How to Better Handle Criticism From Teammates and Coaches

Take the "wide receiver approach" to dealing with criticism.

Early in the 2016 Florida State University football season, starting quarterback Sean Maguire was sidelined with an injury and was replaced by redshirt freshman Deondre Francois. The relationship between head coach Jimbo Fisher and his young starting quarterback was chronicled by the series A Season with Florida State.

The young quarterback began as you would likely expect. Fisher was tough on Francois, trying to push him to his limit. He was straight forward, blunt and much of the interaction between coach and QB in the first episode was Fisher yelling and harshly criticizing Francois. You might expect that being on the receiving end of criticism like this would break a young player down, but Francois did not fall apart.

Instead, Francois decided that he was not going to listen to HOW Fisher was saying things and instead focus on WHAT he was saying so he could correct his mistakes. Taking a different perspective allowed Francois to deal with criticism in a productive way and perform at a high level.

Deondre Francois and Jimbo Fisher

For many athletes criticism can be difficult to handle. We each have preferences in how we would like criticism to be given to us. For some, it depends on who is criticizing us. Is it a person I respect and value their opinion? Are they an expert or do they have experience? Do they do this themselves or are they being hypocritical? For some, location matters. There exists a belief that praise should be delivered in public but criticism should be delivered in private. And even more common, the delivery matters. Some believe you should not yell or raise your voice. You should be constructive rather than critical and rude.

These standards and expectations exist for each of us and they act like landmines. As soon as someone steps on one everything blows up. Instead of listening we become defensive, upset and angry. We get offended and begin to argue back. Ultimately we shut down. The relationship between those two people begins to deteriorate and the message on how to improve is missed.

Learning to accept criticism is not as simple as "sucking it up" or "getting over it." A way to develop a perspective that not only makes you OK with criticism but gives you the ability to view criticism as an opportunity to improve is to view yourself as a wide receiver.

There is an unwritten rule in football for wide receivers: If it hits you in the hands you catch it. It does not matter if the ball is thrown perfectly or if it is high, low, behind or in front. For quarterbacks, this standard is important because even the best sometimes throw bad passes. The success of the quarterback relationship with the wide receiver depends not only on the quarterback's ability to deliver a good ball but also on the wide receiver's ability to make the catch even if the pass isn't perfect.

Criticism can be looked at much the same way. You are the wide receiver, and the person criticizing you is the quarterback. We would love for criticism to be packaged and delivered just how we like it—just like a wide receiver would like a perfect pass thrown every time. We know that is unrealistic. Quarterbacks throw bad passes, and criticism is sometimes delivered by a person, in a place, or in a way that is upsetting to us and hits a landmine.

This is where taking the perspective of a wide receiver can benefit you. Instead of focusing on how it is being delivered or where it's said, focus on catching whatever you can however it is thrown to you. Taking that perspective allows you to move beyond shutting down and ignoring what that person says and instead focus on the message. In doing so, you continue your growth and improvement as an athlete. It also demonstrates that you take responsibility and accountability for your improvement and that you want to get better. With practice, this becomes habit and you are able to maneuver through the landmines and get to the message to help you improve.

Note to coaches

Coaches, this does not mean you can criticize however you want and expect players to just deal with it. You are the quarterback; your job is to throw a ball that the wide receiver can catch. This means it is your job to provide criticism that your athlete can actually benefit from. It does not have to be harsh or rude, but does have to be constructive. Criticism is a form of communication and communication is a two-way street.


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