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How to celebrate success with your young players

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Andrew Beavan

There is a certain artistry to administering praise, calling for careful observation and informed intervention – with the coach taking their cue from the player and reacting appropriately. Insight into your players’ quirks and motivations and understanding what makes them tick can also help the whole rewards process click.

  • A tendency for coaches to rush on to the next exercise in training can mean small achievements individuals make go unnoticed or unacknowledged.
  • ‘On average by the age of 18 we will have been praised and encouraged 30,000 times and criticised and discouraged over 250,000 times.’
  • Success will mean different things to different people and how people choose to celebrate success will also vary, meaning coaches must be adept at measuring and modulating praise.
  • Celebrating small wins is as important as celebrating big wins when it comes to boosting confidence, motivation, effort and engagement.
  • Use positive affirmative questions to set new challenges so players are always striving to go beyond the level they have just reached.
  • Praise the performance not the result and remember that delivering false praise has no educational benefit.

Celebrating success with your group of players is a far more intricate process than you may think.

The ramifications of a throwaway thumbs up or high five, or a back-slapping off-the-cuff victory speech, can run deep, affecting players’ confidence and self-esteem. More than simply providing a fleeting feel good boost, it can also be a decisive factor in encouraging players to return to training every week, by helping maintain their levels of engagement and motivation.

Success comes in all shapes and sizes, and the timing, tone and target of your praise, and how you measure and modulate it in different contexts, is important if you are to reap optimum tactical rewards.

Do you stop to reflect on the importance of your actions and reactions? Does the manner of your responses fluctuate depending on the context, an individual’s personality or the level of their ability? Do you recognise the ‘small wins’ individuals experience as much as the ‘big wins’?

The quality of planning and preparation is important in coaching, as is the quality of behaviour management and the techniques employed to inspire good behaviour. The quality of practice is also crucial, in terms of the effectiveness of training ground games and drills and the learning methodologies behind them. But the quality of praise a coach delivers to their group is another crucial element of coaching practice that is often overlooked.

A little praise can go a long way

Mitch Belisle is a professional lacrosse player, having represented Team USA.

In a video posted on ConnectedCoaches by Content Champion Simon Browning, he says: ‘Whilst I’ve had a tonne of great coaches over the course of my career… the common denominator was they celebrated their players’ success.

‘That positive element of coaching, of really rewarding your players when they do well, even for the little things, that’s what drives a team. And knowing that your coach is going to pat you on the back when you’ve done a great job is I think a key trait all great coaches share. It goes a long way to keeping people engaged and excited and wanting to work hard, not just for themselves but for the team.’

ConnectedCoaches Community Champion Andrew Beaven (pictured top) is an experienced freelance cricket coach who works, at this moment in time, mainly with seven-year-olds and under.

He agrees with the sentiment expressed by Mitch but says it can be an easy habit to fall into whereby coaches rush on to the next exercise in training without spending any, or enough time, appreciating the small strides individuals have achieved.

‘I think we are all at risk of doing that,’ says Andrew. ‘Particularly if you have a larger group, too often you tick off a drill or game and move straight to the next one. Somewhere along the line, someone might have just got their first hit out of the middle of the bat. It’s not a particularly big thing but it’s worth taking some time to acknowledge it, even at that level.’

In his book ‘The Secrets of Happiness’, leadership coach Ben Renshaw says taking the time to acknowledge our successes is important for our personal growth and well-being. Unfortunately, we live in a time where supportive encouragement of children plays second string to habitual criticism.

He writes: ‘On average by the age of 18 we will have been praised and encouraged 30,000 times – and most of this by the time we are three. By contrast we will have been criticised and discouraged over 250,000 times. It’s no wonder we are so focused as a culture on what goes wrong!’

The value of small wins

To determine what kind of achievements are worth celebrating, we must first define success:

  • The accomplishment of a particular personal objective.
  • Some noticeable progress towards a personal endeavour – the completion of a phase of development.
  • Overcoming an obstacle in your development that had been causing some difficulty.
  • Overcoming, and therefore learning, from any failures and mistakes on that development journey.

Furthermore, it is imperative to recognise that success will mean different things to different people. What one player might place great value on, a team-mate may regard as trivial. 

With coaches and performers so preoccupied with the end-goal, the essential smaller achievements that get us there can go uncelebrated.

And yet these small incremental gains (or wins) are just as important.

‘You may have had the worst day in the world, but there is always something that has gone right that you can highlight,’ is Andrew’s glass half full mindset. 

Small wins, then, are better than no wins, and the method of acknowledgment can be divided into two categories: ongoing praise and developmental praise.

‘With regards ongoing praise, this is – in cricketing terms – when someone cracks the ball for six, or someone takes a diving one-handed catch and looks as amazed as everyone else that it stuck in their hand. At that level, it merits an immediate response, a high five or whoop, or whatever.

‘Then there is the strategic, developmental praise. Educational research suggests praise itself is not good for development. But it is great for engagement, and makes people want to do something again, so the concept is that rather than praising through a well done, you affirm. So you will say, “That worked well didn’t it, how do you think you could do it again?” It is always setting the challenge to go beyond the level you have now reached – what’s next?’

‘So especially with the more confident players, how you say it is important. “I like that, can you do it again? I want to see more of that”.’

You are acknowledging the achievement but at the same time adding a new challenge into the mix, and that scent of challenge in alliance with the inherent competitive nature of game-play should elicit the desired response from children ever eager to earn more positive affirmative praise.

Andrew Beavan praise

Introvert and extrovert celebrations

Some children are practised in executing extravagant celebrations.

They may have older siblings or parents who play sport and who they have seen celebrate, or watch a lot of sport on television and, when they get something right enjoy nothing more than mimicking their role models.

‘You get the fist-pump and the aeroplane running celebration, and they love it.’

And then you get others, adds Andrew, who are more shy and reserved and whose celebrations are significantly muted.

You will not find them running around the hall screaming and jumping up and down, ala David Pleat’s euphoric victory run on the Maine Road pitch after avoiding relegation with Luton.

‘The quieter ones often don’t make a fuss about things, but will still appreciate the acknowledgment. A loud roar and a high five might work best for some, whereas for others a thumbs up from the other side of the hall might be just the prompt they needed.

‘It can be difficult, when you have 20-plus kids in the room, remembering which ones like to whoop and which ones likes to whisper, but you do have to be aware of how different players want to celebrate.’

The good news is that your players’ personalities and idiosyncrasies are wonderfully exposed during active play.

Taking the time to observe their individual characteristics will help you measure your response, tailoring the degree and tone of your praise to each child accordingly.

Measuring praise and leaving headroom

We have discussed small win scenarios, but what about milestone moments?

Take these two scenarios:

The most prolific batsman in the team retires after scoring an undefeated 25.

A player who traditionally struggles with the bat reaches double figures for the first time.

The former may consider their achievement run-of-the-mill, while for the latter, they have made a major breakthrough that certainly merits more than a simple thumbs up.

‘Also worth noting,’ adds Andrew, ‘is that with the quieter ones, the time when you acknowledge their successes is often the time when they engage with you and you end up having a longer chat.’

With the delivery of any form of praise, it is important that it is measured.

Say a player has overcome a personal hurdle – making a one-handed catch, bowling with a straight arm, striking the middle wicket in the nets. You must be careful you don’t go overboard, or when they take five wickets for no runs a few weeks later, how do you raise your praise another notch?

‘It is very important to learn how to modulate your praise,’ agrees Andrew. ‘You have to leave space for them to be even better, because that has got to be the ambition.

‘So with the older players I’ll often simply say, “Wow, that was good. Now, this is where it gets tricky, can you do it again?” So they get the acknowledgment, but you also want to leave the headroom so they are always aiming for something higher. And it can be difficult to find that balance.’

Mind your language

Praising effort can reap the same motivation-boosting rewards as praising success.

The language used to applaud an unsuccessful outcome can be an incredibly impactful coaching technique.

‘Remember, you would be praising their performance as opposed to the result,’ says Andrew.

‘And in all but top level professional sport that should be the goal – that people engage and do as well as they can. And if the other side are better, or luckier, or favoured by the referee’s decisions, then that happens.

‘“It’s all about the process, it’s not about the outcomes” is an overused phrase, but is true in many respects and that needs to be acknowledged as well: “We did what we said we’d do, we worked as a team and all supported one another, we gave 100 per cent. Well done.”

‘With the youngsters I’m working with, I’m not working with anybody whose livelihood depends on hitting the next ball to the boundary. What matters is that somebody is putting themselves forward to do as well as they can, and if it doesn’t come off then it doesn’t come off.’

That is not to say that competition should be regarded as taboo in children’s sport. Once again, it is a question of balance.

Sport, by its very nature, is competitive, and no matter how many times children are reminded that they should be playing for development, not trophies, or, that it’s not about the result it’s about the team getting better, the most common post-match expressions Andrew says he hears from children are variations on the theme of having won the match and euphoric cries of having scored a goal.

‘So in children’s football, for example, even though the FA and the district leagues are constantly impressing on coaches and parents that this is not a competition, there is still always that emphasis on: How did you get on? Did you enjoy it? Did you win? Did you score? And not: What have you learnt this weekend? Did you enjoy yourself?’

Three magic questions

I ask Andrew how he might handle a situation whereby his team produced a lacklustre effort, yet ended up victorious. Should the coach still celebrate the success?

I plough on with some more hypotheticals: Your team won but coasted to victory; you won but only thanks to one team member enjoying a phenomenal performance. Do you then just praise that player and not the rest of the team?

‘In those scenarios, it is really difficult because they have won the game, and, ultimately, most competitive sports are about winning or losing. If it isn’t competitive, it isn’t sport. So that’s a really tricky balance.

‘My feedback would be, “Okay, we’ve just won 5-1. What could we have done better? How could we have kept a clean sheet? Could we have made it 5-0 at half-time to allow us to switch the team around?’

Positive affirmative questions take the result out of the equation.

Dan Abrahams is a sports psychologist who works with Eddie Jones’ England rugby union team and with Bournemouth FC in the Premier League – who we featured in the blog ‘The art of practice: Intentional training a model way of embedding new skills’. Dan advocates asking the following three leading questions after every game: What went well? What could have gone better? What are we going to do before next week to be even better?

‘The beauty of these questions is they are absolutely neutral,’ says Andrew, who highly recommends the technique. ‘You could have won 5-0 or lost 10-0 but those questions are still valuable. It is a great example of challenge coaching.’

Beware false praise

If you have read this far into the blog, then you should by now be able to clearly distinguish between the benefits of heartfelt praise (recognising and celebrating behaviour you want to see repeated and which you are genuinely proud of) and the detrimental effect of administering false praise (compliments delivered insincerely).

Coaches who spontaneously celebrate everything their players do are only succeeding in impeding children’s motivational impulses and denying them the opportunity to reflect on their progress.

They will come to expect praise, even when they have accomplished something insignificant that has not been earned through hard work or persistence.

There is no educational benefit to repeating the words “brilliant” or “fantastic” every time a ball is struck or kicked.

Hollow praise is a topic for another day, but it serves to highlight once again the complexity and the artfulness of celebrating success.

So next time you are about to sing someone’s praises, in order to strike the right chord remember you may have to fine tune your approach and adopt the right tone.

What are your thoughts on administering praise and celebrating success? Please leave a comment below.

Next Steps:

Peer to Peer Feedback...How words impact our lives

A video examining Carol Dweck’s famous study on praise, showing how big an impact words have on our mindsets and how praising students’ effort can have more positive results than praising their talent and ability.

How and When to Praise Children in Sport

An infographic produced by the BelievePerform Sport Psychology Website

This blog is also available as a podcast on a number of platforms including Itunes. Listen here.


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Comments (3)


I always try to acknowledge achievements and success. It could be a junior golfer that connects perfectly for the first time. I just love the reaction and look of surprise on their wee faces. You just know that’s the time to celebrate. Other smaller seemingly less significant achievements are when they swing beautifully but miss hit the ball. A set of dejected shoulders can suddenly be transformed when you acknowledge it. No celebration but worthy of a comment to maintain focus and encourage. Identifying a struggling student and stepping in to give advice and spend time reinforcing coaching points is equally beneficial. If success is achieved a thumbs up, low key positive comment or praise can work wonders. The article is so correct to point out that despite wanting them all to succeed at every session it’s just not possible. If praise is given willy nilly it makes all of the special significance of achievements seem undervalued

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This is so true.

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Celebrating the small successes, even with just a high five or a that's looks great or that looks better can be organic. It can happen as you go. Remembering the 80/20 rule is important. Most of what you tell an athlete needs to be encouragement the other can be correction. I highlight correction and instruction over criticism. There is a difference. Telling someone you know your approach to that ball was great. You need to follow through and the ball will go exactly where you want it. This is very different from criticism. That looks more like, " you didn't' follow through and that is why you can't get the ball on target." You are giving the same correction but the person or child receiving the information is likely hearing two different things. Make sure to notice the success first give the instruction/correction next. Move on and encourage.

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