The Power of Praise

Years ago I was a teacher and coach at a small Catholic girls high school in Southern California. I learned a valuable lesson while there that continues to guide my interactions with others to this day.

I was a volleyball player in high school and college – even USVBA-rated for a while – and assistant coached at the college level. When the opportunity arose to take a teaching position and serve as varsity volleyball coach at the high school, I jumped at it. (No pun intended.)

I began working with the team, building fundamental skills in passing, setting, hitting, and defense. I instituted a defensive system and offensive plays that leveraged the starter’s skills, and the team responded well. We began having successes (winning games!) after years of being the doormat team in a very competitive coastal league.

I had just married at the time and inherited two step-children – Karin, then 14 years old, and Andy, 10 years old. I never had kids of my own so I was a total newbie. Wife Diane tried to guide me – at times, I was teachable. Karin was a volleyball player, as well, so love of the game created some neat bonding opportunities for the two of us.

Once a week, Karin would finish her practices then scurry over to our gym where she helped run drills for my team for an hour or so. After practice, Karin and I would grab a quick bite to eat then head to the local recreation center for three hours of doubles play. The local community was filled with very good volleyball players – we lost more than we won. We got better as the season wore on but never were one of the top teams at the center.

A few months after our weekly “volleyball nights” began, I was driving Karin home after a very good showing one evening. We’d played well and took some matches against teams that regularly beat us. We were both pleased – and sweaty and tired.

Karin turned to me and said, “You’re a really good volleyball coach. You work hard to let your team members know what you expect of them. You break down skills into specific steps they can get good at, and praise them when they’re doing things the way you want them to.”

Wow! I was really pleased to hear Karin say that – and, I’ll admit, I puffed up a bit, thinking, “Yup, I’m a very good coach, and Karin’s lucky to have me in her life . . . ”

Then Karin said, “You never praise me.

Clunk. I stuttered a bit, and told her, “Well, I have higher standards of you.” Karin said, “That’s not fair.”

A couple of minutes of silence let me figure out what to say – and do! – next. I apologized, saying she was right, I wasn’t being fair. I remember trying to praise her for her efforts that evening, and got a small smile out of her. In the months (and years) following, I tried to be more aware of what Karin was doing right – on and off the volleyball court – and believe I improved in expressing my gratitude at her skills and contributions.

That conversation happened 30 years ago – nearly to the day. Karin’s insights helped me realize that I have a very well honed skill at catching people doing things WRONG. If I want to be an effective influencer, I need to catch people doing things RIGHT. I work on this every day, with clients, peers, and bosses. I’m not great at it yet, but I’m better. Practice makes perfect!

What helps prompt you to express thanks and gratitude for others’ efforts and contributions? Share your insights in the comments section below.


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