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.