The one sentence that can change an athlete’s life

This post was originally published on Changing the Game Project

Possibly one of the most important things we can do as parents is empower our children to make decisions so they can eventually venture out, and thrive, all on their own. The tricky thing is figuring out just how you do that. In this guest post by John O’Sullivan, founder of the Changing the Game Project, he takes an approach developed for teachers and adapts it to help coaches, but we love how this applies to parents, too.

As coaches, sometimes we wish we had a magic power, a word or phrase that could get an athlete to focus, commit, and excel. Yes, we must invest and connect with them. Yes, it takes time to build trust and to build a relationship that can bear the burden of truth. As author Dan Coyle writes, “Every teacher or coach worth their salt knows that there’s no moment more important than the moment feedback is delivered. Do it correctly, and the learner takes a step forward. Do it poorly, and the reverse happens.”

Guest post by John O’Sullivan

John founded the Changing the Game Project in 2012, which promotes a child-centred approach to youth sport. The author of the book Changing the Game, John is a training centre director for the Major League Soccer Portland Timbers. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or read more at his blog.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was some magic phrase, some magic way to give feedback and signal to the learner in front of you that they can do more, and should do more, that you do believe in them, and actually have it be effective?

Turns out there is. 

In 2013, a group of researchers from Stanford, Yale, Columbia, and other schools worked with middle school teachers to conduct a writing assignment and see if they could increase trust among students, particularly minority students, when it came to constructive feedback. The assignments were graded and feedback was given to each student. Half of the students received normal, critical feedback, and half were given one extra sentence of feedback:

“I am giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them.”

It seems simple enough, but the results were extraordinary. The students who received this added feedback chose to revise their papers far more often than those who did not (40% increase among white students, 320% increase among black students). Their scores on the revised essays increased significantly. These results continued to hold even a year later. A few simple words had extraordinary effect.

Why does this matter, and what can coaches learn from this?

This simple sentence tells athletes that their coach has their back. It tells them that their coach believes in them, and belief is the foundation of forming a growth mindset. It helps them feel belonging as part of a group with higher standards, and it signifies that they can reach that standard. It creates ownership over the next steps, and elicits self efficacy, the feeling that your actions matter. 

When we speak about creating a strong bond with our athletes, and coaching them with a foundation of love and respect, we do not mean that we cannot have high standards. Far from it. We need high standards. We should demand and push in a positive way. And we should give them constructive performance critiques. But when we do so, just be sure to let them know that you are doing so because you believe in them. 

“I am giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them.”

Try it out this weekend and let us know how it goes.


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One response to “The one sentence that can change an athlete’s life

  1. Absolutely agree with this. Constructive, concise feedback and preferably with a few recommended focused areas to address for further improvement is an approach that typically works. So important to stress positive reinforcement and never slip into negative cut down. Fro m children to adult feed back. Lesson for life by way of treating others how you would like to be respected..

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