This is the fifth in a series of six articles about raising boys to be good sports.

I’ve yet to meet anyone who actually played better, ran faster, or threw more accurately as a result of being humiliated by his coach. I’ve known plenty of kids who’ve tried harder when scolded, but that usually doesn’t work out too well for them. Trying harder to do something that you already know how to do only means you’re going to mess up your rhythm and timing and coordination, just like that little centipede in the poem “The Centipede’s Dilemma”:


A centipede was happy – quite!

Until a toad in fun

Said, “Pray, which leg moves after which?”

This raised her doubts to such a pitch,

She fell exhausted in the ditch

Not knowing how to run.

Trying to provoke greater speed, accuracy, aggressiveness, or tenacity from players by making them feel bad about themselves is like deriding a student’s essay in order to get him to become a better writer. It’s the most nonsensical “motivational” technique I’ve ever known, and the worst example of sport psychology I can think of. It often makes things worse, too, particularly in the case of kids who become so worried about making another mistake they can’t play well. Second guessing their instincts and afraid to take risks, they back off the more daring plays and avoid making the kinds of quick, independent decisions that win games and competitions.

If you want to help kids to play their best, then you’ve got to help them to feel their best. Kids feel good when they are treated with courtesy and made to feel valued as contributors to the game independent of their level of play on a given day. They almost always try their hardest for those coaches they think most highly of, and therefore whose respect and regard they seek in return. Those aren’t the ones who yell at them for making an error or tell them they’re not trying hard enough. And it’s certainly not the ones who demean them, thinking it will light fires under their butts. The coaches under whom kids play their best are the ones they like being around, appreciate learning from, love playing for, and in whose company they feel good about themselves. That’s sport psychology at its most elegant and best—natural, organic, sustainable.

— Janet Sasson Edgette