As parents and coaches of youth athletes, we walk a fine line in our communications with our emerging superstars about their abilities. What may sound like a great pat on the back, (“that was amazing how you just knew to make that pass – you’ve really got a knack for this sport”), may actually limit their future development and motivation, according to two development psychologists.
It all goes back to the fundamental debate in talent development of any kind. Are we born with certain skills and expertise or do we develop it with years of structured practice? Researchers have argued along the entire spectrum of this question while practitioners have settled somewhere in the middle. Even if kids start with some genetic advantages, they still need plenty of practice time to achieve greatness.
Committing to those years of training requires the right mindset and belief that those hours on the field or court will actually help. The best teachers have learned this in the classroom by convincing students that they are in control of their development rather than being labeled “smart” or “not smart.”
Jim Stigler, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, saw this first hand years ago when visiting classrooms in Japan. In a recent NPR Morning Edition segment, he told the story of observing a fourth grade math class and one student’s breakthrough. The teacher asked one student who had been struggling to draw a three-dimensional cube to go to the chalkboard, in front of the whole class, and give it a try.
After a few minutes of failure in front of his peers, Stigler waited for the poor student to break down. “I realized that I was sitting there starting to perspire,” Stigler remembered, “because I was really empathizing with this kid. I thought, ‘This kid is going to break into tears!’ ”
However, with his classmates encouragement, he finally got it right and was rewarded with applause and a real sense of accomplishment when he returned to his seat.
Now, as a researcher in learning theory, Stigler draws comparisons between this style of learning and what is seen in most American classrooms. “I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart,” Stigler said. “It’s a sign of low ability — people who are smart don’t struggle, they just naturally get it, that’s our folk theory. Whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.”
Our youth sports culture is similar to the classroom. Kids who are divided into “A” or “B” teams at an early age are taught that their development path is set; the skills they have now are the same skills they will have in the future. It becomes a self-fulfilling cycle as the “A” teams get better coaching, play in the better leagues against better competition and the talent gap widens.
Often, parents can also, unknowingly, contribute to this cycle. As in school, when a child is told that his or her success is due to his brain not his effort, the perception begins that when they do eventually struggle with a math test or a tougher opponent, there is little they can do to improve.
Jin Li, a psychology professor at Brown University, has also been studying cultural differences in learning and teaching. One of her research projects recorded conversations between parents and children to hear the language used. There were subtle differences between American and Asian parents when complimenting their kids. While the Americans praised with phrases like, “you’re so smart”, Asian parents focused on the struggle, “you’ve worked so hard on learning that and now you did it.”
“So the focus is on the process of persisting through it despite the challenges, not giving up, and that’s what leads to success,” Li said in the same NPR interview.
Every young athlete will face challenges as they move up the ladder from youth clubs to high school to college. Instilling them with the belief that they can improve through hard work will keep them motivated to get to the other side of the wall. Their support team of parents and coaches can help this process by rewarding the learning process.
“Think about that [kind of behavior] spread over a lifetime,” Stigler concluded. “That’s a big difference.”