DON’T Tell Your Kid: “Do Your Best!”
“Do your best” is an overused, inaccurate cliché. What we really mean to say is “Try your best.” When it comes to performance in sports, sport psychologist Dr. Alan Goldberg cites that athletes, coaches, and sport parents should emphasize the “controllables” and take emphasis off the “uncontrollables” (U.C.’s).
Here are two examples:
- To win is a “U.C.” You can “try to win,” but you won’t always win even when you “do your best.” You have no control over the competition, the conditions, the officials, etc. Winning is a “U.C.”
- To have a best performance is a “U.C.” You can “try to perform your best,” but that doesn’t ensure that you’ll “do your best,” i.e., an all-time best game, a best performance or even a good one.
VARIOUS SPORT “UC’s:
Swimming – Swimming a personal best time every event or winning a race.
Basketball – Making every lay-up or scoring 20 points every game.
Baseball – Fielding every ball hit your way, never striking out, or pitching a perfect game.
Soccer – Scoring on every shot attempt, never turning the ball over, etc.
What is controllable? Simply “trying your best.” I’ve been coaching and observing youth sports for 30+ years. Here’s what I CAN’T say:
I can’t say that I have ever seen a swimmer race and try to lose. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a basketball player try to miss a lay-up. I can’t say that I have ever seen a baseball player try to make an error or strike out. I can’t say that I have ever seen a soccer player intentionally miss a shot on goal!
My seven-year old’s baseball coach recently made him run a lap for missing a ground ball. Do you think this is the best coaching practice to encourage improvement or to get a player to correct an error? Consider this: He didn’t try to miss the ground ball. He is a young boy in his first year of organized baseball boy just learning to field groundballs. Lastly, my son genuinely wants to please the coach–not let the coach down.
So how should the coach have responded to the error? Instead of making him run a lap, the coach could have responded with one of two forms of feedback: 1. A correction that would help the young player identify why he misfielded the ball. 2. Give positive feedback to encourage him and communicate that he, the coach, believes in his young shortstop. This would give the coach’s player the confidence to get the next one…but have a seven-year old run a lap for missing a ground ball? Fear-based correction doesn’t work with young children. Quite the contrary, fear-based correction scares kids, breaks down their confidence, and makes them feel unsure of their abilities.
Now if my son said, “Hey coach! You’re just a BIG BUTT and you don’t know how to coach!” That’s a reason to make him run a lap! But that’s not what happened. This was simply a seven-year old child who misfielded a ground ball as he was “trying his best.”
As a sport parent to three sons and as a third generation, educated coach–it pains me to see children being punished, hollered at, and belittled for making mistakes. Young athletes don’t intend to disappoint us. They don’t try to make mistakes. They don’t try to lose games. They are actually “trying their best.” Do they always perform at their best? No. But neither do professional athletes! All we should expect from any athlete is that they work hard, that they listen to their coaches, and that they try to correct mistakes when given the appropriate constructive feedback.
As sport parents and youth coaches we need to encourage our young athletes when they make mistakes–not punish them, belittle them or give them consequences and ultimatums. Save those strategies for when they exhibit bad behavior, disrespect adults, or say mean things to their teammates—but not for making a human mistake while “trying their best.” Ironically, the same coaches and parents are the ones who are baffled when a kid doesn’t want to go to practice or wants to quit.
The Positive Coaches Alliance (PCA) has created coping mechanism tools like “Flush it” to help athletes forget about mistakes. In his book “Winning Every Day,” legendary football coach Lou Holtz discussed an acronym he called “W.I.N.” which stands for “What’s Important Now.” W.I.N. reminds players to stay positive and in the “now” not focus on any negative in the past. When you’re thinking about a mistake you’re not helping yourself or your team in the present. In football, the great defensive backs don’t remember getting beat for a TD until they see it on film the next day. All the great ones develop an ability to stay in the now and focus on the task at hand.
In addition, athletes who focus on performance goals vs. outcome goals are almost always more successful. An example of a coach who kept his team focused on performance goals vs. outcome goals is Legendary UCLA Basketball coach John Wooden. It is well-known that the all-time winningest coach in NCAA Division I Basketball history NEVER talked about winning to his teams! Yet we have Little League and Pop Warner coaches emphasizing the importance of winning the next game at every practice.
If you want to teach a kid to become a winner, you have to teach him how to use failure and adversity in order to achieve success. You have teach him how to persevere and work through mistakes and failure, not fear them. One of the greatest basketball players of all-time, Michael Jordan, sums this up perfectly in “Why I Succeed:”
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan
Instead of “hitting them when their down” youth coaches and sport parents need to encourage our young athletes when things don’t go their way. More than ever this is the time they need reassurance. This is the time they have to hear that we believe in them. We have to teach them the great trait and characteristic called perseverance so they learn HOW to overcome adversity–NOT fear it. Babe Ruth once said, “Every strike brings me closer to the next homerun.”
Personally I am thankful for my son’s coach and I admire anyone who unselfishly volunteers their personal time for our youth. We wouldn’t have youth sports without them. But I also challenge the leaders of sport organizations like Little Leagues, YMCAs, and Recreation Departments to make sure that those volunteer coaches spend some of their volunteer time on coaching education.
The American Sport Education Program (ASEP) has a great slogan, “Athletes first, winning second.” When ASEP’s says “athletes first,” they are referring to coaching kids in a manner that puts their psychological and emotional well-being ahead of all else.
When your athlete is confident in himself because of your coaching–that’s when you know that you have really made a difference. As the New York Yankee great Yogi Berra once said, “Baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical.”
This is true in all sports. Youth sport coaches must understand that while we are teaching physical skill, developing our athletes confidence is equally important, if not more important than the physical skill itself.
So the next time you are tempted to say “Do Your Best,” remember it’s “TRY YOUR BEST…” and you’ll be doing a much better job at teaching young athletes to feel and become successful!