The Power of the Paper Plate Award

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"Getting a paper plate award is the best feeling. It proves that all your hard work, dedication and preparation are recognized. It motivates me to try harder. Once you get one paper plate you want more. I always bring my A game so I can get another paper plate"
- Paris Dickson, Legends 8th grader

Praise is an important learning tool, but it is a difficult tool to use correctly. Some psychologists warn that praise for overall ability is harmful because it suggests that any good performance is a result of natural ability, with the implication that a poor performance is a result of natural deficiency. Praise for an outcome that emphasizes ability then makes a child reluctant to take on a challenge, which always has the possibility of failure, because a failure signals lack of ability. Failures then threaten one's overall self-esteem. So, it is proposed that children are praised for effort, and for specific achievements that are clearly linked to hard work, rather than for ability.

After many years of studying the power of reinforcement and its cognitive and behavioral effects, this seemingly simple concept is not effectively being used to elicit the changes in behavior each leader is seeking. Many times punishment is masked as reinforcement and coaches accidentally end up reinforcing the mere behavior we are working to extinct, or we are modifying something that ISN'T a behavior!

Basic example #1:

Person/Player is swinging their arms wildly while attempting to pass the ball. Coach says "don't swing your arms". What we have now done is highlight the areas we DON'T want vs. what we DO want!

Appropriate answer would be "hold arms still before, during and after contact with the ball" Speak in "DO" statements vs. "DON'T" statements.

When working with the younger ages, many volleyball coaches may say this an excessive amount of times throughout one individual practice. MAYBE Susie is struggling in this area more significantly than her peers. This could become PAPER PLATE WORTHY if and when this is finally done correctly!

Coaches hope to never miss an athlete doing something correctly, and the paper plate award takes that concept to a whole new level of power.

Here are the criteria of EARNING a paper plate.

- Do something special

  • This could be physical, vocal or emotional.
  • It could be a moment or an entire practice.
  • When presenting the plate, make it a HUGE deal!
  • Share it on social media with an elaborate description.
  • This is earned and deserved and should be celebrated.
  • Be specific o DO NOT give these plates out to everyone, do not feel guilty about this. The power of the award is that is it EARNED and REAL.
  • The award is differentiated by its nature. It is an equal opportunity.
  • NEVER Give 2 awards.
  • Give an award for each competition day and each practice day

We are entering our 2nd season of using paper plate awards consistently throughout the Legends Organization (the organization is only in its 2nd year of existence) and 5th year of using them personally. I have had fortune 500 companies nd NCAA Volleyball programs call to learn more about the power of the plain paper plate to motivate and recognize significant details of others contributions.

Use them carefully as abuse of power will take you in the opposite direction of where you are intending to go...

As coaches or educators, we all hear the standard "horror story" from athletes regarding their previous experiences. We try to listen, without joining the negativity meanwhile thinking silently that the child was right to be upset about the treatment and comments they endured. Usually a basic failure of understanding the depth of positive reinforcement vs. praise is key and hidden.

I will leave you with this quote from current Michigan State University, Freshman Libero, Jamye Cox...

"At first when I heard about the paper plate I was a little confused but excited because it gave me something more to fight for while I was at practice. As the season went on I started to realize that there was more to the paper plate award. It wasn't just about getting the plate, but it was about what was written in that plate that day.

You could never get a plate for doing the same thing over and over again, so every day going into practice is set a goal and focus on one thing to get better at weather that was being loud and vocal, or supporting my teammates or just going all out the whole time. I started to enjoy every second I was in the gym because not only was I fighting or something I loved, but I saw myself improving every day due to these paper plates.

You wouldn't think something so small would have such a huge impact on your play, but it really brings out a side of you that you don't know and I found that. It made me realize that if I focused every day like that even without them I'd be a day better every day. I still to this day walk into practice and we may not have paper plates but I tell myself to work on one thing and to really be successful in it as if I was out there fighting for another paper plate.

These plates have made me not only a better player, but more aware of how to pick out piece by piece the things I need to get better at and how to get my mind so focused on just that one major key of the day and be successful. I didn't walk out every day with a paper plate (I wish I would have) but after those practices I'd go home and ask myself what I should have don't differently as a player to get one. The paper plates made me more of a competitor and I couldn't be more thankful because I still carry that with me today."

By the way, Jamye received the first 7 paper plates of the season...

For related reading for junior volleyball coaches click here. For more education for coaches click here.

About the Author

Kilee Goetz is the Founder and Club Director of Legends Volleyball Organization in Brighton, Michigan. Currently in its 2nd season, Legends has over 35 teams. Kilee is also a Color Commentator and Analyst for ESPN. She played collegiately for the University of Georgia.


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