Let Your Positive Feedback Weigh Heavy

I saw a nice comment yesterday on facebook from friend of the blog, fantastic swim coach and good guy Chuck Batchelor. It was in response to another coach, Tim Anderson, struggling with "unmotivated" young swimmers.

Chuck may not know it, but he's applying Positive Psychology to his coaching. To wit, one point he made:

"trying really hard to stop harping on them when they are not getting after it and only harp on when they are (even a little) and continually reinforce and compliment there efforts. I even thank them for there efforts"

The fundamental here is simple. Harping on the deficits of athletes you are coaching is not an effective technique for getting improvement. This is not about "holding them accountable" or "sugarcoating". It's just a matter of fact: shaming is not a coaching technique.

What is effective? Noticing when people are doing something right, recognizing it and encouraging it. 

To take it a step further, since you are not going to be able to avoid some recognition of deficits in your coaching for some obvious reasons, you need to be really active about recognizing progress.

How active? I'm going to argue that you will need a lot of positive to outweigh the negative. Just how much remains controversial within the Positive Psychology community.

Ratios and a big "whoops" moment

Barbara Frederickson is a Positive Psychology all-star. The University of North Carolina professor is best known for her "Broaden and Build" theory.  I will do it the grave injustice of a couple sentence summary below:

That a positive sub-set of emotions (joy, love, interest and contentment) broaden the mind's ability to take on new challenges. This broadening allows for building new thoughts and actions.

The theory has huge potential for coaching. After all, we are in the business of "broadening and buliding", and any structure that offers us a pathway to doing so is greatly appreciated.

When I met Barbara Frederickson in 2009, a large part of her work was also devoted to another, related task. Frederickson was positing that there was a mathematical ratio to positive interactions versus negative interactions that led to thriving. 

I loved it! My confirmation bias was hard at work. I had always felt that even a doubling of positive to negative feedback was not enough. Unfortunately, the math behind the ratio was not good. 

It's true that there may not be a precise mathematical ratio, at least one with solid science to back it up. So for now, you shouldn't be coding yourself for at least 2.9 positive interactions to every negative interaction you have with a swimmer.

Ok- so what do I do now?

Having had that sober moment, consider the counter-factual. There is definitely nothing close to good evidence that berating people or giving them 1:1 negative feedback is actually the right way to go. 

I, for one, still believe that people are more likely to be naturally pessimistic. That although pessimism can "work" for some people, it has some serious downstream consequences that we ultimately want to avoid if we care about more than just performance. 

So, in short, listen to Chuck. Be kind, even though your brain may be telling you that swimmers in your care are transgressing and that you must be doing something about it. Find a way to recognize progress and what you actually want to see athletes do, because it really does work.

Want to incorporate more Positive Psychology into what you do? Write me.