Express Yourself - Motivating Your Players Through Gestures

How to motivate volleyball players.jpg

Y’all know by now that I promote communicating with your players in a positive manner whenever possible.

Well… now I’ve got (more) evidence to back up my thinking!

While hunting down research I cited in Episode 23 of the Get The Pancake Podcast, I came across another study that seemed worth reading! Of course after I read the paper, I realized this information NEEDED to be shared!

The study I’m going to discuss in this article is “High fives motivate: the effects of gestural and ambiguous verbal praise on motivation” by Bradley J. Morris and Shannon R. Zentall, published in the Frontiers in Psychology journal in 2014.

Although you’re more than welcome to go and read the study for yourself, I want to break down the findings for you here, and apply them specifically to volleyball. Disclaimer: although I read through this study a few times, this is my interpretation of what I read, which could be flawed.

If you want to take a closer look at the study for yourself, I encourage you to read through their analysis slowly and apply it to your own coaching situation


Does a specific type of feedback encourage higher levels of internal motivation in children? And does a specific type of feedback increase the focus on errors made?


  1. Ambiguous verbal praise: “Good job!” or “Yeah!” (phrases that indicate the child did a “good job” in a general, non-specific way).

  2. Explicit verbal praise (broken into 2 sub-types):

    1. Verbal trait praise: “You’re a good drawer” (phrases that define the child as being naturally skilled at something).

    2. Verbal effort praise: “You did a good job drawing!” (phrases that point out specifically (or explicitly) what the child did well, focusing on the effort they put into a specific task.)

  3. Gestural praise. Examples: high-fives or a thumbs-up (gestures which typically mean “good job”).


In this study, nearly 100 5 and 6-year-olds heard stories about themselves drawing and then received different types of praise. Heads up, the kids in the study were 75% male and 86% white. While the study participants were younger than most of our volleyball athletes, and many of us coach women’s volleyball and have more diverse teams, I still think this is worth sharing and testing on our own!

In the study, the extent of the children’s motivation and focus on failures was measured through self-evaluations, continued interest in a task, and an eye-tracking device to see if they focused on errors.

Before the experiment started, the kids were shown four photos drawn by “other children” and were told that some had errors in them (like an elephant missing a trunk). The researchers did this using an eye tracking device, so they were able to determine how much the children focused on errors before the test.

In the experiment, the kids were told a story about a teacher who found them at the drawing table in class and asked them to draw a picture of a cow, for example. The child was then told that they drew a cow for their teacher, and the teacher came back when they were all finished. The teacher then said “That looks like a cow! “ And then either gave verbal ambiguous praise, “good job”, verbal trait praise “you’re a good drawer”, “verbal effort praise, “ you did a good job drawing,” or were told that their teacher gave them a thumbs up or high five.

Once they were told about their successful drawing, they were shown a picture (different than the pictures shown before the experiment started). Children were then asked four self-evaluation questions, like “Did you like the dog that you drew or not?” and “Did what happened in the story make you feel like you were good at drawing or not good at drawing?” They were also asked four persistence questions, like ”If you had a chance to do something tomorrow, would you draw or do something else?”

Their answers were marked as “pre-failure”, and then they were told a similar story, but this time they drew a picture where they left the ears off a cat, or some other error. Once again, they were shown a picture that “they” drew and were asked the same self-evaluation and persistence questions. After answering these questions, the children were told that they successfully fixed their errors in the drawings, and were praised by being told, “you found a really good way to draw the…”

In addition to tracking the children’s responses to self-evaluation (i.e., Do you like the dog you drew or do you not like it) and persistence (“If you had a chance to do something tomorrow, would you draw or do something else?”) both for pre-failure and post-failure, researchers also tracked eye-movement to determine “areas of interest” (or “fixation” areas) both for “other children’s drawings” before the study, and when pictures were shown with errors that were supposed to be that child’s drawing.

Finally, 32 of the children were asked to define what a thumbs-up, high-five, and “yeah” meant.


Researchers in this study were able to rank the types of feedback based on their influence of children’s motivation and focus on errors. If you think like I do, you may be surprised to hear the results. In order from “worst” to “best”…

#4. Verbal trait praise: Children who were told they were a “good drawer” after the successful drawing focused significantly more on errors made in the “failure” scenario. These students were the least likely to persist in the activity. “When a child attributes success to traits, such as intelligence, and then experiences failure, s/he is less likely to persist because failure threatens the belief that s/he is intelligent.” Following a failure, children who received verbal trait praise had the lowest persistence and motivation scores.

Tied for #2. Verbal effort praise and ambiguous verbal praise: The study suggests that verbal effort praise and ambiguous verbal praise produce nearly the same results. The researchers put it best by saying “Our results demonstrate that children who received explicit verbal praise for effort or ambiguous praise interpreted it as effort praise, which positively influenced their motivation. These data suggest that there are benefits to children linking praise to effort, even if the attribution is implicit, compared to trait praise, which highlights factors that are not under their control, such as ability.”

#1. Gestural praise: “Children receiving gestural praise evaluated themselves and their drawings more favorably than children receiving all types of verbal praise.” Although the children receiving high fives and a thumbs up interpreted these methods of praise to mean “good job,” there seems to be some additional meaning behind the gestures. The researchers noted that although this form of feedback was said to mean “good job,” the children might actually believe that high fives and thumbs up are reserved for exceptional work, and therefore might have influenced them to have the highest levels of persistence after failure and positive feelings about their work and themselves.


How many times have we reassured our players in a huddle that “you guys are a good team, you’ve got this!?” Or what about the times we tell our server at crunch time, “you’re a great server, you can get these last three points for us!”

Is this really what we should be saying to our players?

Although these phrases may be alright in the short term, particularly if the player or team DOES go on to perform the skill successfully, we’re setting them up for lowered interest and less internal motivation to continue if they make a mistake or face failure.

I know I’ve attempted to reassure players in their skill by telling them they’re “good players,” but now I see that this might not be the best way to motivate.

Instead of telling our players “you’re such a great setter!” After a particularly good assist, maybe we should focus on the effort made to make that particular set. “You did such a great job of getting to that ball!” Or even just a “great job!” might be all they need to motivate them to continue playing with high levels of effort/motivation. Better yet? Add a couple of claps in there!


Having this knowledge, I attempted to use this information while watching my husband compete in a sporting event over the weekend.

While I made sure to give plenty of “good job’s,” thumbs-ups and high fives when I could, I felt like I was a loss for words when things were not going well. I reverted to my go-to sayings of “that’s alright, shake it off” and “you can do it!” along with some half-hearted clapping.

In addition to struggling to find something positive to say during tough times, I also became extremely aware of my body language and wondered if it had any impact on his play. Did my crossed arms amplify the mistakes that were being made? Did me looking down or away after a mistake negatively impact his motivation levels? If positive gestures have the greatest positive impact, do negative gestures bring players down more than negative words?

There’s still a lot that I plan to research on motivation, because I’m sure the answers to these questions are floating around out there just waiting for me to discover them. 


Capitalize when tasks are performed well through effort-focused verbal praise and positive gestures so that players can motivate themselves to persist after failure.