What Is More Effective – Praise or Criticism?

In 1948, the UCLA men’s basketball team finished with a 12-13 record.

Hoping to turn things around, they hired a young coach named John Wooden, who had spent the last two years coaching at Indiana State University.

He made an immediate impact at UCLA, coaching the team to a division title and a 22-7 record – more wins than they had ever had in a season. He did even better the next year, helping his team secure another division title and a 24-7 record.

He went on to become the greatest coach in college basketball history (if not basketball, period), leading his UCLA teams to 10 national championships in 12 years, including seven in a row and a record 88-game winning streak.

And it’s not because he always had the most talented players. Some of his teams were only modestly talented or had notable weaknesses. Yet year after year, he managed to raise the level of their play, and get them to perform at a championship level when it mattered most.

So what was it about his coaching or teaching style that led to such unprecedented success? Was it his masterful use of praise? Strategic use of criticism? Or maybe both?

How does a master coach teach?

Psychologists Roland Tharp and Ronald Gallimore were interested in education and learning, and thought that observing and analyzing John Wooden’s teaching methods might deepen their understanding of learning. Or more specifically, help them understand how more teachers can get the very best out of their students.

So, over the course of 15 practices during the 1974-1975 season (Wooden’s last at UCLA), they sat, observed, and systematically tracked Wooden’s specific coaching behaviors – which added up to 2326 “acts of teaching” in total.

So how much of this was praise? And how much was criticism?

Very little, actually.

Top teaching behaviors

Just over half (50.3%) of Wooden’s behaviors were pure instruction – specific statements about what to do or how to do it. No judgment. No approval or disapproval. Just information.

The next most frequently occurring coaching behavior (12.7%) was called a “hustle.” This was basically a cue or reminder to act on some previous instruction. For instance “Drive!” or “Harder!” or, of course, “Hustle!”

Next most frequent was what the researchers affectionately named a “Wooden,” a unique feedback technique that was a combination of scolding and re-instruction (8%). This was designed to make it clear he was not satisfied, but followed by an immediate reminder of the correct way to do something. For example, “How many times do I have to tell you to follow through with your head when shooting?” or “I have been telling some of you for three years not to wind up when you throw the ball! Pass from the chest!

Next up were praise (6.9%), scolds (6.6%), positive modeling – or how to do something (2.8%), and negative modeling – or how not to do something (1.6%).

Information, information, information

So, altogether, ~75% of Wooden’s teaching acts contained specific information geared at providing the athlete with a clearer picture of what to do or what not to do. The researchers felt that this was a major contributor to his coaching success, and it also makes perfect sense given that Wooden, at his core, always saw himself as an educator.

After all, simply knowing that something is good or bad is not especially helpful if you don’t know what exactly should be repeated or changed the next time. Otherwise, it’s just more shots in the dark.

Wooden’s modeling formula

Another of the researchers’ interesting findings was their observation of how Wooden modeled behavior.

When Wooden saw something he didn’t like, and stopped practice to correct the incorrectly executed technique, he would immediately demonstrate the correct way to do the technique, then show everyone the incorrect way the athlete just did it, then model the correct way again.

This correct-incorrect-correct demonstration was usually very brief and succinct, rarely lasting longer than 5 seconds, but making it very clear what his expectations were, and how to meet these expectations.

Take action

There is much we can apply from John Wooden’s coaching methods to how we teach others – but isn’t much of this equally relevant in how we teach ourselves as well?

At the end of the day, we don’t really need tons of mental self-fives for hitting the difficult notes, nor self-imposed verbal punishments and expletives for missing notes.

Because in the practice room, as on the practice court, it’s less about whether we are perfect or imperfect. It’s more about making sure we’re growing and learning from day to day.

So what we need is more self-instruction. And to stay relentlessly focused on maintaining a problem-solving, solution-focused mindset.

For more, download the original 1976 Tharp & Gallimore study here: What a coach can teach a teacher

The one-sentence summary

You can’t let praise or criticism get to you. It’s a weakness to get caught up in either one. ~John Wooden

Photo Credit: mil8 via Compfight cc

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17 Responses

  1. I couldn’t agree with this more! I am forwarding it to many others — some of whom falsely believe praise is more important than building their confidence based on knowing what to focus on and the dynamic atmosphere and mastery of problem solving and constantly refining one’s game.That is what makes a winning team!

  2. Great article for raising children! And in business. Loved the article !
    Nancy peck
    Received from peter mark

  3. What a great article! It’s so easy as a teacher, or parent, or coach, to get caught up in praise to help counteract the natural inclination I find many students have to beat themselves up. But the instruction, not the judgment is what’s really crucial. Thanks for the reminder and information!

  4. This post is so perfect for what I am now experiencing with my practices sessions and growth on my instrument. One of my mentors has said, “Observation is power. Judgment is weakness.” You’ve shared a very clear model that reflects this idea with even clearer practicality. Thank you Dr. Kageyama!

    I have one question though. Your post says, “…~75% of Wooden’s teaching acts contained specific information geared at providing the athlete with a clearer picture of what to do or what not to do.” Do you find it more beneficial to cultivate a clear mental picture of how a technique should be executed or of how a technique should NOT be executed? It seems the only benefit of having a mental picture of how a technique should not be executed would be to clarify exactly how the technique should be executed.

    1. I don’t think the emphasis is so much on showing what was wrong as showing what was observed. I find it difficult to correct a flaw if I don’t know exactly what the flaw is. Wooden’s approach made the flaws clear–“This is what I wanted to see. This is what I saw. This is what I wanted to see. ” The athlete was allowed to identify the difference and, importantly, saw the right way demonstrated twice.

  5. Great article! This all boils down to two acts of consciousness: discernment and judgement. As musicians, we need both, but it is important that we place them in the most constructive order. I teach my students to always start with discernment. Learn to observe objectively, then answer the question, “What is actually happening as I play?” Once something is discerned (e.g., “My entrance on this phrase is somewhat behind the beat”, or “I’m raising my shoulders as I begin to play a high E”), then it’s time to move to judgement (very briefly, and kindly, of course!) in order to decide whether or not you want that which you just discerned. Cultivating this ability to discern without judgement is a lifelong endeavor and is one that will continue to benefit any musician.

    As you stated in your article, Wooden succeeded in large part because his athletes learned to abide by “specific information geared at providing the athlete with a clearer picture of what to do or what not to do.” It really is that simple, and it takes lots of the fear away in both learning and performing.

  6. Great perspective as usual in your articles. As a soccer coach, and an admirer of coach John Wooden, it is always incredible to find so much value from this great coach and even greater man.

    This is applicable to any area of performance, and even true to parenting.

  7. Great article! There’s a book called Practice Perfect by Doug Lemov that covers more of Wooden’s (and others’) coaching tips. I’m not a sports fan, but was really impressed by the coaches’ attention to detail during and outside of practice. Wooden was really an artist in his approach.

    There was a great exercise in businesses for new managers which illustrates the idea well. About 100 new managers split into groups of 4 or 5. Their goal was to build a model airplane with tinker toys; the builder on the team would be blindfolded and the others had the instructions and would coach. Selected teams were ONLY allowed to praise the blindfolded person when he/she put pieces together and say nothing if anything was wrong. The second group of teams were ONLY allowed to give negative feedback when the blindfolded person did something wrong (e.g., No or Wrong, etc.). The third group of teams were allowed to give both positive and negative feedback during the build process. There was a time limit for the build, something like 15 minutes. The winner was the team who got the plane fully and properly assembled in the least amount of time. The teams that were allowed to give both positive and negative feedback were way ahead of the praise-only and criticism-only teams. This came as a surprise, because before the exercise we had voted that the praise-only teams would perform better. The lesson for managers: balanced and constructive positive and negative feedback result in better performance and efficiency. It seems to be what Wooden does in his coaching, and the example that we should aspire to as teachers and in our own practicing.

  8. What I love about Wooden’s teaching is his obsession for details and fundamentals. It is so easy to skip over them, but without strong foundation progress is hardly possible. Every musician would definitely benefit from having coach like Wooden in practice room.

    Thanks for your insightful article Noa.

  9. This is a wonderful testament. I am sending it to my student teachers and cooperating teachers.

  10. This article is wonderful. I took a good hard look at what words and phrases I use with students, and realized I don’t take enough advantage of this. If anything, I tend to over-praise. After reading the article, I see that it is not the best strategy to use. But to be honest, I get students who have rarely heard anyone say anything nice about anything they do – kids and adults. With more than a few, I need to ‘go through the back door’ to get to those teaching moments. From ‘tell me what you liked about what you just played’ (aka how to make people cry because NOBODY ever asked that question before, especially ADHD kids and adults) to ‘what would you like to improve?’ to ‘now tell me how you are going to do that?’ (wow – I get to choose?) I have to be very careful with some students how I get to those ‘teaching moments’ without making their thinking revert back to ‘Mom!!! Mrs Bell is picking on me again.’ Such a sharp thin line I have to walk sometimes. Every student has a strength, and my job is to find it and use it. And to remember that what looks like a handicap to one person is actually the greatest gift a student could ever hope to receive.

  11. I would be curious to know what effect does it have when teachers say of something “it’s easy” or “it’s difficult”. How can our perception of diffuculty affect us. Would information, information, information also be the motto of the study in the conclusion.

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