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Sportsmanship: giving others the credit they deserve

Updated: Feb 2, 2022

I believe it was coach Wassmer (whose interview you can find here) who taught me to give others credit when they hit an outstanding shot. At first, I admit I found this practice a bit strange as the last thing I thought one would want is your opponent on a battlefield (a tennis court in my example) to know how great they play and how much you respect them. My thinking was - why would I be telling them they hit a great shot? They should already know they hit a great shot as they won the point! Their shot was so good that I could not get to the ball at all, or I missed it because their shot was too good, and I had no other better option to play (assuming this was not an unforced error I made). What's the point of me telling them and lifting their confidence even higher? I saw tennis as a game of energy and confidence, so I didn't think clapping and saying "Great shot" to my opponent would benefit me.

But I trusted my coach, tested it out, implemented it, and here is what I found out:

1. Letting others know they did a great job is the right thing to do. I think people generally appreciate it, so why not do the right thing? We all like to be valued and are typically grateful when someone sees the good work we put in. Sportsmanship is essential in any sport and life (more on life later). Setting high standards for yourself - which for me means having good sportsmanship is important. I firmly believe that one should always strive to be just a bit better tomorrow than today. Small incremental changes and improvements every day lead to massive progressions over time.

2. Letting my opponent know that I think they hit a great shot is a huge internal relief. It is almost like a rock falling from your heart. It's like telling yourself: "Look, that was a great shot. This person certainly deserves a shout-out. No matter what, there was nothing else for you to do. This was a great play. They deserved to win the point. Get centered, move on, and focus on the next point. The reality is that they most certainly won't hit the same shot during the next rally, so keep your head high, keep on playing, and keep on fighting." (The reason behind the statement is described in the "Thinking Fast and Slow" book by Daniel Kahneman - "Regression to the Mean," which I may write about later as I find it fascinating, something that is around us all the time, and yet as Daniel states, we rarely pay attention to.) Putting the benefits of good sportsmanship aside, I found the internal benefits after implementing this even more transformative.

Now - how do we take this approach into our lives?

Life: I try to let people know I appreciate them and value them. (I say "I try" because I am sure there is room for improvement.) I find that saying out loud what you genuinely appreciate about others or something they have done that made you feel good is very powerful. I find words to be very powerful, and so when we verbalize our feelings, it can help intensify the feeling and make it even more real. And who wouldn't want to have more gratefulness and appreciation in their life? Many studies have proved the benefits of gratitude, and here is one of my favorite podcasts by Andrew Huberman where you can learn more about it.

Corporate/ business environment:

I try to pay attention and let people know when I find they did something great or if a specific meeting went exceptionally well. (I say "I try" because I am sure there is room for improvement. I am sure there have been times when I forgot to follow up to say, "Thank you, this was fantastic!") This is a continuous practice, and the more I do it, the easier it gets. It's like a muscle you train! The most important thing is to be accurate, and this is where the corporate/ business environment can go wrong. Instances where people praised others for a job well done when they thought it wasn't such a big deal. Still, they felt pressured to go ahead with the recognition due to a corporate policy to reward someone every so often! Or they do the Quid Pro Quo praise: "I tell others you did a great job now, and I expect you to tell others I did a great job when I need your support!" Or even worse, they praise someone who didn't deserve the praise as they had nothing to do with the outcome - this is where corporate politics come in.

Anyways, back to the positive impacts of letting others know they did a fantastic job. My premise is that if people know they did something extraordinarily well that others appreciate, they are likely to do it better again, try harder again, and keep up the high standard and performance. Additionally, if you don't state that you value their work and effort and how they showed up, they may not be self-aware enough to recognize the difference. From personal experience, I find it worked well for me to remind others when their performance was high, which helps them realize how well they did. Additionally, it is nice to be awarded and know that others see the hard work and effort one puts in.

A good example is a dog: When you train your dog, you typically tell them - "Good boy" or "Good girl" and award them with a treat when they do something well that you asked them to do. This is how you build trust, and they know that they did something that you are happy about. And, you continue with this behavior throughout their life. You don't just stop awarding them when they are 2 or 3 years old. Oh, my dog is a grown-up now - I will stop letting him/ her know that she has done a great job. My dog is almost six years old, and every time she does something well, I do a verbal "Good girl" recognition and say "Thank you."

I find that the human brain is not much different in this regard and that positive encouragements work better as they help build trust by letting people know you see and appreciate the high level of performance. I also find that most people don't take critical feedback well. There are multiple reasons for this statement, and some are well described in the book "Living on Purpose" by Amy Eliza Wong that I read recently. Amy writes beautifully about the fear of rejection that has been wired in us since our historical times and how our brain and body respond to things that our identity perceives as threats (something I have also learned in her Stanford Continuing Studies class Conversational Intelligence - Increase your Impact.). In my opinion, for critical feedback to work well, one has to have a high level of trust established, and personal and development goals need to be well understood between both parties. This is why critical feedback works so well in sports and for athletes, as all of these are typically present and well understood; however, I would argue that in the vast majority of work environments, most of these are missing.

I need to update my article with one more very important comment and add wise words from my friend, Takeshi Fujiwara: "It is important it happens at the right time."

Some people overdo it (which is not good), and giving praise for things that do not deserve it diminishes the value of any subsequent efforts.


Disclaimer: The opinions in this article are purely my own and have nothing to do with my role or the company I work for. The experiences described are based on general observations.


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