Compliments, your booster or your kryptonite?

Compliments, your booster or your kryptonite?

External vs internal focus

Let me start with an example:

In a situation where a tennis player hits the ball too flat and has a problem of hitting too many balls into the net or out, one of my favourite exercises is to get two players to hit the ball, while I’m standing in the middle of the court by the net. My only instruction to them is not to hit me. They can play above me, beside me, and the ball must be hit with decent pace. I have the racket in my hand for self-protection. You know what happens every time? After ten, twenty minutes of hitting, there is not a single ball in the net. Every single time. Not even one ball! Try it! Players naturally start letting the racket head underneath the ball, staying low with their feet and giving just enough spin that is needed. They also stay much more focused because of me standing there and they want to avoid hitting me.

And all that without me saying a single word!

Another example:

In my career, many times I’ve coached a player who hits too many serves into the net. The first thing I do is to raise the net with doubles sticks in the middle of the net and let the player serve. Again, the same effect happens, net remains untouched! Unbelievable! Players unconsciously change their entire body position, giving just enough shape to the ball to clear the net.

And again, without me giving any instructions!

We may call this situational learning. In other words, you put a player in a situation that is specifically designed to push him into self-correction. This is a type of coaching that we all know and we all use from time to time. In modern sports science this is called learning by instruction promoting external focus.

“Instructions for motor learning differ in their effectiveness depending on how they direct the performer’s attention. Specifically, instructions promoting an external focus on the intended movement effect (movement of an implement or support surface, intended trajectory of an object, target) have been found to result in enhanced learning relative to instructions referring to body movement (internal focus)” (Wulf, 2007).

But, let me make another point in this text.

Positive comment effect

So, what happened next in my practical examples from above? After the positive effect occurred and the players started to show minor improvements on a particular shot, the next thing I did was to make a positive comment, of course. I couldn’t help it, it was too tempting. So, I said: “That’s great, did you see that, you did not hit a single ball into the net!” “Although, this was simply an observation of fact, my tone of voice revealed that I was pleased what I saw, I was complimenting them and indirectly I was complimenting myself as their instructor.” (Timothy Gallwey, “The Inner Game of Tennis”)

Soon after I said that, as we continued the same exercise with the same instructions, some balls started going back to the net.

Why? What happened there? What was the difference between the first and the second set of balls? Shouldn’t a compliment be a confidence booster?

Well, sometimes yes, and sometimes no. It this specific situation, the player was hitting well, almost without thinking, and as soon as he received a compliment with a specific point (you didn’t hit any balls into the net), things started to change. We can say that my comment triggered the shift in the player`s focus from external to internal. He started to think about the task in a different way. He was trying more not to hit the net, his hands got tighter, and tightness interferes with fluidity required for a quality movement. He also felt a little pressure because, unconsciously, the player wants to keep doing it the “right way”, he wants to avoid disappointment of making a mistake.

“They were trying to live up to an expectation, a standard of right and wrong, which they felt had been set before them. This was exactly what was missing during the first set of balls. I began to see that my compliment had engaged their judgmental minds.” (Timothy Gallwey, “The Inner Game of Tennis”)

Can a positive comment spoil the magic of effortless performance? Could compliments be perceived as criticism in disguise?

Have you ever been in a situation where your player is hitting the ball really well and after a while you give him a very excited compliment like: “That’s great hitting! I really like how you control the ball!”? However, due to our human nature and the internal thinking process that suddenly came into play, sooner than later a player starts missing some shots. The unpleasant silence occurs. Unpleasant because now the player feels like he did something wrong and the coach feels as if he ruined the magic. I always think that if I didn`t say anything, the good flow would last longer.

“Every compliment can be seen as a potential criticism. If a coach is pleased with one kind of performance, he will be displeased by the opposite. Positive and negative evaluations are relative to each other. It’s impossible to judge one event as positive without seeing other events as not positive or as negative.” (Timothy Gallwey, “The Inner Game of Tennis”)

Please don’t get me wrong, some successful coaches I see on professional tour compliment plenty and loudly and I’m certainly not trying to say that we shouldn’t do that. First of all, because people like compliments and in many situations, they can help, and secondly, coaching would be so boring without them. In the end, it is the players who shouldn`t let compliments get to their head, like they shouldn`t let criticism get to their heart. Good balance is everything.

And for us coaches, let me finish with a quote from Ivan Ljubičić, I guess it fits nicely here: “The toughest part of coaching is to decide when to step in and say something and when to let go.” (

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