Why Smart Kids Don’t Become Valedictorian


Why Smart Kids Don’t Become Valedictorian

*Coach Reed is presenting multiple topics on Communication at the NSCAA 2017 Convention in Los Angeles January 12th. Join us that week to hear more ab

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*Coach Reed is presenting multiple topics on Communication at the NSCAA 2017 Convention in Los Angeles January 12th. Join us that week to hear more about his Echoes Beyond the Game*

“My daughter is very intelligent. She is top percentile on all state tests, she excels in every subject matter, and has a very creative mind. But, they warned me she will never be Valedictorian.”

I recall the confused look on my friend’s face a few years ago when he told me the story. He had recently met with his daughter’s school to review her IQ tests. When the school revealed the scores they also told him not to get too excited. It is the ones who score highest on those tests that are not typically top of their class because no one ever praises their effort. Everyone praises their intelligence.

“My daughter is so smart, that is all her teachers have focused on in her academic career. She has spent the better part of her first 7 grade years being told how smart she was. She has heard from every teacher how brilliant her mind is. She has been given breaks, treated special, and been doted on because of her ‘smartness’. We have to be careful what we say going forward or we set her up for some rough years ahead…academically speaking.” He seemed incredulous at this line of thinking.

I was nodding vigorously at this point, because I knew where this conversation was headed. The counselor was a fellow Carol Dweck follower. She was laying out a case I knew very well.

“What else did they say?” I asked.

“They said the main problem is no teacher has ever mentioned effort in her life. She doesn’t do poorly on tests, she misses classwork and homework assignments. She excels at any test she takes, but she does not have a work ethic. She lacks this because no where along the path of her academic development was she ever encouraged to work hard.”

Bomb. Dropped. The very research I did in my Masters on Early Childhood Development just got dropped on me over coffee. My poor friend might experience, firsthand, the phenomenon I termed “American Idol Syndrome” in my thesis defense!

She was always praised for her intelligence. The Valedictorian is the student who works hard. The student who values work ethic, turns everything in on time, does all the leg work, and knows that effort brings improvement. Great students are not innately intelligent, they understand they can develop and grow their academic prowess like any skill. Valedictorians are not born smart, they are developed in the classroom. They are those ‘roll the sleeves up, gear down, and grind’ kind of students. Unfortunately, his daughter had always been told she was so smart that effort doesn’t matter to her. This will be the small thing that holds her back from the top of the class.

American Idol Syndrome was the term I used to describe those situations when a “high-performing” young adult was confronted, harshly, with a reality that went against her own self-perception. A self-perception built by decades of empty praise, unspecific feedback, and well-meaning adults who praised an innate skill rather than a measurable effort.

You know them. The kid on American Idol who sings in front of Simon and is told his singing is rubbish. He immediately spirals into a crying tirade at this ignorant adult who obviously doesn’t know talent if it smacked him in the face because “mom always said I was the best singer”. Yes, all those years of false praise created a person who, instead of voice lessons, practice, hard work, and school as the backbone for his success path thought he could waltz up on stage and wow them with the skill he was given at birth. That is what everyone always told him!

That is American Idol Syndrome. A person who has a fixed mindset because the adults always praised skill and did not encourage effort. The person thinks he was born this way. No effort can change it. Worse, when confronted with the reality he may have to work, this causes his identity to implode and he thinks he is no longer what the world said he was. It was all a lie and his world is shattered. When faced with a challenge, or worse, failure, he will have an epic melt down like the kid on American Idol.

The prediction was nearly perfect. My friend’s daughter went on to one of the top private high schools in the country. On the entrance test she was the third highest score out of all the incoming freshmen in a three-state cohort. She entered with scholarships and the promise of Valedictorian. She was the smartest kid in the room.

She graduated last year. She learned the value of work, albeit a bit late. She struggled freshman year at a school that demanded excellent homework and classwork, would not be permissive when late with assignments, and was conducted like a college with progressive syllabuses that required students to work hard in order to keep up with the study load. She struggled. She had days of doubt. She thought the gift she had been given at birth was a lie. She had her own American Idol Meltdowns at times. Fortunately, my friend had learned how to help her cope. He and his wife helped her develop a growth mindset, taught her the value of effort, and empowered her to succeed because of her productivity and not just her mind.

She was not Valedictorian. She was in the top 20 of her class, but based on test scores, should have been at least top 3. She was a smashing success, graduating at the pinnacle of a tough class at a very excellent school.

Fortunately, mindset can be changed, and she worked hard her first two years of school to alter that mindset toward effort, work, mastery, process. They got her focus away from ‘smart’ and onto ‘sweat’.

I know this topic has been written about a lot these days, and I am one of many coaches espousing the effort over praise party line, but I got to see it first hand. Watching this praise loop play out through a close friend.

I am simply blown away at how easy it is to fix and how powerful that praise loop is!

The fix is very easy. It may take time to rewire the brain of someone who has been in the praise loop for a long time, but the fix is quite easy. Start altering the words you use and you will begin to rewire the brain toward a growth mindset and away from a fixed mindset.

Solution: Instead of using empty, vague, unspecific praise you must use specific, controllable, precise encouragement. Or put more simply, encourage effort not praise skill. Skill is simply continued effort – if you subscribe to Daniel Coyle’s assertions in The Talent Code, skill is the thickening of the myelin sheaths through repeated effort until the neurons can fire more effectively and powerfully. The more someone perfects the practice and the more often this perfected practice occurs, the better the skill. Skill is effort.

It is precise. It is mastered. It is focused effort on that practice again and again. It requires the kind of coach that John Wooden was or the kind of teacher that Itzhak Perlman was but it is that precise, mastery-oriented practice that will build skill. Skill is effort yet every one of us still praises outcome based on some “innate” trait. We don’t tell our players they work hard, we tell them they are fast. We forget to mention the effort it took to score the goal, we simply boast about how they are natural goal scorers. We are setting all our athletes up, like my daughter, to miss the entire boat of effort. (Don’t feel sorry for her. She is a National Merit student with scholarship offers at all her top schools and wants to study cyber-security. She turned out well, but it took a massive shift in her Junior year.)

If you want to begin shifting the mindsets of your athletes do this:

  • Encourage Effort – Focus on the process it took the athlete to get where she is, not on where she is. Talk about hard work, the value of work ethic, fortitude, and commitment.
  • Congratulate the Second Assist – A friend said to me that hockey has it right giving a second assist. Everyone wants to be the goal scorer, but no one wants to work for it. If you start making a big deal out of the players who created the goals through had work and team sacrifice, others will see it’s value. My coach used to always joke to the guy who won the ball and played it into the forwards that it was “his fault” we scored, because he was willing to win the ball for us. Find the catalyst moment where goals begin and congratulate that player too.
  • Qualify your praise – It is way too difficult to eliminate praise from our vernacular, nor is it really practical. Praise still triggers a positive response in the brain, but it has to be qualified. Attach your praise to something more than an innate skill or a vague comment. I love saying “excellent”, “awesome stuff” and “great job”. On their own, those phrases start me on a slippery slope of creating praise junkies. There is no tangible work product attached to them. My athletes don’t have anything to do in order to get that praise. Now, I try very hard to qualify it with a follow-up statement. “Awesome job…running back to defend your goal!” Now my players know exactly what it was they did that was so awesome and it was work-rate related. They don’t stand around being awesome. They work to get back on defense to be awesome. Keep saying your praise items, but follow with something you are teaching as a qualifier so your players have something to keep doing.
  • Track effort – Anson Dorrance tracks everything his players do. He said he learned it from Dean Smith…what a brain trust of excellent coaching those two make! He firmly believes if you can measure it, you can manipulate it. So he collects data on everything his players do. He doesn’t use the data to punish them or to make tactical decisions. He uses the data to push them. He shows them, via charts and lists, their own data and gets his athletes into this marginal gains loop. They battle each day against their own numbers to get a little better. They push themselves to change the numbers. They battle against their teammates for the top spot, but they know they have full control of the data. Work hard, the numbers change for the better. Slack off, the numbers change for the worse. Do nothing, the numbers go away. It’s all about effort. If you track it, they attack it – effort.
  • Use growth phrases – I outlined these phrases in another article. Simply put, begin using terms and phrases that set your athletes’ sights on future possibilities instead of current circumstances. Can’t becomes Can’t YET. If becomes when. Don’t becomes what if. These “bridge” terms help athletes cross the chasm of current failure into the meadow of endless possibility.
  • Speak Love – It was easy for me to speak love to my daughter. It is much harder to speak love to your athletes. There is this fear they will lose respect, devolve your authority, or think you are nuts. This is simply not true. Love is the most powerful emotion we know and it deepens any relationship. It triggers mechanisms deep in the brain. Your players need to know you actually care about them. They need to know you love them, want only the best for them, and would walk through fire for them. You begin letting them know how much you care and they will want to work hard. They will work hard for you, yes, but they will also work hard for themselves because love lights that internal flame. They matter. They belong. They are appreciated. They are loved. That gives them great value. Something worth fighting for…speak love to your athletes to trigger effort. Sounds crazy but try it.