Complimenting youth in sports (Part III in on youth motivation)

By Dean Herbert

It seems so natural – intuitive even to congratulate young athletes. The words roll out of our mouths…
Good job.
Way to go.
Good race.
Good game.
You ran really well.
Good at bat.
You played well.

Before I introduce more powerful options here are some comments from a confidential survey I conducted with youth athletes regarding what they find un-motivating or dispiriting.

Congratulating me on a race even though I performed awful.
Telling me “good race or game” when it was my worst one of the year.
High five or a general comment like “good job” is too general and meaningless to me.
Whether I have performed well or poorly, always saying good job.
Complimenting one person on the team and saying nothing to me.
Not being honest with me that I didn’t perform well.

Making Compliments Powerful
To begin we have to admit that there is not single secret to providing motivational comments to youth athletes. They are just as individual in their emotional and psychological make ups as adults. The following three rules will go a long way to improving your complimenting!

Rule #1
Know your athlete!
Have a candid discussion about what they like and don’t like coaches and parents to tell them. Some are more sensitive to feedback and others want it black and white presented to them. Some do not want any feedback or comments until they’ve had a little space after the competition.

Many studies on feedback have taught us that for most people, there are specific patterns to the most effective feedback. Though we are all individuals, most of us respond better if we follow these guidelines.

Rule #2
Learn to compliment specifically!
Specific feedback or comments directly related to a performance are more powerful. “Good job” is OK and certainly better than ignoring someone in most cases. But, “great pacing today”, “excellent job passing runners effectively today”, “good job keeping your eye on the ball”, “solid blocking on that play”, “ way to block out under the rim”; are all more effective because the athlete now knows what is being complimented.

Compliments need to be sincere or they are empty. Most athletes know when they have performed well or messed up. It does not make it better by sugar-coating it. Complimenting everything someone does is misleading and unfair to the athlete.

Rule #3
Compliment actions that deserve compliments!
A high five with a big smile conveying someone did well is lost on the athlete. A “well done” on a poor performance is empty. At best you will be ignored. At worst you will anger them and they will lose respect for your ability to be honest with them.

Finally, in an athlete’s life, they will encounter many ups and downs, good days and bad days, wins and losses. For athletes to improve they need candid, tactful and meaningful feedback. Compliment what deserves complimenting and offer insights on the things that need work; commiserate on a bad day.

I’ll never forget the day one of my club cross country runners had a very bad race. She finished well off her normal times and instead of running in the top two positions she finished 6th on the team. Her high school coach walked over and “high fived” all the girls on the team telling them what a good job they all did (only two did well – the other five varsity runners did not and the team finished far off their expected finish). My runner walked over to me almost in tears. I looked at her and just said, “Ok, so today sucked. You’ll get ‘em next time.” She looked up with the biggest smile and said, “Thank you – it DID suck! At least you’ll say so!”

What was more interesting was that almost instantly her “pity party” was over. She turned around and with a sigh of relief rejoined her friends chatting away during their cool down run. By validating what was evident (the race sucked) and offering perspective – (You’ll get ‘em next time) – it worked to motivate with out a misleading compliment like “well done”.

Dean Hebert M.Ed. MGCP is a certified mental games coach specializing in youth athletes and youth coaches. He has authored several books and hundreds of articles. He works with individuals, teams and coaches in all sports as well as performs guest speaking engagements on mental toughness. His website is