Beyond Good Job and Nice: Better Ways to Positively Praise Your Athletes


I hate the compliment “good job!”

The only one I might cause greater animosity is “nice!”

No, I am not a scrooge (at least I hope I’m not). Though guilty of uttering these overused encouragements myself, I dislike them because they are vague and lazy. .

They are the equivalent of the observational coaching that also drives me nuts. You know the kind that any person off the street could give to a gymnast, like “Your legs were bent.” or “You fell on your full turn.”

Yet, we know that the ratio of positive comments to corrective ones needs to be overwhelmingly skewed toward the positive.

The University of Nebraska conducted a study of over 17,000 family members in 27 countries.  What they discovered was that in the healthiest of families ratio of positive to negative interactions was about ten to one.

Our gymnasts are like a family…ten to one…oh dear.

A little better news is that the Positive Coaching Alliance, a national non-profit dedicated to developing better athletes and better people promotes “The Magic Ratio’ which is five praise to one criticism.

So somewhere between five and ten positive things for each negative…that’s a lot without using “good job” or “nice.” Not to mention, the feedback needs to be truthful and sincere.

So how can a coach get to that Magic Ratio or even beyond without anemic affirmations or pathetic praise?

Deconstruct the skill to isolate what the athlete did well. When you identify what the athlete did well, specifically compliment that. For instance if you are coaching a gymnast who is learning a handstand on beam you might compliment the nice T-shape she showed coming into the handstand and remind her you need to see it coming out as well. Being specific is a more useful form of feedback for the gymnast.

Encourage the effort even when the result isn’t stellar. If a gymnast takes a turn and it’s just a mess, you can still say “thank you for trying” before you tell her to go again.  Praise the fact they stuck through the entire workout or competition even when it was a rough day.

Compliment character. Look beyond gymnastics skills to how the athlete behaves. When an athlete is kind to a teammate, cleans up a mess in the gym or helps you carry a mat, those are all opportunities to give praise.

Praise politeness. When kids show good manners and treat you with respect, tell them how much you appreciate that.

Praise preparation.  Those kids who get their grips on fast or who are ready for their turn–those kids are awesome, tell them so!

Applaud how they treat other coaches, administrators or younger athletes. If you catch them being particularly kind, polite or helpful to another adult in the gym, tell them how proud you are of them.  If they are helpful with the little ones, point out what great role models they are turning out to be.

Congratulate athletes for accomplishments outside of the gym. Inquire about their grades, their piano recitals or volunteer work and tell them you are impressed with these aspects of them too.

Thank them for showing up. The kids who come to practice day in and day out should be acknowledged. Perhaps set an attendance goal for the month then at the end of the month recognize those who achieved that goal.

Say fewer negative things. No, I don’t mean you shouldn’t give corrective feedback, but it is possible to phrase it in neutral language. Instead of telling an athlete what they did wrong, tell them what you want to see them do on their next turn. “Your feet weren’t in front of you when you hit the board” becomes “On your next turn, I want you to really concentrate on getting your feet in front of you when you hit the board. Then I want you to tell me if you felt the difference between the vaults.”

Do you have any other ideas to add? I’d love to hear from you!