Break or build: reframing negative feedback
When my son was a high school sophomore, he came home from a basketball workout and I could tell immediately that he was in a mood.
“Coach got on me today.”
“Oh yeah?” I replied. “What happened?”
He proceeded to tell me that his coach wanted him to take a quick shot in the post as opposed to pump faking then taking the shot. In layman’s terms, he wanted him to shoot the ball as quickly as possible, not giving the defensive player time to react. A pump fake is when a player pretends they’re going to shoot in order to force the defense to jump or move, in hopes of giving the offensive player a wide open shot.
In my son’s mind, he wanted to pump fake because they had just practiced it in an earlier drill. So it made sense to him to try the move. But that wasn’t what his coach wanted. So CJ came home, a bit dejected, about his coach “getting on him.”
Fortunately or unfortunately, my son had an advantage that most teenagers don’t — he has two parents that played division one basketball. He has two parents that love the game of basketball. We’ve also coached. He often comes to us with his frustrations, victories, challenges, and successes. And when he’d come home and recount events that took place during basketball practice, I knew he was looking for feedback. He’d try to gauge if his reaction was appropriate or not. I thought about it for a minute before responding.
“If your coach isn’t getting on you, then that’s when you should worry,” I told him.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“If your coach is getting on your case, then that means he sees you as an integral part of the team. He needs you to make the right decisions, at the right time, in order to help the team.”
I could see the light coming on in his teenage brain. He was starting to get it. So I continued.
“You may not always understand why a coach yells at you or criticizes you. But it’s his job to get the best out of you. If you’re out there making mistakes or missteps, and he says nothing, then you have reason to worry…because that means he has no intention of having you on the floor at a crucial time in the game.”
My husband and I have always talked with our son about sports in this way. We don’t coddle him or complain about the coach or create conspiracy theories about why some other kid plays more minutes. You want to play more minutes? You have to put in the work.
I also told CJ that when his coach criticizes him, an inevitability in athletics, he should embrace it.
“Embrace that feedback and harness it to make you a better player. Your coach played division one basketball. He’s coached for years. He knows his stuff. When he gets on you, embrace it. Take ownership of it. You are now the recipient and owner of something that is uniquely yours; something that will help you become a better basketball player.”
He understood what I meant.
“And by doing so, you take the emotional response of being embarrassed or frustrated or upset out of the equation. You focus more on how that feedback can help you accomplish your mission and less on how it made you feel about yourself in the moment.”
“You have a choice,” I told him. “The criticism can either break you or build you. Use it to build you into a better athlete. But more importantly, use it to build you into a person who can take criticism, no matter how harsh, and reframe it into something you can use for your own personal growth.”
So while it’s basketball practice right now, choosing whether criticism will break you or build you is a life skill that has applications beyond sports. It’s not always easy, but it’s a powerful way to shift our thinking about feedback that doesn’t always feel good.