Focussing on one’s strengths as an approach to coaching has received support from ideologues including athletes, coaches and parents (Gucciardi, Gordon, & Dimmock, 2009; Gucciardi, Gordon, Dimmock, & Mallett, 2009). However it hasn’t received significant scholarly attention on its application in a sporting context. This may have been as a result of our asymmetry in judgement and decision-making, with our focus on the negative aspects of an event or stimulus more so than the positives (Kahneman and Tversky, 1984: Peeters and Czapinski, 1990).
When presented with the following question, two thirds of us will be unable to answer no matter how simple it may seem at first glance (Linley, 2008):
“What are your strengths?”
It seems we don’t have a “language” for strengths and as a result we struggle to identify them (Linley, 2008). Instead we are overwhelmed with our imbalance of social-emotional development; a negativity bias (Vaish, Grossmann & Woodward, 2008). 38% of individuals from the UK would rather fix their weaknesses than build their strengths (Buckingham, 2007, p:40). It seems we struggle to praise and reward for good intentions and actions but are quick to find the faults both in ourselves and in others. This may be an indirect consequence or someone’s philosophy, beliefs and core values and these beliefs may include condemnations regarding free will versus determinism, rational versus irrationality and fundamental goodness of human nature (Blocher, 1987).
Many coaches still foster a negative approach with their athletes and clientele (Rushall, 1983; Smith, 2001). Some have gained success using this approach but are likely masters in effective teaching, strategy or technical analysis. Using it out of context or too often can lead to a poorer performance, an increased chance of injury and increased drop out rates as possible consequence of the increased pressure to do well and the fear of failure (Smith and Smoll, 1990).
Could identifying and exploiting strengths, mitigate weaknesses and have a more positive impact on performance, adherence and the coach-athlete relationship than simply identifying and trying to fix the weaknesses themselves?
Strengths can not only be what the athletes are good at, but what the athletes have a passion for too. The flow and elements of optimal experiences and enjoyment that are present in strength based goals could become intrinsically rewarding (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975) and as a consequence could contribute to a motivational climate focussed on task mastery and a sense of high self-determination due to the high intrinsic rewards (Pelletier et al., 1995). Athletes could then potentially perform a task better by achieving their goals more efficiently through both their passion and ability to perform specific tasks when focussing on their strengths (Linley et al, 2010b). These strengths could come from evolution, genetics, social context, chance, life experiences and our ‘actualising tendency’ (LeFrancois, 1996). These strengths could be perceived as ‘energizers’, achievements or even those noticed by others. Wherever they may come from, the effective coach builds on strengths – their own strengths, the strengths of superiors, colleagues, subordinates and on the strengths of the situation (Drucker, 1967).
This is by no means an extensive look into a strength versus weaknesses approach to coaching or negative versus positive reinforcement. Neither does it mean we should purely focus on strengths and ignore weaknesses, because that could be potentially damaging and naive when trying to create an effective high performance environment (Linley et al. 2009, pp. 44-45). However it may be about time we suppressed our negative bias and the urge to be quick to judge and criticise faults and weaknesses in a manner that may be deemed harmful. Rather, we should instead focus on enhancing performance that promotes and praises an individual’s strengths.