Which Is The More Effective Coaching Behavior- Praise Or Criticism?

Coaches are always looking for the most effective coaching behaviors. But there is often argument about the importance of positive reinforcement, praise, and negative feedback. 

There are different outlooks on which behaviors are the most effective in coaching young athletes. 

So, what works best? 

Let’s look to a great coach and teacher for some insight.

Coach John Wooden

John Wooden is a coaching legend. 

He is one of the greatest coaches in basketball history. He coached his UCLA teams to 10 national championships in 12 years. That included seven in a row and a record 88-game winning streak.

He’s also heralded for his ability to teach his athletes.  Teaching them on the court, and teaching lessons they took through life.

With that success, you might think that he always had the most talented players.  However, by most accounts, you’d be wrong.

Some of his teams only had average talent.   Many had notable weaknesses.

Still, year after year, he was able to elevate their level of play and get them to perform at a championship level when it mattered most.

So, coaches are naturally interested in his coaching. What was it about his coaching style that led to such unprecedented success? Was it his careful use of criticism?  Was he masterful in using praise?? Or maybe both it was both?

How did this master coach teach?

With that very question in mind, some researchers set out to study how he coached. During one season psychologists, Roland Tharp and Ronald Gallimore observed and analyzed Coach Wooden’s teaching methods. Interested in education and learning, they thought that his teaching methods might deepen their understanding of learning.

So, during the 1974-1975 season they sat, watched, and tracked Wooden’s specific coaching behaviors during practices.

For 15 practices, cataloged 2326 “acts of teaching” in total.

So how much of this was praise? And how much was criticism?

Top coaching behaviors

Coach Wooden employed his top behavior more than 50% of the time.  He used it four times as often as the next highest used technique.  It would seem, this was the bedrock of his coaching.  So was it praise or criticism?

Turns out, it was neither.

Over half (50.3%) of Wooden’s behaviors were just pure instruction. These were specific statements about what to do or how to do it. There was no judgment. No approval or disapproval. Just information.

Many coaches believe that one of the most important things to communicate is what you want the athlete to do.  What is the intent you want them to do it with? 

This aligns with Coach Wooden’s number one tactic.

The next most frequently occurring coaching behavior (12.7%) was called a simple effort cue, the researchers called a “hustle.” For instance “Drive!” or “Harder!” and, of course, “Hustle!”

It was a cue or reminder to act with effort on some previous instruction.

The researchers aptly named the third most frequent (8%) coaching behavior a “Wooden.” This unique feedback technique was a combination of scolding and re-instruction.  He made it clear that he was not satisfied but immediately reminded them of the correct way to do something.

For example, “How many times do I have to tell you to follow through with your head when shooting?” or “I have been telling some of you for three years not to wind up when you throw the ball! Pass from the chest!

The remainder of his coaching behaviors after that were roughly balanced between praise and criticism of some sort.  Here’s the list of the coaching behaviors demonstrated by Coach Wooden;

  • Instruction (50.3%)
  • Effort Cue (12.7%)
  • A “Wooden” (8%) – scolding + reminder how to do something
  • Praise (6.9%)
  • Scolding (6.6%)
  • Positive modeling – how to do something (2.8%)
  • Negative modeling – or how not to do something (1.6%).

Information is king

If we add this up, we can see that ~75% of Wooden’s teaching acts contained specific information.  This information was designed to provide the athlete a clear picture of what to do or what not to do.

Simply knowing that something is good or bad is not especially helpful. It is more useful to know what exactly should be repeated or changed the next time. Without that specific information, praise or criticism can be easily misinterpreted by the athletes.

The researchers felt that this was a key contributor to his coaching success.

Wooden’s modeling formula

Another of the researchers’ observations was of how Wooden modeled behavior.

If he saw something he didn’t like and stopped practice to correct the mistake.  He used a correct-incorrect-correct demonstration that was usually quick and succinct.

He would immediately demonstrate the correct way to execute the technique, then show everyone the incorrect way the athlete just did it, then model the correct way again.

This correct-incorrect-correct demonstration was usually very brief, rarely lasting longer than 5 seconds.  However, it made it very clear what his expectations were, and how to meet these expectations.

You can’t let praise or criticism get to you. It’s a weakness to get caught up in either one.

~John Wooden

More Effective Coaching Behaviors

There is a lot we can take from John Wooden’s coaching methods.  He focused the majority of his coaching on providing his players with information and context.  He helped them to understand what he wanted them to do, and how to do it.

You can do the same.  Help your athletes learn what to focus on and the intent to bring to each repetition.

At the end of the day, we don’t need tons of cheerleading and high fives. Nor repetitive punishments and expletives for making mistakes.

In the weight room, clinic, or on the field, it’s less about whether athletes are perfect or imperfect. It’s more about making sure they’re progressing and learning from day to day.

The only way they can progress is to refine the way they are performing with information on what to do and how to do it. 

Check your cueing and feedback and see how your coaching behaviors measure up to John Wooden.