Too Much of a Good Thing

I’m a big believer in augmented feedback, as evident in my previous posts on Specific, Individual, and Prioritized feedback. If a coach isn’t communicating information to instruct, educate, correct, and praise the actions of their athletes, then they aren’t really coaching. However, just like Kobe and his Jordanesque jump shot, we as coaches need to learn when to hold back and let those around us (our athletes) learn to help themselves. Kobe has the talent to pour in 81 points in a single game, and is probably tempted to take the game into his own hands more often than he actually does. After 10+ years in the NBA though, he has learned that although his individual offense is critical to the Laker’s win column, overemphasizing his own scoring is ultimately a detriment to the team’s long term success. Likewise, in an effort to affect positive change, we are always eager to impart our observations, knowledge, and experience onto our athletes. I think we can agree that our feedback and instruction is crucial to the improvement of their athletic performance, but is there such a thing as too much?

The simple answer is yes. Excessive feedback and “front-loaded” instruction are large parts of over-coaching. Front-loaded instruction is when a coach takes 3 minutes to explain a 15 second drill. Coaches guilty of front-loading (I have been there before) are probably just trying to thoroughly describe the drill along with its rationale, possible faults and corrections, and sport application. All of which are great to educate athletes about, just not at all once. Not only are small chunks of information easier for athletes to digest, but when presented with continuous instruction, listeners are likely only remember the first and last things said anyway (Primacy and Recency Effect). So be concise, get them moving and coach on the fly.

When looking at excessive feedback, the biggest offender is typically related to the frequency at which a coach delivers feedback. In many cases, athletes would be better served if the coach said LESS. Additionally, what is excessive for one athlete might not be for another. Three main variables to consider when determining the appropriate frequency of feedback are;

  1. Complexity of the task – Generally, low complexity requires less frequent feedback and high complexity requires more frequent feedback.
  2. Age/Skill of the athlete – Generally, young/low skilled athletes require more frequent feedback and as athletes become older and/or more skilled, they require less frequent feedback.
  3. Content preference of the athlete – If an athlete doesn’t want a particular type of feedback and feels like it is detrimental to their performance, then avoid it or find another way to deliver the same information. For example, an athlete tells you that they don’t like it when you point out a technical error because they are unable to get the picture of the error out of their mind, even when you couple it with praise or something else they did well. In this case, continuing to give feedback on technical errors would be considered excessive for this particular type of content.

Regardless of the situation, excessive feedback has a few damaging consequences. The worst of which is when athletes develop strong dependencies on their coach in order to identify the actions of their own performance. In essence, the coach’s feedback (extrinsic feedback mechanism) becomes a crutch for the athlete and is relied on to provide nearly 100% of the information needed to facilitate improved performance. As a result, when the coach’s feedback is removed, performance suffers because the athlete has failed to develop mechanisms that utilize intrinsic information to detect and correct movement errors. In actuality, no learning or retention has occurred.

From a sport sociology perspective, consider that an athlete receiving high frequencies of correction AND encouragement often perceive themselves as having low competence. Additionally, athletes that receive more feedback than others in a group setting are perceived by those in the group as having lower competence than the rest of the athletes. These situations are damaging to athletic development, as well as the emotional well being of athletes.

So how do you know if you’re over-coaching? If you can answer “yes” to either of these questions, then you are over-coaching:

  1. Do the majority of your athletes instantly look for your feedback after each rep of 5 rep set for Olympic lifts?
  2. Do you find that the athletes with the worst technique in a group try to avoid you watching them?

One really good way to avoid over-coaching is to adopt a Guided Discovery approach to coaching. Guided Discovery is characterized by allowing and encouraging athletes to explore movement in order to provide a permanent and independent environment for learning. This will develop athletes that are more in tune with their own bodies, able to use intrinsic information to produce movement solutions, and are less dependent on their coach’s feedback. As a coach, the “guided’ part means that we initially educate and establish a technical model that athletes can visualize and work towards. Then we gradually fade out the frequency of instruction and feedback while using questions more often. The simplest means of reducing feedback frequency is to provide summaries at the end of sets instead of each repetition. Also, try using “bandwidth” feedback, where you don’t provide any input unless the performance falls out of predetermined criteria. As you begin to use questions, focus them on areas that foster intrinsic feedback and reflection (What can you do to improve that?, How did that feel?, etc.).

Ultimately, athletes will learn more from their experiences than they will from their coach but we need to be there to make sure they have the right experiences.

– Coach Hall

2 comments

  1. Man, I did this on Monday during a speed session with a group. I thought about it and today I tried less coaching and it worked beautifully!! And now I just finished reading this and can say first hand..”Less is MORE”!!

    1. Nice work Coach. I suspect that you’ll see your athletes make big improvements with more freedom to explore. Set them off on the right direction, praise the breakthroughs and let them find the solutions.

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