In search of Praise in PE

My observations of praise within PE

PraisePraise 2

Over the course of the last 11 years I have mentored trainee PE teachers from a variety of different ITT providers. One of the things I always hear from them when observing is their constant verbal praise:

‘That was brilliant Melissa!’

‘Great work Tommy!’

‘That was amazing James!’

It’s wonderful to hear trainees trying to motivate children and hear their enthusiasm within lessons. I think this is a very important characteristic of a good teacher in PE, to try to energise the children as they naturally feed off the teachers. However the praise the trainees offer lacks any specificity or clarity on the task at hand. It doesn’t tell the performer or their peers anything other than the teacher is happy with them. To be fair I hear this a lot with more experienced teachers I observe as well. I also catch myself saying this at times within lessons. If we are going to take the time and effort to praise our students, then we should try to make it as effective and as helpful to the learning process as possible.

Sutton Trust Report on Praise

The recent Sutton Trust report on what makes great teaching had a section on busting educational myths. One of those myths was on the lavish use of praise. It got me thinking about my own practice and of advice I have given to trainees in PE over the years. This is taken direct from the post:

Use praise lavishly
Praise for students may be seen as affirming and positive, but a number of studies suggest that the wrong kinds of praise can be very harmful to learning. For example, Dweck (1999), Hattie & Timperley (2007).

Stipek (2010) argues that praise that is meant to be encouraging and protective of low attaining students actually conveys a message of the teacher’s low expectations. Children whose failure was responded to with sympathy were more likely to attribute their failure to lack of ability than those who were presented with anger.

“Praise for successful performance on an easy task can be interpreted by a student as evidence that the teacher has a low
perception of his or her ability. As a consequence, it can actually lower rather than enhance self-confidence. Criticism following poor performance can, under some circumstances, be interpreted as an indication of the teacher’s high perception of the student’s ability.”

So how do I as a teacher, with no real research background, read into this?

  • Be careful how you praise, it can have negative consequences to learning
  • Don’t encourage and protect students who are weak – this shows you have low expectations of them
  • Demonstrating anger/criticism as a response to those who fail may have better consequences – shows you have higher expectations of them

Review of research cited in Sutton Trust

I found the documents that were referenced and read through them. Here are the main points I took away from them:

  • Do not give students easy tasks and then praise them for completing those tasks Dweck (1999)
  • Praising for the sake of building self-esteem does not work in the long run, especially when tasks get harder Dweck (1999)
  • Do not praise a child for intelligence – (does this also apply to success achieved due to physical ability of a child?) Dweck (1999)
  • Praising children on performance is better than intelligence, praising on effort is better than performance (at least in terms of wanting to take on harder tasks). Dweck (1999)
  • Linking effort to success rather than ability may help with continued practice on a task Dweck (1999)
  • When praising for intelligence, failure becomes personal and more of a disgrace (could this be the same for physical ability?) Dweck (1999)
  • Don’t get students so interested in labels that they care more about the label than learning (is this important for gifted, talented, natural at sport, athletic?) Dweck (1999)
  • If a pupil performs something perfectly the very first time, do not praise them, give them something more challenging immediately Dweck (1999)
  • Getting back to basics and enforcing rigour and standards won’t overcome the obstacles of a pupils self-esteem Dweck (1999)
  • We must create a framework of rigorous standards, where students are given truthful feedback about their CURRENT level of performance of skill Dweck (1999)
  • Try to focus students on their potential to learn and give them the message that effort is the key to learning Dweck (1999)


  • Praise, and therefore feedback, should be combined with a correctional review Hattie & Timperley (2007)
  • Specifically, feedback is more effective when it provides information on correct rather than incorrect responses and when it builds on changes from previous trails Hattie & Timperley (2007)
  • Praise for task performance appears to be ineffective, which is hardly surprising because it contains such little learning- related information Hattie & Timperley (2007)
  • Praise that is personal in the sense that it is directed to the “self,” which  is too often unrelated to performance on the task. Examples of such praise include “You are a great student” and “That’s an intelligent response, well done.” Hattie & Timperley (2007)
  • Praise directed to the effort, self-regulation, engagement, or processes relating to the task and its performance (e.g., “You’re really great because you have diligently completed this task by applying this con-cept”) have far greater impact on students Hattie & Timperley (2007)
  • Praise should try to include details about the task, process or about self-regulation Hattie & Timperley (2007)
  • Negative praise and feedback to the self may have potential to improve the learning Hattie & Timperley (2007)
  • Feedback at the self or personal level (usually praise) is rarely effective. Praise is rarely directed at addressing the three feedback questions (Where am I going, how am I going and where to next) and so is ineffective in enhancing learning.Hattie & Timperley (2007)


  • Teachers emotional responses can have a significant impact on pupils self esteem and therefore learning potential Stipek (2010)
  • Sympathy and pity for low achieving pupils can lead to them believing in their low ability Stipek (2010)
  • Anger towards pupils who haven’t put in effort can lead to them believing they can do better Stipek (2010)
  • Praise and criticism can have paradoxical effects because of their link with effort attributions, and because people perceive effort and ability to be inversely related Stipek (2010)
  • Avoid criticism and give praise freely overlook the power of the context and of students’ interpretations of the meaning of the message Stipek (2010)
  • The relationships we build based on our beliefs about students ability and praise can have an impact on their learning Stipek (2010)
  • Helping behavior can also give students a message that they are perceived as low in ability, and it can undermine the positive achievement-related emotions associated with success. Unrequested help can have negative impact on self-esteem Stipek (2010)

Whilst this may be what educational research shows I think we may have to be very carefully how to go about employing this this into Physical Education.

Anger and criticism within PE

One area I’m very uncomfortable about is ‘negative criticism’ and ‘anger’ as a response to failure. Whilst studies may have found that this approach may have a positive effect, I think getting this right is a minefield that even an experienced teacher like me might not dare to tread. Getting this right requires knowing the pupils personality, the ability to complete the task, their self-esteem. Added to that we want students to be involved in a active and healthy lifestyle, anger as a response is one sure way I have seen destroy that aim. I’m guilty of it early in my career and I worked very hard to change it. The only times I have used anger recently is when confronting bullying, lying, racist, sexist and homophobic remarks during lessons and sports and even then I’m still not sure I’ve been right to use this approach. This is going to be something that requires  open mindedness, reflection, dialogue with other professionals and better advice from the researchers on how to implement this within PE. Obviously we would need to approach it in a sensitive manner, so we don’t end up acting like Mike in the video.

Changing my personal practice with regards to delivering praise within PE

Then how do we take what research shows us about praise and put it into our practice? (This is one of the major bug bears I have about research, they tell you about the outcomes better never advise you on the process or implementation in a user friendly way).

On Monday I will be teaching tackling in rugby to Year 7 boys. Most students dislike this and it is a lesson where I try to give constant verbal praise to encourage and motivate them. I need to ensure I move away from the type of praise that was at the beginning of this blog post.

1. Task associated Praise – (link my praise to the key teaching points of the task).

Well done Jimmy that was an excellent tackle because you kept low – eyes to thighs.

A very good tackle Bobby because you went cheek to cheek and ended up on top of him in a safe position

An effective tackle Sammy because your arms made a ring of steel around his legs and took away his balance

Well done Harry that was a great tackle because you didn’t stop at the point of contact and followed through with your shoulder and body

2. Effort associated Praise (linking effort and success together).

Well done Jimmy your tackles are becoming better because of the practice you are putting. Don’t give up now.

That last tackle Bobby was your best one yet, because you were committed and put effort into it.

Keep working at that level and intensity Sammy, your tackles are becoming more effective because of it.

Harry, you haven’t give up yet and that is brilliant, your tackling will improve with that fantastic approach.

3. Being prepared to move students on to a harder/more complex task if they are successful

Kneeling tackle to stationary target

Squatting tackle to stationary target

Squatting tackle to walking target

Standing tackle to walking target

Standing tackle to jogging target

Full 1 v 1 tackling

If students perform this very well immediately, I shall endeavour not to praise them but move them onto the next tackling progression.

I shall set up a ‘tackling clinic’ area. If students feel they need extra help they are to come to this area and either myself or a student who is able to will give them 1 to 1 advice, feedback and practice. I shall try this that giving unrequested help. I shall only intervene if i see a lack of effort or issues with safety.

The next stage would be to give students praise which encourages them to self-regulate and be reflective on their own performance, but this will only happen once that basics and fundamentals of the skill have been learnt.

Further reading on the Sutton Trust report with regards to praise:

Lavish praise from teachers ‘does not help students’ – BBC

Why praising to the skies clouds the issues – TES

In praise of praise – a far more eloquent blog post than mine by Miss Cranky on the dangers of taking on board the advice from the Sutton Trust

The problem with Praise – an excellent post by Dr Richard Bailey on praise within sport, which looks at potentially introducing negative and critical feedback.


5 thoughts on “In search of Praise in PE

  1. Another great post, my friend. I love this. I adhere closely to Dweck in my teaching, my coaching and my web publishing always trying to praise the process of success rather than merely the outcome. Praising perseverance, persistence, resilience, analysis, evaluation etc… are far more potent than saying “you’re very good at this” because it gives the learner somewhere to go and something to build upon.

    This applies to everything too. Take the notion of the wall display for instance. What should we display? The perfect piece of work achieved by a learner, every word and image manicured to perfection? It will be pretty and impressive to a visitor but what does it speak to learners? What if, instead, we display two pieces of work from the same learner? The first full of averageness and “first attempt” characteristics, the second a more groomed and corrected version by the same learner displaying the progress that has been made, the analysis that has been undertaken, the fact that the learner did not settle for averageness? What do we want on our walls? What do we want our learners to value? What do we want to praise? In order to answer these questions we actually have to address a more fundamental question: “what is learning?”

    I believe we are singing from the same hymn sheet here and I applaud you once again for a fine post.

    As always


    Liked by 1 person

    1. James. Once again thank you for the deep and insightful response. I think the more we as PE teachers can focus on process rather than outcome the better chance we have to engage pupils in having a lifelong active and healthy lifestyle. We also have a small chance to shape their behaviour and values, hopefully for the better. Core PE doesn’t have the pressures of other subjects in delivering grades and value added (normally). So we are free to do what is best for the child and their development. We don’t have to rush through content and worry if they aren’t understanding it. We can take out time, take risks, explore our subject and try and get pupils to strive to become better and find something they enjoy doing.This gives us as teachers great freedom to address that fundamental question of “what is learning?” at least in Physical Education.


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