The Criticism Trap (Part 1) - Players

In this 2 part series, I’m examining a phenomenon that I call The Criticism Trap. In part 1, I’ll examine how The Criticism Trap affects players and in part 2, I’ll examine how it impacts coaches. Alright, let’s get to it. 

Feedback is crucial for rapid learning and improvement. When a player shoots a 3 and makes it, he gets positive feedback on the shot. If he gambles for a steal and gets beat backdoor, he gets negative feedback (hopefully at least). 

But there are times when—in analyzing the feedback—we end up drawing false conclusions. These false conclusions lead to The Criticism Trap. 

Let’s dive into the nuts and bolts of The Criticism Trap by using an example. 

Imagine a player named Johnny. Johnny usually makes 50% of his 3’s in training. But on his first set today, he only made 2 of his first 10 (20%). Johnny is a competitive guy and a hard worker so he's angry and upset at himself for his poor shooting. He starts criticizing himself and engaging in negative self-talk. 

The next set, Johnny makes 5 of 10 (right at his 50% average). Johnny assumes a causal relationship between the critical self-talk and his improvement in shooting. He thinks, well, I shot terrible, then I started criticizing myself and then I shot better. It must’ve been the criticism that caused me to shoot better. I should keep criticizing myself. 

Likely, the conversation in Johnny’s head won’t be that overt. But unconsciously, Johnny is thinking exactly that.

Johnny even goes so far as to invent a reason for how the criticism was helpful: During the first set I wasn’t ready and then once I started criticizing myself, I focused better and that’s why my second set was better.

Whether or not that story is true, our mind likes to invent narratives to neatly string together disparate facts (the narrative fallacy). The invented narrative serves to solidify the belief that the self-criticism caused him to shoot better.

This seems logical, but Johnny’s got it all wrong. Johnny's critical self-talk wasn’t the main reason why he improved on his second set. In fact, I'd argue it hardly played a role at all.

The real reason he improved is due to a simple statistical concept known as Regression to the Mean. 

Regression to the Mean says that if a variable is extreme on it’s first measurement, it will tend to be closer to average on it’s second measurement. 

Johnny’s first score was extreme. He makes 50% of his 3’s on average but he only made 20% on his first set. That’s an extreme result. His score on the next set is likely to go up simply because he’s a better shooter than his first set showed. 

Although Johnny attributed his improvement to his angry self-criticism, the more powerful cause was simply regression to the mean.

In analyzing the feedback, Johnny came to the conclusion that self-criticism lead to positive results. Thus, it’s only natural that he continue to criticize himself if he believes it will help him perform better.

This is the heart of The Criticism Trap. Poor performance (in the short run) causes a player to engage in angry self-criticism. Then, (due to regression to the mean) that player performs better soon after and assumes that the self-criticism is what got him there. 

The Criticism Trap is easy to fall into especially for highly driven players. They have high standards for themselves so when they perform poorly, they’re likely to get angry and self-critical. 

In the end, it’s important to take a step back and realize that sometimes being a harsh critic of yourself isn’t the reason why you perform better the next time. Sometimes, it’s just statistical variability.