Month: August 2010

Good is the Enemy of Great

Coaching Feedback, Part I

“Good is the enemy of great” is the first line of Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great. Collins’ book uses this phrase to describe how some companies settle for good results and fail to make further progress towards becoming truly great. From a feedback perspective, when a coach overuses the word “good”, they are failing to deliver great feedback.

We are all guilty of it. Terms like “good”, “nice job”, “that’s a way”, “perfect” are meant to communicate praise and affirm an athlete’s performance or movement correction. The problem is that these terms are so generic that the athlete doesn’t actually receive valuable information from us. This is especially true when athletes are in the early phases of motor skill acquisition.

We know that the corrective feedback loop relies on an external source (coaches in this case) to deliver information that athletes can process internally and conceptually. In turn, motor skills are refined and performed correctly at high acquisition rates. So imagine an athlete, or group of athletes, learning and rehearsing their acceleration skill with 10 yards resisted sprints. And after the first rep or set, the coaching feedback they receive to process is “Good job guys”. From their point of view, “Good” doesn’t offer anything constructive that will help them know what to repeat or focus on during subsequent rehearsal. I have been an athlete in this scenario before, and I always thought to myself – “Good at what, Coach?” I wished that my coach would have told me what specifically I did well.

Instead of “Good job Nick”, it might be “Yes Nick!, that aggressive drive back is exactly what I am looking for! Keep it going!” Not only do I recognize Nick’s efforts and competency in front of his peers, but I also give him something specific to process and support his learning of acceleration mechanics. Specific feedback is always better than generic feedback.

This is the first Principle of Coaching Feedback. Be SPECIFIC.

Coach Hall

Clean It Up

One of the reasons I chose to attend the CSU, Sacramento graduate program in Strength and Conditioning was because there was a curriculum requirement to train and compete with the university’s Olympic Weightlifting team. Working with Coach Kutzer and the other lifters was definitely a highlight of that program. Because of my competitive experience in the sport, I’ll often get technical questions from colleagues and friends regarding the Olympic Lifts. Here is a short video I made for a buddy of mine after he sent me some footage of himself learning how to perform the Clean. You’ll notice that I follow a fairly systematic process when observing his Clean technique. Having a prioritized structure of observation and subsequent feedback has really helped me keep my advice concise while being able to deliver information that will make the largest impact on an athlete’s performance.

What Are You Really Saying?

If we are strong, our strength will speak for itself. If we are weak, words will be of no help.
– John F. Kennedy

I believe coaching to be synonymous with communicating. If you aspire to be a great coach, then you better be a great communicator…period. Without this skill set, messages are destined to be misinterpreted and misunderstood. Not being on the same wavelength with your athletes will most certainly result in sub-optimal physical performance, but also severely hamstring any chance of establishing a solid coach / athlete trust relationship.

In future blog posts, I’ll spend some time writing about aspects of verbal communication and coaching feedback, but for now I’ll turn your attention to non-verbal communication. Non-verbal communication is something most of us have habit of looking for and recognizing in our athletes. We sense that an athlete is probably having a bad day when they walk through the doors with slumped shoulders, and eye focus locked two inches in front of each painfully-slow step. Additionally, if you are anything like me, then you know that an athlete continually rolling his eyes at your instruction and feedback is a pretty good indicator that he is about to be kicked out of the training session (half kidding). However, the majority of us are probably guilty of being relatively unaware of the non-verbal messages WE send to athletes.

Some researchers estimate that non-verbal cues represent approximately 70% of all communication. That exact number is probably largely situational, but it is clear to see the power of non-verbal communication when you understand that the way athletes perceive what we say often depends on the facial expressions that accompanies our words. Imagine getting the Coach Cowher scowl (above) while being told how great your effort was. With that look, there’s no amount of sugar coating that would allow his words to be perceived as positive or encouraging.

Non-verbal communication can be separated into 8 main categories, all of which send strong messages of approval, disapproval, frustration, mood, anger, disbelief, alertness, etc. Here is a quick rundown and some examples related to athletic development coaching (think about the messaging of each as you read through them.)

  • Facial Expressions: smiles, eye rolling, scowls, raised eyebrows, wincing.
  • Gestures: hand gestures to signify movement, clapping, head nod, fist pump, thumbs up, yawning.
  • Body Language: posture, sitting, leaning against wall, arms crossed, hands in pockets, pacing.
  • Proximity: moving away or towards an athlete, standing close or far way from athlete.
  • Paralinguistic: how things are said – tone, pitch, volume, clarity.
  • Eye Gaze: steady eye contact, avoiding eye contact, blinking, glancing, darting, glaring.
  • Physical Contact: handshake, high five, shoulder squeeze, light arm touch, manual adjustment, palpation.
  • Clothing & Appearance: clean, neat, wrinkled, tucked shirt, untucked shirt, matching, groomed.

Some of these non-verbal cues can be used to your advantage and some will detract from your coaching objectives, but the first step is to become aware of them. In order to get a better idea of the way athletes perceive your actions and other non-verbal cues, try the following;

  • Have someone film your next training session, then play it back and carefully monitor the non-verbal communication methods you use. Build a chart of the examples and categories above, and mark each instance in the appropriate action or cue. Also take note of whether they seemed constructive or detrimental to the athlete’s experience. The first time I did this; there were a handful of things that I was completely unaware of. To this day, I am still consciously force myself to speak clearly and project my voice.
  • Coach a training session in total silence. You may want to start with just a part of the session. A “silent” warm-up is a good way to get your feet wet, but the real challenge is leading an entire session without saying a word. This includes the athletes; they aren’t allowed to say anything either. You’ll be amazed at how much can be communicated by using facial expressions, gestures, and physical contact.

As I realized after watching a playback of myself back in graduate school, non-verbal cues convey messages whether you know it or not. Here are a few tips to use them in order to become a more effective communicator:

1. Match Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication
Don’t send mixed messages.

2. Maintain Eye Contact
Show confidence and attentiveness.

3. Use Positive Body Language
Have open and engaging posture. Sitting or leaning can be seen as a lack of interest and just plain lazy.

4. Smile
This is the easiest and best way to communicate that you enjoy coaching and spending time with your athletes.

5. Look the Part
Demand respect and establish credibility by showing attention to detail with your coaching uniform.

Don’t Throw Your Juice

Being a parent has helped me learn many valuable coaching lessons.  For instance, when my son was going through his “terrible twos”, he had this adorable habit of throwing his Go Diego Go sippy cup after taking a few drinks of his juice. Early on, my response was “Lil’ V, don’t throw your juice!” Apparently this meant he could still shake his cup letting a few drops fly out, or take the top off and dump the rest on the carpet, or even (this is my personal favorite) take another drink and spit/spray a mouthful into the air. As you might imagine, I thought of banning all beverages in my house until I realized that it wasn’t really his fault. To be fair, he was listening to me; he wasn’t actually throwing his juice.

The outcome I was shooting for was for him to put his cup on the kitchen counter when he wasn’t thirsty anymore. Realizing that my instruction wasn’t very effective, I made a change. Instead of telling him what I DIDN’T want him to do, I started explaining precisely what I DID want him to do. So when he would start to rear that cup back over his head, you wouldn’t hear me say “Lil’ V, don’t throw your juice!” Rather, I’d say “Lil’ V, put your juice on the counter please”. I would be lying now if I told you that my genius parenting strategy had a 100% success rate, but I can tell you that I definitely spent less time cleaning upholstery and carpet after this little change in communication.

So what does my son’s juice crisis have to do with coaching? Simply put…

Avoid telling and showing athletes what NOT to do. Especially when developing young athletes.

  • As coaches, this is most applicable to the times we deliver Instruction and Corrective Feedback:

Instruction: When introducing new exercises and drills, we all use some combination of visual demonstrations and verbal descriptions.  With visual learners, it is quite likely that a demonstration of what not to do has a strong influence on subsequent modeling. Even when coupled with the correct demonstration, the result is often a confused athlete. On the verbal side, consider that the brain can’t easily create an image of a negative action. So when we use an instruction like, “Make sure you don’t squat on your toes”, the athlete’s brain typically creates an instant image of squatting on the toes. And since the brain drives movement, I prefer to not even enter the thought into their mind. Instead, try making a habit of only demonstrating the technique you want them to perform and/or describing the precise action you want to see.

Corrective Feedback: From a feedback perspective, our coaching cues and remarks are meant to direct and/or correct actions. Feedback along the lines of “Nick, try not to let your shoulders rotate when you’re running” is typically not highly effective. For developmental athletes, NOT doing something could represent a handful of movement solutions; similar to Lil’ V and his juice. And if they knew exactly which one of the solutions was appropriate, then they’d probably be doing it in the first place. So take out the guess work and give them only one option. Directing a specific action helps avoid the gray area that often leaves athletes struggling to find the right solution.

Wooden on Coaching Success

Coach Wooden reminds us to look beyond training methodology, sets, and reps.  Coaches have such an amazing opportunity to be mentors and make positive impressions. What struck me most about Coach Wooden is how firm he was in his beliefs.  If someone asked what you believed about coaching, could you communicate your beliefs?  Better yet, would your answer be compelling? If so, how often do you communicate your beliefs to your athletes?

  • Take some time to write down your core beliefs about coaching and WHY you coach.  Then share those beliefs with your athletes, family, friends, colleagues, etc.  You’ll establish authentic leadership by letting others have insight into your beliefs.  Not to mention that this level of self-awareness will take your coaching to the next level.

Here is some insight into Coach Hall.  I coach because I believe…

…that a coach can make a positive and life-changing impact in a single moment.

…a personal relationship is more valuable than a physical adaptation.

…that competence precedes confidence.

…young athletes need mentors.

– Coach Hall

FrankenCoach

Vern Gambetta urges coaches to be generalists. One of his points is that by being a generalist, a coach is able to avoid over complicating what should be fairly simple training concepts. Moreover, he asserts that a generalist is able to keep a clear view of the big picture, whereas a specialist can often be limited by a narrow outlook. I tend to agree with Vern about the value of being a generalist. It’s probably not a coincidence that the coaches I respect the most, all share the unique characteristic of being able to answer just about any training question you can throw at them. They seem to know something (many times having an in-depth knowledge) about everything. In this way, they too are generalists.

However, I’ve also had a conversation with a major Division 1 Head Strength and Conditioning coach in which he mentioned that he is looking to add a Corrective Exercise Specialist to his coaching staff. For him, there is value in a coach having a specific area of expertise that fills a need within his particular program. So while I do agree that we should endeavor to keep a strong focus on the big picture and span our training knowledge across various training disciplines, I also don’t think we can ignore the state of our industry. The reality is that nowadays it is becoming increasingly difficult for a coach to be set apart from other coaches WITHOUT an area of expertise. In fact, if you aren’t currently developing an area of expertise, then you might get lost in the shuffle.  Alwyn Cosgrove calls this TOMA (Top Of Mind Awareness).

So which is better? Generalist or Specialist?

How about both? Is it possible to be selective with the areas that span our general knowledge? Not only do I say yes, but I see this as critical piece of professional development in an industry that is demanding more and more. If the title “Strength and Conditioning Coach” was sufficient 20 years ago, it certainly isn’t anymore. I foresee progressive athletic development coaches expanding that outdated title by taking on characteristics and training practices from other relevant disciplines.

If I was Dr. FrankenCoach and was building a coach for this evolving industry, these are the parts I would use:

The Gut of a Strength Coach – Above all else, I want my coach to be a strength coach…always instinctively operating on the fundamental objective of getting athletes stronger and more explosive.

The Brain of a Physical Therapist – The more I read and listen to folks like Gray Cook and Dr. Stuart McGill, the more I like the thought patterns of Physical Therapists and researchers. I envy their understanding of the kinetic chain and injury pathways. That said, I like strength coaches who think like physical therapists, but NOT necessarily physical therapists that think like strength coaches. The latter tend to be too conservative and clinical for my taste.

The Eyes of a Biomechanist – My coach should have a high attention to detail when it comes to observing movement…joint angles, alignment, timing, coordination, and compensations are all things my coach should be able to accurately analyze and correct when needed.

The Heart of a Sport Psychologist – In order to maximize an athlete’s ultimate potential and motivation, my coach must be in tune with the variables that athletes encounter beyond the physical environment. This involves uncovering and highlighting key emotions and aspects of training/competing that athletes hold most valuable. The work that Jeremy Boone is doing in this area with Sports Axiology, http://www.innertactics.com/, could prove quite useful for athletic development coaches.

What would your coaching monster look like?

– Coach Hall

Fatal Flaws

A friend of mine, and fellow Coach Joshua Aycock – www.piratesoffitness.com, recently got me thinking about fatal flaws. Joshua has a unique ability to conceptualize critical aspects of professional development, and I frequently look to him to put me on the right thought track. Essentially, a “fatal flaw” is something that is completely devastating to one or more central principles. It is so damaging that if done will completely and irreparably negate all past/present/future positive and constructive steps toward your goal. Pete Rose is a classic example.

“Charlie Hustle” has over 4,000 hits, multiple World Series rings, gave 110% to the game of baseball for 24 years… BUT… he gambled on games. His fatal flaw was placing those bets. And because of it, his accomplishments may never be recognized in the MLB Hall of Fame.

This concept can be applied to all aspects of life, but for Performance Coaches there are some valuable applications to coaching, training, and small business ownership. Likewise, the fatal flaws for each of us will probably be different as we don’t all have the same central coaching focus, and training focus isn’t always identical for each athlete. Just to be clear, COACHING is what you and I do. Coaching is teaching, observing, delivering feedback, building relationships, etc. TRAINING is what your athletes do. Training is performing work to affect desired physical results. As Performance Coaches, we have a direct influence in the type, amount, and intensity of the training done by your athletes.
For me, the process of determining fatal flaws has been challenging but also extremely useful. Knowing what to avoid at all cost has helped me fine tune my professional objectives.
Finish these sentences and answer these questions to uncover potential coaching and training fatal flaws.
  1. The primary reason I coach is to…
  2. What are some fatal flaws that can devastate my coaching goals?
  1. The primary reason my athletes / clients train is to…
  2. What are some fatal flaws that can devastate the training goals of my athletes?

– Coach Hall

100 Expert Challenge

Part of what I want to do with this blog is to start moving away from discussions about sports performance training methods (there will be some of that), and instead focus more on optimal coaching strategies. In other words, HOW training programs are delivered rather than WHAT training methods are used.

You’ll be hard pressed to find literature or a DVD series on coaching pedagogy or the art of coaching. Plenty on training athletes, but very little on actual coaching. So then, where do most of us learn HOW to coach? For me it was from trial and error and observing other coaches. Sometimes it was what not to do, but for the most part I have been lucky enough to work for, and with, coaching practitioners that have mastered their craft. Part of this learning process involves reaching out beyond those you have shared the coaching floor with, and becoming familiar with the leaders of the athletic development industry. Maybe you won’t always be able to learn how to coach from these experts but I believe that there is a linear relationship between coaching quality and level of awareness within the field of athletic development. And thus, the birth of the 100 Expert Challenge.

I will extend the same challenge to you that I was recently part of. Come up with a list of 100 experts in the field of athletic development. This isn’t an exercise in “who you know”, but rather a list of who you know about and how much about them you are familiar with.

The format and rules are simple:

FORMAT
1. Expert Name
2. Area of Expertise
3. Company / Location / Website / Authorship
4. Brief description of philosophy

RULES
1. The expert must have a clear and known expertise.
2. Hold off on help from the world wide web as long as possible and only use it to fill in details of #3 & 4.

There you have it. Get your colleagues together and have some fun with this!

WARNING: lively discussion can ensue regarding who is an “expert”.

– Coach Hall