Illustration by Angelika Manhart
Standard Deviations

When Yelling Is The Best Medicine

By Rebecca Martin

In a provocative new Nike commercial, Serena Williams narrates a series of clips of high-achieving female athletes and coaches screaming, grunting and expending massive amounts of effort as they break records and win medals, all while being criticized and called crazy for going to extremes to reach the highest level in their sport. The main message? Ignore the haters, and dare to be crazy to accomplish your goals.

Inspiration aside, what stood out to me as a developmental psychologist was how the commercial normalized screaming coaches and crying athletes as a natural part of the effort to achieve greatness. As a former athlete, coach, and now new mother living in an era of helicopter parents and positive parenting, I can’t help but think about how best we can support our children to help them achieve their dreams.

Do we have to yell sometimes to help people reach the next level? Or can aspiring athletes and scholars achieve their potential from positive reinforcement alone?

One popular approach promoted by educational researchers and teachers is to encourage children to adopt a “growth mindset” when learning new skills. Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychology professor who developed this theory in the early 2000s, found that young students who thought intelligence was a fixed trait were less likely to improve in school than those who had a “growth mindset” and believed that intelligence increased with practice and effort.

Educators and researchers have latched onto the idea of promoting the growth mindset, and Dweck herself has written numerous articles encouraging parents and teachers to figure out ways to “praise effort over achievement.” Instead of telling a student “good job on that spelling test,” a teacher should comment on the student’s hard work while they are studying.

But is praising effort how Serena won 23 Grand Slams? If my swim coach had told me that she liked how hard I tried when I came up short in a competition, I’d have felt like a failure. To me it would have meant that she thought I wasn’t capable of making it to the highest level. When my Ph.D. advisor would return a manuscript saying “that was a good first try!” his words of encouragement didn’t exactly inspire me to jump right back into it.

Perhaps praising effort isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. While it may facilitate more of a growth mindset, it may also encourage people to focus on the energy expenditure they are putting in. A child might be less likely to try something new if they know how much effort it is going to take to be good at it.

Sometimes direct, negative feedback might just be the best approach when it comes to helping someone push to the next level in learning a difficult skill. Numerous studies in my field of cognitive neuroscience have proved that “bad is stronger than good” when it comes to learning from feedback and remembering information. Negative feedback may “stick” more in people’s minds. It may be worth conducting some carefully designed studies on the benefits of constructive negative feedback to enhance learning — while minimizing any potential harmful long-term effects it may have. That type of research seems important, but is not necessarily a topic grant-giving organizations would be enthusiastic to fund.

Of course, constructive negative feedback should be used with care, and one factor that may influence the best type of feedback to give is age. Studies have shown that children may be more responsive to positive feedback, while adolescents may have the sensitivity and emotional maturity to learn from negative feedback as well.

Researchers have found that different brain systems are active in children learning from positive versus negative feedback compared to teens and adults. Based on our review surveying the emotional development of children, my collaborators and I hypothesize that children might be primed to absorb more positive information because they are still working on developing the ability to regulate their emotions. Negative information may have such a strong effect on them that it can detract from learning.

No one wants their child to be psychologically damaged by abusive coaches and tough teachers, and praising effort over achievement can be an effective way to reinforce good habits and behaviors when learning new skills. But we shouldn’t automatically discount the value of good old fashioned tough love in helping our children, students, and athletes succeed.


Rebecca Martin is a postdoctoral researcher in developmental cognitive neuroscience at New York University and a former six-time member of the United States National Team for synchronized swimming.