“Good try!” Good grief…

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As a youth basketball coach, I’ve attended many youth basketball games.  As I sit there I often hear parents calling out “Good try, <insert each child’s name here>”.  Usually the praise is associated with an unsuccessful attempt at something.  There doesn’t actually have to be anything “good” about the action, just that the child took some action and was unsuccessful.

Parents call out “Good try!” out of a desire to protect a child’s self-esteem but it can actually have the opposite effect.  Kids know that “good try” always follows failure so it’s just recognition that the child’s attempt has come up short.  Parents hope that by building a child’s self-esteem they will have happier, more successful children.  In fact, scientific research has shown that self-esteem is an effect, not a cause.  High self-esteem doesn’t lead to higher production, greater success, and happiness.  It’s the other way around – higher production and greater success lead to high self-esteem and happiness.

As a coach I am trying to teach kids how to be more productive and successful basketball players.  I think that calling out “good try” is wrong for three reasons: it’s non-specific, it’s misleading, and it doesn’t help the child learn how to handle the small failures that will naturally occur on the journey to becoming proficient at something new.

Non-specific

Teaching is comprised of reinforcing correct behaviors and discouraging (or at least not encouraging) incorrect behaviors.  If you look close enough at the actions of anyone trying to develop a new skill there are always crumbs of success even in the biggest failure.  The job of a coach is to identify the crumbs and recognize them.  “Good try” doesn’t recognize the small things that have been done right because “try” is too general.  You can’t build on “try”.

Misleading

Because parents are simply trying to protect the child’s self-esteem they will call out “good try” even in cases where the child is doing nothing “good” at all.  It may be a case where the child is reverting to bad habits or acting in a self-centered way.  The child that drives up the court, ignores his teammates and misses a long distance shot hasn’t done anything good.  It wasn’t a “good try” at all.

Un-helpful

There’s a tremendous amount of pressure on kids who participate in competitive leagues.  There’s so much emphasis on winning.  Especially at the youth level, there are so many ways for a child to fall short of the expectations of the crowd, their parents, their teammates, their coach, and themselves.  By saying “good try” you’re telling the child that they’ve come up short and the only good thing that can be said about it is that you took an action which is better than nothing… The most successful athletes, besides working hard to improve their skills, are able to put mistakes behind them and focus on the next second, next minute, next quarter.  Kids need to learn how to do this too – to move forward and focus and not be distracted by thoughts of past mistakes.  If you need to say something and lack the experience to praise what was done well, then simply say “put it behind you and focus on what you can do now”.