Published June 14, 2012
Tags: 4th grade, adolescent development, athletic coaching, coach education, Hilton Head/Savannah, intrinsic motivation, learning, Matt Cuccaro, motivation, player development, sports performance
by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.
I was working with one of my high school athletes recently and he made an interesting comment that resonated strongly with me and became a foundation in our work together. It allowed us to simplify a deep and useful concept. It has allowed him to take a deeper understanding and appreciation for developing his game. Here is how the conversation began…
“I liked 4th grade much better than 6th grade and beyond”, he said.
“Why is that?”, I asked.
“In 4th grade teachers gave comments on your work and report cards, in 6th grade and beyond you started getting grades”, he replied.
Commentary is open, flowing and provides plenty of wiggle room for personal interpretation and further deliberation. This sounds like the ultimate learning mindset. Grades are boxy, permanent and limit creativity by labeling results in one simple letter. This sounds like a limiting mindset. Why confine potential to a pre-determined box? Why make performance black and white rather than appreciating the ebbs and flows of a multi-shaded gray world? Yes, it’s clearly easier and much more convenient for athletes and coaches to simply throw a number, letter, or some other short label on performance. The problem is that it’s not truly helpful for the growth, development, and creativity of performance.
Life and athletic prowess would be a much more rewarding and self-motivating process by maintaining a 4th grade mindset over a 6th grade approach. In order to reach ones full, limitless potential keep the commentary coming and resist the urge to place simple tags on performance. Feedback that grows beyond “good/bad, right/wrong, yes/no” allows player development and continuous improvement to occur. Respect the fact that there is a wide spectrum of techniques, approaches, and development to experience out there. Nothing worthwhile in life comes easy. Feedback should be no different. Be a 4th grader, stay a 4th grader, and allow the helpful feedback through commentary to continue.
I’ve ranted and raved a bit on this blog about the importance of fun in high performance sport (see A Novel Concept). All this being said, I think it’s fair to say that the word “fun” itself isn’t so hot. It’s prejudicial… more specifically I believe it ignites cognitive schemas that drive many a mind towards hedonistic fantasies.
“Fun” in sport and striving does not equal “pleasure.” Yet, I fear too often this is where minds of the doubting Thomases drift when they hear the word. Sport may bring levels of pleasure, but the intrinsic interest (a.k.a. fun) that is core to rich experiences is a quite different thing. This distinction is well articulated by Bruya (2010 – see his chapter in Effortless Attention) when considering approaches to wine: “Drinking wine in an enjoyable way may further develop an interest that enriches the enjoyment. Drinking wine in a pleasurable way leads to inebriation.” When it is preached that the youth sport experience ought to be “fun,” are we asking kids to get drunk on sports? I really hope not, a super-sized approach to play certainly does not lead to health or high performance.
The mental images that ought to accompany “fun” are ones of full engagement… or enjoyment. Yes, a subtle word change, but perhaps a valuable one. “Enjoyment” speaks to becoming a connoisseur of sport… a true expert. One that passionately engages in the successes, struggles, and every day striving (see Geeking Out for some further thoughts).
Think about what you mean when you ask athletes, parents, and coaches to have “fun.” Consider the images it places in their minds. Are they productive and one’s that a hard nosed competitor can buy in to? Sport is not hedonistic, it is engaging.
As we roll through the Stanley Cup playoffs, I have periodically swapped texts with a few players. Through all of the wins, losses, and overtime battles, I have gotten into the habit of signing off texts with “Enjoy it all.” And regardless of how the puck bounced each night, the reply I get back is something along the lines of, “Absolutely.”