Today and yesterday I attended a hockey coaching clinic. It was mostly an excellent course, but things deteriorated badly at the end of the day when the presenter gave a presentation on "self esteem and positive coaching". It began with a caricature of the nasty old coach who berates his players loudly and angrily in full view of everyone. As the presenter noted, we'd object to this kind of behaviour from our boss, so it's odd that we'd do it to children or allow people to do it to our children. Fair enough, but the presenter then argued that unlike the nasty coach, we should each strive to be a "self esteem" focused coach (SEFC). SEFC is a man or woman who identifies something positive each of his players have done in every single game, and finds encouraging things to say at all times, even when his team is losing by a huge amount, by reminding them that the point is not to win but to have fun.
I've spent a fair amount of time watching and participating in kids' sports and I've met a few SEFC; they usually bug me. I tried, not very successfully, to explain what bothers me about SEFC by mumbling something about kids being good at detecting bullshit and that this kind of false praise can backfire and trivialize. (This was met with loud murmurs of disagreement steered at me and various anecdotes about nasty coaches or beloved coaches that always found time for a positive word for the kids. ) Here's what I wish I had said, "The SEFC disrespects the game, the truth and the players." Here's why:
- The SEFC disrespects truth: If most everything, including the most trivial accomplishment or act, is praiseworthy, then how do we distinguish between the truly remarkable and the expected, required and mundane? Or worse, what of praising something simply because we want the kids to feel good, not because the act is praiseworthy? Praise inflation is like monetary inflation because it devalues our words and praise. To put it another way, the SEFC, insofar as s/he is focused solely on using his/her words to make kids kids feel good, spews bullshit, and as Harry Frankfurt argued, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.
- The SEFC disrespects children: The assumption that kids are tender flowers that require contrived compliments regardless of whether or not they've been successful or done anything praiseworthy is extremely patronizing.
- The SEFC disrespects the game: Insisting that having fun is distinct from winning a game and fully independent of success in the game trivlalizes what the kids are doing. Imagine going to work and finding that something you'd been working on was irrevocably destroyed but then having someone try to cheer you by telling you that the project was a joke and hadn't meant anything to anyone in the first place -- it was just busy work that they'd had you working on to keep you amused. If we think results don't matter at all, that only feelings of pleasure somehow unrelated to whether one has won or lost, why enroll kids in sports in the first place, why not just take them on picnics or to the movies?