What Is More Effective for Learning – Praise or Criticism?

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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 (1976) were interested in education and learning, and thought that observing and analyzing John Wooden’s teaching methods might deepen their understanding of both. 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, “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 or “reproofs” (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.

Instruction vs. evaluation

Plus, taking evaluation out of the equation helped to make his teaching less “personal” and therefore easier for players to accept without becoming defensive (much like the TAGteach approach we learned about in this interview with director/choreographer Ann Bergeron).

As one of his players1 later explained:

“As a former student who committed many errors during practice and therefore having been the recipient of plenty of corrections, it was the “information” I received, during the correction, that I needed most. Having received it, I could then make the adjustments and changes needed. It was the information that promoted change. Had the majority of Coach Wooden’s corrective strategies been positive (“Good job”) or negative (“No, that’s not the way”), I would have been left with an evaluation, not a solution. Also, corrections in the form of information did not address, or attack me as a person. New information was aimed at the act, rather than the actor.” 

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 this modeling technique made it very clear what his expectations were, and how to meet these expectations.

Takeaway #1

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?

Because at the end of the day, we probably don’t need tons of mental self-fives for hitting the difficult notes. And it’s not like beating ourselves up and calling ourselves names for missing notes helps much either.

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

As the authors note about Wooden in their 2004 reanalysis of the original data, “It was…the teaching in practices that he valued, more than the games and the winning, and it was practice that he was so reluctant to leave behind when he retired.”

Takeaway #2

The 2004 reanalysis also includes some additional nuances and insights beyond the 1976 paper. They report, for example, that Wooden made sure to keep his players constantly active and moving quickly from one drill to the next during practice. His goal being to simulate the intensity of games and ensure players were accustomed to the demands of competition.

It seems that he achieved his goal, as former player and NBA great Bill Walton has said that “Practices at UCLA were nonstop, electric, supercharged, intense, demanding…” and that “Games seemed like they happened in a slower gear.”

Bringing the stage to the practice room

This doesn’t mean that we have to treat every single minute of practice like a performance, of course! But if the goal is to be more comfortable in performance and play our best, I do think there’s something to be said for trying to bring more of the stage to the practice room, instead of hoping we’ll be able to bring the practice room to the stage.

And what might that look like?

It can take many forms – from recording a 30-second snippet of your concerto for your turtle every morning to playing a full mock audition round after a dark roast robusta triple ristretto for a colleague who makes you slightly nervous. But the idea is less about manufacturing nerves and more about giving yourself plenty of opportunities to practice the skills you’ll rely on in performance, whether you’re nervous or excited.

Skills like the ability to hit a tricky note on the first try, rather than on the second. Or the ability to get into and stay in the right headspace. And be able to focus on the music instead of how to move your fingers correctly. Or defuse the “end of the world” pressure you might feel. Or shut off the unhelpful mental chatter. Or avoid the downward spiral of doom after missing a note.

Performance practice doesn’t have to be painful

Fortunately, performance practice doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. And it doesn’t have to take up very much time either. But it does help to integrate micro-doses of this into your daily practice well in advance of an audition or performance.

It can often be difficult to get ourselves to do this on our own, so if you have auditions or performances coming up in the next 3-6 months (or would simply like to be able to play more like yourself in any setting, whether it’s lessons, master classes, choir practice, or for informal gatherings of family and friends), you may be interested in the live online 4-week performance practice course that begins in two weeks (Saturday, Oct. 8th).

You’ll learn how to use several research-based strategies that will make your daily practice more effective and efficient, and we’ll explore strategies for beating nerves, getting into “the zone,” and building more trust and confidence in yourself and your abilities on stage.

We’ll also work on practicing performing in teeny tiny doses. And we’ll be your accountability buddy, to ensure that your inner “procrastination monkey” doesn’t win quite so easily.

Registration is now open (through Sunday, Oct. 2nd), and you can get all the dates and details right here:

A version of this article was originally published on 10.4.2014; revised and updated on 9.25.22


References

Gallimore, R., & Tharp, R. (2004, June). What a Coach Can Teach a Teacher, 1975-2004: Reflections and Reanalysis of John Wooden’s Teaching Practices. The Sport Psychologist, 18(2), 119–137. https://doi.org/10.1123/tsp.18.2.119

Tharp, R.G., & Gallimore, R. (1976). Basketball’s John Wooden: What a coach can teach a teacher. Psychology Today, 9(8), 74-78.

Footnotes

  1. Swen Nater, 1970-1973

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Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

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Comments

20 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.

    1. Yes, Sandy, you’d think information is most important. But shaping behavior can be counter-intuitive. “Information” and more information is not so effective. Based on the best-designed long-term research in behavioral change and adult learning, information is effective when it’s brief, followed by a model of the target behavior; followed by carefully-structured practice; followed by the four steps of Developmental Feedback. -Doug Pratt, Trainer of Trainers and Licensed Psychotherapist

  12. This article on feedback and coaching is helpful because it makes a fundamental and useful distinction; unlike teaching which provides information, coaching develops skills. Coaching feedback, or “Developmental Feedback”, is an evidence-based, efficacious, and replicable method. This article’s example of one effective coach’s approach is also helpful. Especially because he uses demonstration of the skill as a consistent part of his coching.

    I do think envisioning the pure method is a most useful place to start assessing one’s own coaching practice. Then observing how effective coaches apply it can be even more useful. So, here’s the method, IMPF for short…the coaching begins with Brief Information; then a Model (video, demnstration) is presented of how the information is applied; then the student is provided a structured Practice Acitvity; finally comes Developmental Feedback. So the model is “IMPF”. Trust is enhanced and confidence is built when a student-centered, strengths-based feedback procedure is used. That is the procedure of Developmental Feedback. Begin by asking with genuine interest, “What did you do that was effective?”; then the coach asks, “Would you like to know another strength that I noticed?” Only after the student is helped to identify some behaviorally specific strengths does the coach add their own additional perception of strengths. Then the student is asked, “What will you differently next time to continue your progress?” The student is coached to explain in behavioral specifics; “I’ll try harder” is not specific or helpful. “I can add about 1/8 inch to the wiggle of my index finger for a bit more tremolo on that last G note.” is behaviorally specific. When the sudent has at least one specific thing to focus on, the coach asks, “Would you like a suggestion?” When the first steps of Developmental Feedback are done effectively, the answer is always “Yes.” At this point the coach models behavioral specificity. “When you press your middle finger on the string, pay attention to keeping trhe finger tip perpendicular to the neck. Perhaps you could arch your wrist just a tad to get the angle right.” This pure, essential procedure can be adapted for each individual coach and student, but is always the base from which to individualize. -Dr. Doug Pratt, retired Trainer of Trainers and Licensed Psychotherapist

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