What We Can All Learn from Olympians (and Their Parents)

My guess? A young Ted Ligety didn’t hear a lot of gushing praise from his parents.

Behind every Olympian is a parent. As the heart-string-tugging “Thank You, Mom” commercials suggest, parents were Olympians’ first boosters, the first ones to spot some talent and nurture it, and the first to say, “No you cannot skip practice today.” And they were probably the first to not say, “You are sooo talented!”

That might come as a surprise, especially in this era of self-esteem. One would think that praising and telling kids what a natural they are at skating or skiing would encourage them to strive harder. But it turns out that there’s a fine line between praise and overpraise.

“The problem isn’t praise,” writes Claudia Hammond for the BBC, “but inflated praise, words like ‘perfect’ or ‘incredibly good,’ as opposed to a simple ‘good.’ Parents are particularly likely to do this if their child is low in confidence, hoping it will boost their self-esteem. But this could back-fire.”

In her book “Mindset,” Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck stresses the same thing, and adds that it’s also important to imbue in kids the sense that they can get better at something, and that no one is naturally smart or talented. In fact, if kids come to believe that they are inherently smart or talented, at the first challenge they might wilt. Kids who’ve been told that they’re naturally smart or physically “gifted” shy away from any challenges that might disprove that and avoid any future challenges.

Hammond puts it this way:

“In one experiment, when children were either praised for their hard work or for being clever, the ‘clever’ children played safe and chose subsequent tasks they knew how to do, and were also more distressed if they failed. Praising a child’s intelligence can teach them that this is a fixed trait that they can’t control. It can make them wary of trying anything new in case they don’t maintain their high standards.”

A better approach, says Dweck, is to focus on praise that starts with, “you worked really hard on that” or something else about the process. It’s a safe bet that parents of Olympians praised their kids’ hard work over their innate skill.

Schools, too, could take a lesson from Olympic moms and dads. Kids who believe they can get better at something, not surprisingly, work harder when faced with a challenge or a failure. One thing athletes’ parents are good at, after all, is recasting failure as an opportunity to improve and as just another necessary step on the way to a medal.

Figure skater Charlie White’s mom, Jacqui, told CNN, “I think you sit there and you wonder, how many times can you fall and get back up again? Your first instinct is to go out there and say ‘Stop hurting yourself; let me take you home to something fun,’ but you don’t, because the more loving thing is to let them go, let them pick themselves up sometimes and let them continue on and get stronger because of it.”


Photo/ movimiento base


Published February 20, 2014