An Elephant Never Forgets: The Effects of Negative Criticism

“What the hell are you doing? You keep making the same stupid mistakes over and over. If this is how you are going to play, you might as well quit. You are just wasting your time.”

Those negative criticisms are hard for some athletes to forget.

Did you ever hear the phrase an elephant never forgets?

Well, the adage is based in reality. Elephants are known for remembering the locations of important resources in the wild, over hundreds of miles of terrain, even if they haven’t traversed those paths in decades. Elephants can also recognize other elephants that they haven’t seen in years. The ability of elephants to keep track of information for many decades is truly remarkable, especially when compared to some humans who can’t find their keys that were in their hands minutes prior.

Many athletes are like elephants, in that negative criticism becomes imprinted on their minds, negatively affecting their self-esteem, confidence, level of effort, willingness to persist and ability to perform. No wonder so many athletes quit their sport early or fall well short of their athletic potential.

There are several sources of negative criticism:

  • Coaches – Coaches have a huge impact on how much athletes believe in themselves. Excessive negative criticism can be a devastating blow that some athletes never recover from.

  • Parents – While many parents think they are helping their young athlete, excessive criticism is often taken as a lack of acceptance and has a detrimental effect on an athlete.

  • Teammates – Some teammates are finger-pointers and will highlight every mistake you made and, even attribute losses to you. Nobody wants to go into battle with teammates who constantly criticize.

  • Media – Some media sources, such as newspapers, can affect an athlete negatively, but social media can be the cruelest of all. Negative social media HURTS! There is no way to determine the true negative impact that social media can have on athletes but it can cause many athletes to go into a tailspin athletically and personally.

  • Self – Negative criticism isn’t reserved for just outside sources. Athletes that berate themselves constantly are culpable in ruining their own performances.

Let’s make an important distinction. Not all criticism is negative. When a coach corrects your technique, it is constructive. When a parent points out an aspect that can be improved, in a positive tone, it can be constructive. So, it is important for athletes to take time to see criticism for what it truly is.

How can you minimize the effects of negative criticism?

There are a few strategies that are effective in negating the deleterious effects of negative criticism:

  1. Recognize criticism is merely another person’s opinion – My dad had a phrase when I was a kid, “Opinions are like, a__holes, everyone has one.” It is important for you to realize that just because someone has an opinion, doesn’t make it true.

  2. Extract the message – Sometimes, there is valuable feedback wrapped up in a ton of, well let’s just say, fertilizer. Don’t lose the message because of how it was delivered. Some people have difficulty delivering a message effectively. Try to determine if there is any part of the message that can help you improve your game.

  3. Be unlike an elephant – Some of the greatest athletes talk about the power of having a short memory. Having a short memory requires you to let go of the past, including harsh criticism, and move forward finding ways to advance your game.

As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”