performers) these days, it seems fitting that I devote a three-part series of articles to this topic. My goal is to educate parents (and coaches and athletes) so each can better understand fear of failure and, most importantly, have parents and coaches help their young athletes to let go of this fear and free themselves to perform their best without fear of the consequences, whether real or imagined, and with confidence, courage and abandon.

Why Children Fear Failure

Let’s be realistic. Failure isn’t worth fearing. In fact, it’s an important part of striving toward children’s goals. What young athletes come to fear is the meaning they attach to failure. At the heart of fear of failure is the belief held by young athletes that if they fail, in sports or any other activity, then bad things will happen. The research found the following as the most common fears:

  • They will disappoint their parents.
  • Their friends will no longer like them.
  • They will be ostracized by their peer group.
  • They will experience embarrassment or shame.
  • They will be worthless people.
  • All of their efforts will be a waste of time.
  • They will experience the devastation of not achieving their goals.

Causes of Fear of Failure

Fear of failure typically emerges from messages that children’s parents convey that being loved depends on their being successful or that their parents’ love will be withdrawn if they fail (this is rarely the message that parents intend to send, but it is the one that children frequently receive). Kids also get the message that if they fail they will seen as a LOSER from our “winning is everything” culture.

Athletes with a fear of failure perceive failure to be a ravenous beast that pursues them relentlessly and must be avoided at all cost. When they do succeed and avoid that beast, they only experience a small and brief amount of relief (instead of excitement and joy!) because they survived one more day without being eaten by failure. As a result, avoiding failure becomes their singular motivation and goal in life.

Children also get this destructive perspective on failure from the hyper-achievement culture in which we now live. This “you gotta win, baby!” culture defines failure as being poor, anonymous, powerless, unpopular, or physically unattractive. On television and in the movies, the losers—nerds, unattractive people, poor athletes—are teased, bullied, and rejected. With this definition of failure, popular culture has created a culture of fear and avoidance of failure. It has conveyed to children that if they fail, they will be ostracized by their peers and branded as losers for life!


The Stigma of Failure

There is no greater stigma in our culture of “gotta be the best” than being labeled a loser. The expression loser has become an oft-used and enduring symbol in this culture. To be called a loser is, to paraphrase a well-known sports cliché, worse than death because you have to live with being a loser.

Avoiding Failure

Children learn that they can avoid failure three ways. First, children can simply not engage in an activity in which they fear failure. If children don’t participate, they’re safe from failure. Injury, illness, damaged equipment, forgotten or lost materials, apparent lack of interest or motivation, or just plain refusal to take part are common ways in which children can avoid failure and maintain their personal and social esteem.

Second, children can avoid failure by failing in an activity, but protecting themselves from the failure by having an excuse—“I would have done well, but I just didn’t feel like it” or “I would have done just fine, but the teacher was totally unfair.” This is called self-defeating behavior or self-sabotage. Because their failures were not their fault, children can’t be held responsible and our culture and their parents and peers must continue to accept and love them.

Third, many children don’t have the luxury of not taking part or coming up with excuses, for example, children can’t just not go to school. So another way that children can avoid failure is to get as far away from failure as possible by becoming successful. But children who are driven to avoid failure are stuck in limbo between failure and real success, what I call the “safety zone,” in which the threat of failure is removed, for example, they have a B+ average or finish in the top 10 in their sport, but they are unwilling to intensify their efforts and take the risks necessary to fully achieve success.

The Value of Failure

Failure is an inevitable—and essential—part of life. Failure can bolster the motivation to overcome the obstacles that caused the failure. It shows children what they did wrong so they can correct the problem in the future. Failure connects children’s actions with consequences which helps them gain ownership of their efforts. Failure teaches important life skills, such as commitment, patience, perseverance, determination, and problem solving. It helps children respond positively to the frustration and disappointment that they will often experience as they pursue their goals. Failure teaches children humility and appreciation for the opportunities that they’re given.

Of course, too much failure will discourage children. Success is also needed for its ability to bolster motivation, build confidence, reinforce effort, and increase enjoyment. As children pursue their life goals, they must experience a healthy balance of success and failure to gain the most from their efforts.

You can help your children develop a new perspective on failure that takes away their fear. It also frees them to strive for success without reservation, to explore, take risks, and vigorously pursue their dreams. Children will know in their hearts that some failure is okay and in no way a negative reflection on themselves as people. Finally, failure will ultimately enable them to achieve success, however they define it and, along the way, also find happiness.

You can expect Part II of my Fear of Failure series next week.

Placebos Can Make You Better

placeboThere is a great article in The New York Times describing  how placebos can enable athletes to perform better. The argument is that believing that a pill or shot will boost performance (when it really just saline) causes us to tap into a reserve of energy (mental and physical) that propels us faster and longer. Specifically, the research found that runners experienced reductions in physical effort, increased potential motivation, and improved recovery.

Could be a great tool for coaches and parents!

The Myth of Birth Order

birth orderA fascinating article in The Huffington Post debunks the myth, so dearly held by so many, that birth order impacts personality.  Two recent large-scale, international studies (here and here) found no relationship between birth order and five primary personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism). In fact, the only known effect that birth order has on people is IQ, specifically, IQ tends to decline with each subsequent child (please don’t use this fact against your younger siblings!).

So, next time you hear a comment like “She’s the middle child and you know how they are,” you can set the record straight.

Is Praise Bad for Young Athletes?

Esteem-962x1024Please 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 athletic 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 athletes in practice and at competitions? “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 athletes 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 sports (and life in general) has a way of telling them unequivocally how capable or incapable they really are through success and failure in practice and competitions.

The reality is that children don’t need to be told “good job!” when they have performed 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 sports, 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 sports is, I think, pretty clear.

Based on these findings, you should avoid praising your children for their inborn talent (“You are such a gifted athlete.”) 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 perform well and specifically praise those areas. For example, “You worked so hard preparing for this week’s event,” “You were so focused during the entire game,” or “You kept fighting after that mistake.”

Here’s a risky move; don’t praise your young athletes at all. The best thing you can do is simply highlight what they did. For example, if your athlete just played well in really bad weather, just say, “You really toughed it out there!” 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 performance, 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 efforts, 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 perform 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 competition, the first thing you can say to them is, “What do you want to eat?” If they want to talk to you about the event, they’ll let you know.

Here is my challenge to you. First, next time you’re at a competition, 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!”

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What They’re Saying

"Every successful person has persevered through adversity and seemingly insurmountable challenges on their path to success. Jim Taylor provides insights and lessons about the toughness that successful ...people have discovered within themselves, that has propelled them beyond the inevitable obstacles. We can all learn from and be inspired by Jim’s work."

Wally Walker, former NBA player, President and CEO
Seattle Supersonics