Good job, good effort – really?

Editor’s note: This is the latest blog post from Dr. Wendy Lebolt, a longtime coach and physiologist who is the founder of Fit2Finish, a Northern Virginia-based training, fitness and rehabilitation company which works with teams and individual players to maximize health and performance. The Soccer Wire is excited to present Wendy’s learned perspectives on the mental, physical and psychological aspects of the beautiful game. Learn more about her background here.

Rewind to June 2012: The Boston Celtics win Game 5 of the NBA Finals over the Miami Heat and go up 3-2 in the series.

The ever-present TV cameras catch the mood of the losing team as they head into the locker room after the devastating loss before a home crowd.

Listen to the kid who greets them from the stands:

I love this kid, obviously the product of positive parenting and positive coaching. But people who actually follow NBA basketball are miffed by this kid. One comment nails it: “The kid is clueless. He isn’t cheering on a rec club team.”

Oh, it starts out safely enough. Everybody gets a jersey. Everybody plays. Everybody probably even gets a trophy. “Good job, good effort,” everyone. Then that devil, the score, creeps in. So “We don’t keep score,” but the kids do. So “We don’t have standings,” but the kids know where they stand.

The “good job, good effort” mindset has become so widespread that Canadian comedian Peter Oldring created a satirical radio program about a soccer association in Midlake, Ontario that mandated playing without the ball  in order to discourage the “negative effects of competition.”

The audio broadcast spoof records the coach saying, “Now who wants to pretend to have the ball first? When I say that Michael has kicked the ball down the field, we all have to imagine it’s down here.”

Good job. Good effort.

At some point with our kids and our team we get to that moment when “good job, good effort” offends rather than encourages. We haven’t gone pro. We may not have even gone to travel. But the game and how we play it matters. The outcome matters. Performance matters. Kids not only don’t believe you when you “good job” them, they’re angry. Because you’re lying. Just look at the score.

Honestly, I failed pretty miserably at this step in my coaching development. I took a travel team of adorable, hard-working but not-ready-for-prime-time players and tried to encourage them to success. It doesn’t work. The other teams clobbered us. I started wondering whether I was meant for the big leagues. (Turns out this wasn’t just a test for the kids.)

It was a “go hard or go home” moment for me. I’ve never been much for heading home. I had to figure out how to go hard and motivate my players to come with me. Competition was not the enemy; it was the catalyst.

What do you say to a team that has just blown a big lead, played down to the level of their competition, and missed easy opportunities to score? It’s not a good effort and they know it. If they can do better, they know that, too. So, what’s all the yelling about? I’ve been told boys don’t mind it. They’re used to it, maybe even expect it. I have seen girls take it personally, and that rarely improves their next game.

I’ve seen great coaches out there who do well transitioning players from the “everybody wins” team into the competitive ranks where outcomes carry weight. They keep it healthy and real with comments that are specific, constructive and actionable.

And they seize opportunities to praise players whenever they can. Tony DiCicco’s book, “Catch Them Being Good: Everything You Need to Know to Successfully Coach Girls,” is a great look at the impact of this with the U.S. Women’s National Team’s “99ers,” the legendary squad that won the 1999 Women’s World Cup in heart-stopping fashion.

Recently, a colleague shared a link with me called “Critic’s Math.” The premise was that one criticism can drown out a ton of compliments. I was surprised at how true it rang for me and for friends and colleagues. We toss aside the victories and rehash every play in the loss.

Perhaps it rings true for you, too. Or your players. You can lob tons of compliments at your defender, but the second she misses a tackle she dwells on it for the rest of the half. Or maybe your striker defeats himself with negative self-talk the moment he misses the easy finish. Glory-sapping moments, yes. But file ’em for later.

Hey, the “good job, good effort” kid may ring a bit hollow, but most folks I know could do with some pick-me-ups in the tense moments. Maybe:

  • You got this
  • Get the next one
  • Plenty of time
  • Gotta be better
  • It’s just a game

What’s your mantra for game time? Share it in the comments. Let’s hear what works. And then, can we please send it to Ontario?!

By | September 24, 2013 | 6 Comments | Tags: ,


  1. Martin Wulf says:

    Nice article, Wendy…good job, good effort….

  2. DBossOfSalem says:

    Mine is usually along the lines of “It’s alright. You’re good. Let it go and get the next one.” Sometimes, I may accentuate it to my own son with, “Hey. Your team still needs you. Keep your head up.”

  3. Western MD Soccer Coach says:

    I coach a travel girls team, and rec level boys teams, so I am straddling this fence. I find with the boys I am more forgiving of mistakes than I am with the girls. This is probably to recognizing that the some of the boys are not that skilled yet, so I don’t want them to get discouraged and drop soccer. I view my role as helping to build a life long love of the game. With the girls, they are talented, and play at a high level of competition. I do use “good effort” if they truly play their best, but I am also very demanding, so the girls know the “good effort” is earned. We have discussed that at practice and at games I expect 100% effort. We have also discussed that physical mistakes are one thing, mental mistakes and lack of hustle mistakes are completely different. I also try, and don’t always succeed, to not be negative to the players in the context of the game. Point corrections need to be done but at least during the game try not to say things like “what are you thinking” or “we aren’t playing kickball”. Most of the time I have found the travel player already knows they have stabbed at the ball or not gotten goal side of the forward giving up the shot and feels upset about it. After the game send them home, then address the issues like playing down to the competition, etc. at the next practice. It will give you a chance to calm down and give them a chance to digest what happened and listen to your concerns with feeling like you are picking on them.

    • Wendy LeBolt says:

      All good advice, Western MD.
      I do think we have to watch our “what are you doing out there” comments – which are really an expression of our own exasperation and not coaching/helping at all.

      I am curious, if your rec boys move up to travel, how your voice and tone will change. I found that when the score mattered and I had to make decisions about playing time – for the sake of the win – sometimes “effort/hustle” wasn’t as rewarded as skill and athleticism. Helping a second stringer realize that they’re work in practice is what made the starter stronger just doesn’t compute for kids. (or their parents)

      • Western MD Soccer Coach says:

        Yes I will demand more of them if they move up to travel, but in reality probably only about 50% of the boys are at the skill level that would let them move up to travel. At travel hard work in practice doesn’t always translate into playing time, but I have been blessed/cursed with players who are close enough in skill level that they could move up or down so there was real competition for starting spots. We have usually had players 1 – 5 pretty well defined but players 6 – 13 or 14 were pretty close to each other. It is harder to explain to the parents because they see their kid as great and want their kids to succeed. I have found, at least with the kids I have coached, they have a pretty good understanding of who is better than they are and who is not.

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