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The Encouragement Sweet Spot

Po Bronson's new book Top Dog offers a wealth of perspectives on the science of winning and losing.
Po Bronson’s new book Top Dog offers a wealth of perspectives on the science of winning and losing.

Anyone who has been following my Tweets today will surely see how enthralled I am with the book, Top Dog,The Science of Winning and Losing by Po Bronson.  I am only part way through it,  but I have already had several insights about some of the issues raised in this book.  One of the big ones has been around the notion of support.

Few would dispute the idea that encouragement matters.   It can come in many forms such as attending someone’s games and competitions, making sacrifices to make sure that individual can get the very best opportunities to forward his/her talent, and celebrating the successes along the way.   It never occurred to me that there could be too much support.  It seems counterintuitive that being someone’s biggest fan might actually hurt someone’s competitive edge. And not just in sports!

Here is the brain science.   Using the example of  athletic competition, much of what is learned is based on motor programming.  When competing, the vast majority of the energy belongs in the areas of the brain responsible for movement, positioning, reacting and the like.  According to Sian Beilock in her book Chokeyou can sabotage your performance by sending energy to the prefrontal cortex and away from those structures required to execute the movement.  Think of an easy putt gone awry.   We know this as “being in our heads” or “overthinking.”

But there are other ways we can gum up someone else’s performance without even knowing it.   When we overdo it with support, we can simultaneously elevate expectations.  When we encourage others to shoot high, we may unwittingly cause them feel an unnecessary burden of expectation which in turn can make the goal or task more difficult than it is.   The energy that should be going into mastering the activity and performing it well goes into worry about not meeting an expectation.

Here is the million dollar question though.   How much support is the right amount?  What is the right kind of support?  Where is the encouragement sweet spot?

In coaching, we ask 2 important questions: What encourages you?  What discourages you?  I think we could also add this question. How much encouragement do you need and in what area do you need it?   How will I know if I am not giving enough or I am giving too much?

What’s a good way to find that optimal balance?


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