Training Teens To Be Toddlers

In my last article we looked at the concept of reinforcement and there was some feedback about the place of criticism within youth sport. The key here is the role of the parent or coach in reinforcing beneficial behaviours, encouraging new skills, and eradicating undesirable behaviours. Criticism or punishment will rarely have a part to play in development in sport, and if it does it will be related to non-skill related behaviours.
The example I gave in my last post (click here to read it) was given of a young girl who plays soccer and has mastered a skill, for example the step-over but loses the ball almost every time she has possession because she refuses to pass. She hasn’t learned team-work. Why? Because to people who don’t understand the concept of soccer being a team sport, the step-overs look good and make it seem she is a good player. There was a time I taught my children to walk, I gave them encouragement and praise when they took a step. For my son’s second step I put a soccer ball at his feet and asked him to kick it to me. I praised him for that. We don’t praise our kids for walking anymore. We praise them for the things they do well, for mastering tasks, for doing things to help other people, and we praise them for commitment to growth, whether this is as a member of society, a team, or towards achieving a personal goal. We praise new behaviours and reward achievements they have worked hard for. We don’t praise stagnation. We don’t criticise it either, it’s a stage of development upon which current success and growth is built.
My daughter is very good at drawing. It runs in the family but skipped me and she has it in double measure. She used to draw stick men, I wouldn’t criticise her for drawing them now and wouldn’t discourage it, at least she’s being creative. That said, I am not going to encourage her to continue performing tasks at a standard she mastered a long time ago. That said, if she begins drawing stick men at the level of Lowry, we’ve upped the standard and this should be praised. The danger we have when kids excel in something early is to encourage them to stay where they are. Why grow when you’re already ahead of the pack? Because the pack soon catches up, that’s why!
When it comes to development there is no place for punishment or negative criticism. I was coaching a U6 team recently and overheard a parent of a kid on another team complaining about the “performance” of their son, with comments like “What are you doing?” and “I have no idea why he’s playing like this today…”. I’ll tell you what he’s doing, he’s being 5-years old and enjoying playing soccer with his friends. He doesn’t care what the score is, he wants to enjoy the game. let him get on with it. Encourage his mistakes and attempts at new skills, and let him learn, grow, and mostly have fun. If he is scared to make mistakes at 5-years old, he will be scared to make mistakes at 15, 25, and 50-years old. Don’t teach your kid to be afraid of risk taking.
So where does criticism come into play? There are two ways criticism can happen as it relates to development, one positive and one negative. The negative would be picking faults, “You did this wrong, look what happened,” or “Why did you do that, you must have known it wouldn’t work?”. It happens. Then there is positive criticism, “I can see what you wanted to do and it was a great idea, what would you do different next time?” or “I liked what you attempted, what can we learn to make this successful in the future?”. One looks at the event that went wrong as though it were a terminal event, while the other looks at what happened as a step for learning. The negative method will discourage new ideas, creativity, decision-making, and risk taking because the fear of criticism from an authority figure such as an angry coach or disappointed parent will override the desire to try something new. The positive method will encourage new ideas and creativity because the player knows they will be supported and helped to improve, and this will encourage growth.
Here are today’s takeaways:
1 – If we continue to praise the same behaviours without seeing growth we will get to a point where there is no growth. We don’t praise our teenagers for continuing to perform tasks they learned as toddlers. Why would we continue to praise behaviours and skills that have been mastered in sport or academic achievements? The message we send is that the current level is good enough, and will continue to be good enough. We are literally training our teens to remain as toddlers in that particular skill.
2 – Criticism doesn’t have to be bad. It can be an exercise in fault-finding, or it can be an analysis of the event. It’s bad when it is negative, when it brings a lack of confidence to try new things, or when it teaches that the failed attempt was a terminal event. We can be critical of an event in an objective manner, with a view to making it better, and using encouragement while we do it. We can acknowledge that something didn’t work without making it a failure. (On a side note, it is the event that was a failure and not the person. I wrote about the difference between failing and failure here: (We’re Getting Failure Wrong)
3 – A lack of praise does not mean there is a void where criticism or punishment are to be added. We don’t punish our kids for walking, but we don’t praise them anymore either. I mostly don’t praise my son when he passes to a team-mate, but if it is a 40 yard pass across the field that puts a team-mate into a goal scoring opportunity I will. When the skill standard is high, or the behaviour shows growth it should be praised. If he gets to the point where the things he is working hard to achieve today are common place, we’ll look for new skills to build on and we’ll praise them.
In summary, if we continue to praise mastered tasks we’ll see stagnation. If we encourage the status quo, we are by default discouraging development. We don’t criticise our teens for being potty trained, but we don’t praise their toilet-skills either. Praising our teens for their accomplishments is great, but if we want to see further accomplishment we encourage them to keep building on their previously learned skills.
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