There appears to be a shift in the media attention given to youth sports and it’s overall impact on our children. While previous attention has been focused on parental behavior and coaching behavior, we are now hearing more and more about the psychological and emotional state of children as they transition from youth sports, into their adolescent years and then through college.

It seems that finding the correct balance is our challenge. As parents, we harbor many goals for our kids, some reasonable, some not. Surely, it would be nice for our children to have an adequate level of self-esteem, and to be able to face life’s daily challenges in a resilient manner. However, for many, achieving these goals seems to be an exercise in futility.

While I have previously addressed the emotional challenges that many athletes are experiencing as they enter into young adulthood, I would also like to speak about a recent conversation I had with Dr. Brad Bushman, a noted professor at The Ohio State University, regarding the effects of praise on children’s self-esteem.

Dr. Bushman, and his research partner, Eddie Brummelman (Utrecht University, Netherlands), have done extensive research on the impact of different types of praise on children’s levels of self-esteem. Much of their work correlates perfectly with the conversation on youth sports.

Many of us as parents see sports as the perfect venue to help children realize success, raise confidence and boost self-esteem. One of the side effects of too much praise, especially for achievements that are rather ordinary, is that our young adults are not learning to deal with any kind of adversity, and they begin to suffer emotionally when they grow up and don’t receive praise for accomplishing their daily mundane tasks.

What Bushman & Brummelman did was to study the effects of praise on children to determine if it was having the desired effect that we parents were hoping for. Their study looked into several different types of praise, and it also took into consideration the existing levels of self-esteem that children had. For instance, they labeled praise as follows:

Person Praise: This is praise that is focused on the child, and not the behavior. An example is, “You’re so smart.”

Behavior Praise: This is praise that is focused on the task. For instance, “You figured that out well.”

Inflated Praise: This is praise that goes beyond the normal level of response. For instance, “You made an incredibly beautiful drawing.”

While person praise and inflated praise are administered with every good intention, it’s likely that they could send a harmful message to children, especially to those with low self-esteem. Parents are inclined to use person praise and inflated praise when they hope to help a child with low self-esteem.

The risk is that when a child receives this kind of praise, they begin to think that they must always perform at an exceptional level to justify their self worth. When presented with a task that is challenging, children who receive these inflated types of praise often do not have the confidence to try more challenging tasks. They are afraid that if they fail they will not be recognized as exceptional.

What this means in sports is that children become less inclined to take risks. They are more fearful of failure, and we all know that this level of confidence is not at all conducive to success in athletics. As a coach, I have always found it important to provide positive feedback in reasonable doses. If I were to praise a player too frequently, the power of the praise is easily diminished. When a player hears me praise them, they know that I don’t over praise, and the praise that they do receive has a higher value.

In my many parent lectures I offer advice to parents about sideline behavior. I often ask parents to try to watch a game without saying anything, particularly, not to say anything that is perceived as a decision-making comment. Usually at the end of the conversation, a parent will ask, can I tell them “Nice Play”? While that comment may seem fairly harmless, it is often a comment that is repeated over and over again by many parents. At the end of the day, how many nice plays is a typical 8 year old going to make in one game? Save the “nice play” comment for one or two exceptional performances and don’t overdo it.

Kids know the difference between normal and exceptional. If we keep trying to make them think that a regular achievement is exceptional, they are going to figure us out, and our input becomes less credible over time. Let kids fail and let kids figure out how to work harder to accomplish tasks at a greater level. It may be a bit difficult for us in the moment, but our children will be so much better off in the long run.

- Steve Locker