The Magic Ratio Will Change Your Life

The power of positive feedback can help negative feedback work, too

Ben Sherwood

| 5 min read


Confession: Once upon a time, I was a screamer. In TV news control rooms and sports fields on the East and West coasts, I was known to raise my voice in excitement when the competition was beating us or exasperation when I couldn’t get my team going in the right direction. It wasn’t pretty. I embarrassed myself — and my kids — more than once. And I still cringe when I recall those moments.

With years and experience, I came to understand that yelling doesn’t accomplish anything. In fact, it usually makes things worse.

With time and practice, I learned there are far more effective ways to offer feedback than shouting.

Which brings me to coaching kids sports and striking the proper balance of positive to negative feedback. Let’s start with a simple declaration: Yelling is never okay with kids sports. Period. But what about negative feedback? Surely, there is a proper place for it.

Enter: The Magic Ratio

The key in sports — and everything else for that matter — is known as the Magic Ratio. That is, the balance of positive to negative feedback.

Studies show that most coaches get the ratio wrong. They go more negative than they should.

Grounded in sports, education and psychology research, the Magic Ratio (or plus-minus ratio) boils down to this: Coaches can best help kids achieve their potential by offering five specific, truthful positive comments for every one piece of negative criticism.

Jim Thompson, the legendary founder of the Positive Coaching Alliance puts it this way: “The plus-minus ratio is such a powerful tool that we believe that the single most important action most coaches can take to become more effective is to up their own ratio to get closer to the Magic Ratio of five pieces of positive feedback for every criticism.”

Hall of Fame coaches like Phil Jackson (11-time NBA championship winner) and Doc Rivers (one NBA championship) agree. While they note that the plus-minus ratio is closer to 3:1 with professional or elite athletes, they believe that positivity is much more effective than negativity at every level.

What the Magic Ratio looks like on the field

Let’s break it down.

Five truthful and positive comments. It’s important to note that the positive comments need to be specific, truthful and constructive. The job of the coach is to find good and honest things to say — not just vague or false praise. Let’s face it: Kids know if you’re making up the positive comments just to make them feel better.

One specific critical or negative comment. Critical or negative feedback is a part of sports and life. It helps get a kid’s attention. It helps make a team understand that you’re serious about helping them improve and grow. And it can help identify and prevent real problems that need to be fixed.

“Negative emotions grab people’s attention more,” says Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, the author of Positivity and a professor of psychology at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “So there’s a perception that the best way to get what you want out of … players is by negativity or threats, or being stressful or intense. But in terms of bonding, loyalty, commitment to a team or a group and personal development over time, negativity doesn’t work as well as positivity.”

The Magic Ratio, as it applies to everything

The Magic Ratio has been studied extensively in marriages, relationships, the workplace and sports. Everyone agrees that positivity works better than negativity. But there is also consensus that criticism is healthy and productive — as long as it’s delivered in the right dose.

To be fair, the exact proportions are open to interpretation. Some experts believe the ratio should be 3:1 positive to negative. Believe it or not, others go as far as 12:1.

The point is for you to find the right ratio that works for you and your team. And to remember that positivity works wonders. Some experts even believe in an “upward spiral” that comes from positive reinforcement, as opposed to a “downward spiral” that comes from negativity.

As I look back on life, work and coaching, I reflect on all the missed opportunities from getting the plus-minus ratio wrong. But once I absorbed the powers of the Magic Ratio, there was no going back. Sure, I can still raise my voice in the heat of the moment. But now, I always remember the secret of great coaches and happy relationships: Five or more positive, truthful comments mixed with one specific constructive criticism.

It really works. It gets easier with practice. And you’ll feel better, too. Like magic.

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