Sticks and Stones May Break Gymnasts’ Bones…

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It could be in said in what sounds like jest but feels like a stab: “I guess you want to repeat Level 4.”

Or comment that sounds like its purpose is to motivate when it really is just an assumption of bad faith: “Maybe you could actually try next time.”

Or maybe it is not even expressed through words: Just an small eye roll over a balked attempt or a flash of a glare after a less than satisfactory turn.

These interactions are what Dr. Susan Stiffelman calls “micro rejections.” These very small rebuffs and dismissals don’t seem like a big deal, but as Dr. Stiffelman notes in a recent article, “But if most of our interactions with our children are negative and unfriendly, those micro-rejections can erode a child’s sense of being loved and lovable.” 

Of course that does not mean that as coaches and parents we need to tell children everything they do is wonderful, that we should never give them any form of criticism or that we even should not tell them that their actions were disappointing. To the contrary, Dr. Stiffelman notes, “children who are raised to believe they walk on water and can do no wrong grow up to be adults who have unrealistic expectations of others. It’s important for kids to discover that they can be loved and disappointing at times.”

However, as coaches and parents it is essential that we think about the subtle messages we convey to our athletes through our tone, word choices and facial expressions. Not simply because of the damage these micro rejections cause in and of themselves. But also because of the cycle that is set off within the person.

Psychologist Guy Winch explains: “Unfortunately, the greatest damage rejection causes is usually self-inflicted. Indeed, our natural response to being dumped by a dating partner or getting picked last for a team is not just to lick our wounds but to become intensely self-critical. We call ourselves names, lament our shortcomings, and feel disgusted with ourselves. In other words, just when our self-esteem is hurting most, we go and damage it even further.

To avoid micro rejections remember this simple litmus test: criticism should be delivered to help someone improve. It should never be delivered to hurt someone, vent your frustrations or boost your ego.

Remember: sticks and stones may break gymnasts’ bones…but words will cut them deeply.