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Archive for February 2013


Learning, self-esteem and the epidemic that is false praise.

February 12th, 2013 — 8:16am

Well it’s been a long time since I have blogged. Thanks for your patience and time to read my thoughts……

I am always looking at how people learn. And I am always looking for ways how to expedite the process. I always want my clients to be quicker, stronger, and more powerful, move better, and get injured less. And quicker. It’s my job.

One of the things that has interested me over the years is the development of self-esteem and how our parents and coaches can either positively or negatively influence that. Secondly how self-esteem can affect our learning process, especially developing skills.

One of my biggest concerns is the use of false praise. It seems there has been an epidemic of false praise, cheerleading and baby sitting in the fitness in industry for a long time. There seems to be a lot of people paying for a best friend rather than going to a trainer and a gym to LEARN.

Yes, going to a trainer and a gym to LEARN. Not to get “smoked” or “smashed”.

Ok so here is a little background. Here are a few things not many of you would know. And it is pretty personal but it is going to highlight some of the points in this blog. I was a pretty sickly kid through most of school and high school and was I bullied a lot. And I mean a LOT.

I went to an all-boys state school in Sydney. I’m not talking about the sort of text messaging and Facebook stuff the kids do to bully these days, which quite frankly speaking is even more cowardice than ever. I’m talking more of the in your face, mentally, emotionally, verbally and physically abusive bullying. I guess it didn’t help either that I also had an emotionally, verbally and physically parent either. Ok so enough of the sop story right? Suffice it is to say that false praise was never an issue for me.

So it may be of interest that rather than running from these issues, I decided to tackle it head on. I was often told the best way to deal with things was to face my fears head on. Now I am a national fitness presenter, in other words I can get up in front of a group of people and not lose my lunch, I move better and am faster and stronger and mentally tougher than ever and I now teach and learn self-defence around the world and have the opportunity to train, spar and fight fighting champions every week. Pretty cool stuff huh? Of course it’s a never ending quest for perfection and continuous refinement. The Japanese call it “Kaizen” I’m pretty sure.

First thing’s first: Let me start by I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be supportive or encouraging, or help adults and children especially, feel loved or valued. I’ve been through that and have been lucky enough to have come out the other side ok. Shall we say partially cooked? But I have asked myself how often do I find myself saying “great job!” to my group of clients or in a one on one session or to a friend’s 7-year-old who cleans up her crayons after a colouring session?

By dishing out false praise to a child or to adults in a training environment for doing things he or she should be doing anyway, we teach them that they get rewarded just for” being”. Later in life in the case of children we tell them they’re smart and beautiful and awesome netball players before they’ve had a chance to earn it—or know what those words really mean. Kids then grow up placing their self-worth in that praise: If I’m not told I’m beautiful, she’ll start to think, then I must not be. And this is problematic. You can see it in a training environment as well.

I came across numerous articles online that discussed a cover story in a Scholastic Instructor magazine (a teachers rag in the US) asking whether kids today are “overpraised.” The concern is that by focusing on self-esteem and confidence building, parents and teachers may not be giving real goals, hard work and achievement the emphasis they deserve. The article cites a recent study in which eighth graders in Korea and the United States were asked whether they were good at math. Among the American students, 39 percent said they were excellent at math, compared to just 6 percent of the Korean eighth graders. But the reality was somewhat different. The Korean kids scored far far better in math than the way over-confident American students. You couldn’t see that coming could you??

Research with children and families has indeed told us that praise has the opposite intended effect. It does not make children work harder, or do better. In fact, kids who are told they’re bright and talented are easily discouraged when something is “too difficult”; those who are not praised in such a manner are more motivated to work harder and take on greater challenges. The unpraised, in turn, show higher levels of confidence, while overpraised are more likely to lie to make their performances sound better. Praise becomes like a drug: once they get it, they need it, want it, are unable to function without it. The TYPE of praise we give needs to be more thoughtful and more specific.

Here’s where we also see how praising kids sets them up for a world that’s almost never as generous. Life doesn’t necessarily award participation. For kids who’ve spent their lives being celebrated for, say, tying their own shoes, failure can be devastating. In a recent New York magazine article, 27-year-old Lael Goodman said, “The worst thing is that I’ve always gotten self-worth from performance, especially good grades. But now that I can’t get a job, I feel worthless.” And this guy’s an adult; it’s even worse for an actual child. What’s more, by focusing too much on how we can build our kids’ self-esteem and confidence, we’re overlooking teaching them what real achievement means—and depriving them of knowing what it’s like to feel the satisfaction of setting a high goal, working hard, and achieving it. Earning it!!

Here is the gold…………When we place more emphasis on the reward rather than the process of learning or doing, AKA the journey—whether it’s an algebra problem or kicking a football—kids inevitably focus more on the reward. They stop learning how to spell because it’s a benchmark for learning (and necessary); they learn it for the trophy and ice cream party that follows.

This just can’t be good. This is also the reason in schools we don’t see long division in some curriculum’s because of the argument “because I don’t need it in the real world” failing to appreciate the problem solving process and what is actually learnt by doing it, which is learning to logically and rationally work through a problem. This equally applies to learning how to add up without using a calculator or learning correct spelling, grammar and punctuation than having to hit spell check on the computer. Have you noticed that kids these days struggle with basic maths and English and it’s no surprise that numeracy and literacy levels are dropping because all this stuff that “isn’t relevant in the real world” isn’t in school curriculums anymore? Shouldn’t we be asking “what is this actually teaching us?” and “what are we teaching our clients or children?” The weight of that responsibility is heavy.

Oh and the notion that you can praise a kid too much is heresy to parents and teachers who have long believed that building self-esteem should be the cornerstone of education. If kids believe in themselves, the thinking goes, achievement will naturally follow. But confidence doesn’t always produce better students.
Worse, failure can be devastating and confusing for a student whose confidence is based on an inflated ego, rather than his or her actual abilities. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t praise our kids or that teachers shouldn’t try to engender self-confidence. But self-esteem should be the result of good grades and achievement, not false accomplishments.
The point here also isn’t to criticize children or adults. But it’s to recognize that self-esteem really, truly comes as the result of achievement—in the classroom, on the field, in the gym, at home—rather than false accomplishments.

If self-confidence equals your actual capacity to do something then surely self-esteem is similar. Self-esteem comes from real accomplishments. I’ve always felt the same about self-respect…..I’m sure it’s all one in the same. You earn it.

Children are growing up in a world where there are no winners or losers and praise is handed out almost as easily as A’s in school. Advanced academic programs are watered down so more students can be labeled “gifted,” and you’d think every kid in the neighborhood is the next Thorpedo , or Rod Laver or Dennis Lillee with how many trophies and ribbons are given to last-place finishers. And when it comes to competency based training, it seems to be for the most part “we have lowered the bar so more people can get over it” rather than helping people develop the skills to get there!

I’m all for building the self-confidence of kids and adults, but I think we have gone off track somewhere. Instead of letting kids grow actual confidence through achievement, we are condemning them with false praise that only inflates their egos, gives them a sense of entitlement and wanting everything now. What’s worse is when it gets too hard, it’s just too easy for them to quit. Or it’s just as easy to play the victim and blame everyone else, look for the quick fix, pass the buck or bury the head in the sand. This is the problem with the “feel good” generations. They have no mental resilience.

Essentially, we are so afraid to let ourselves or our kids fail and molly coddle away any risk that we wind up robbing them and ourselves of any real achievement. True self-esteem comes from true achievement, whether that’s winning a race or learning to tie a shoe. Success can even just be giving effort to a difficult task. Whatever the goal, the achievement of it is what builds actual self-esteem.

Here in though lies the problem. You have to make mistakes and often to learn. We learn from making mistakes.

If you don’t make mistakes you simply don’t learn anything. In his AMAZING book The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle discusses how the brain is like a muscle and the more you exercise it the stronger it becomes. Every time you try hard and focus and learn something new and make mistakes and try hard again the brain forms new connections that over time make you smarter and or more skilful. Intellectual and skill development is the formation of new connections that continue to build on each other through effort and learning. And over time, regardless of age you can add to it. You can hone and sharpen and improve. As you age this can continue. Isn’t that SUPER cool?

So if you aren’t putting the effort in and focussing and learning and making mistakes and trying again, well you simply aren’t learning or becoming more skilful. Putting stuff in the “too hard” basket all the time because it makes you feel uncomfortable or because you “don’t feel good” means you do not step outside your comfort zone. As a result you are stifling you’re own and your children’s self-development.

I’m worried we are creating is a generation of children of egomaniacs with devastatingly low self-esteem.

For my clients and students they get it that for the most part they train with me to learn new skills, like Muay Thai, Kettlebells, Krav Maga or Primal Move. To learn. Not to have someone patting them on the back all the time. I’m not there to externally gratify them.

If they really push hard and focus I will let them know. If their technique and skills are improving I will let them know too. But if it’s not the case then I have the integrity to tell them so as well, my version of the truth, even if I risk losing their patronage because they aren’t hearing what they like. By making those mistakes, having them pinpointed and then chipping away at improving on them they are achieving real accomplishments and goals. They are LEARNUNG. By doing so I am in turn improving their self-esteem rather than being a paid best friend.

Suffice to say my students have taught me more about myself than anything. For that I am eternally grateful.

People have mentioned that I don’t have a lot of motivation cues or tips. They are correct. We are all adults. You either have it or you don’t. I agree that we all need a hand from time to time and I really try and help push the right buttons to keep that fire ignited for those that need it externally.

I have also had my fair share of students with thin skins and very delicate egos and lots of pride who ultimately would rather have me blow wind up their backside rather than actually learn something and train hard and smart to achieve a real goal or accomplishment. To make mistakes as I have, and more importantly to learn and improve on them. What am I to do? Pat them on the back and tell them that what they are doing is great when it is crap???? Funny enough I know a lot of trainers that do. They are in the popularity game.

And that is chasing mediocrity or worse………..

I guess I don’t have lot of motivational cues as most things have never come easy to me and I believe that good things come to those who work their butts off. I have never thought as I trainer that I am better than my students, more so to the fact, that I am their trainer because I’ve done a lot more stupid stuff then they have and have made a lot more mistakes in my time.

And I intend to make a few more.

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