coaching feedback

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

First Things First

Coaching Feedback, Part III

The phrase “Paralysis by Analysis” is a perfect description of the way Charles Barkley’s golf swing has evolved. According to Tiger Woods, Barkley had a “normal” golf swing until he took lessons and started thinking too much. As a result, the movement is plagued by his overthinking, and this is what he is left with today (this is his actual golf swing):

Now put yourself in the shoes of the Hank Haney, the former swing coach of Tiger Woods. Coach Haney took the challenge of working with Barkley a few years ago.  In fact there was a TV crew documenting the entire process.  If you were Coach Haney, where would you start?

OK, so chances are you won’t ever need to solve the Barkley golf swing conundrum. But as coaches, we see our fair share of rough technical models when it comes to complex movements. In fact, when an athlete is first learning a new exercise or movement skill, multiple faults are expected. Attempting to fix the athlete, young coaches are often tempted to give feedback and foci for most, if not all, of the faults. Unfortunately, this can lead to the CBE (commonly known as the Charles Barkley Effect). More experienced coaches will recognize the faults, identify the major causes of each, and prescribe one solution at a time to correct the faults. However, GREAT coaches will go one step further and deliver one solution at a time in PRIORITIZED order. Prioritized feedback not only prevents your athletes from being paralyzed by overthinking, but in many cases, fixing the most pressing issue will cascade down to the other faults and clean up multiple errors.

Take Pedro’s Power Clean for example:

I think we can agree that Pedro has more than one thing going on here. After observing his technique, if your only feedback was “Roll your knuckles”, then you would have missed the bigger picture. Even if his grip position at the start does actually need to be fixed, there are more critical issues to be addressed first (start position, early arm bend, finish position, catch position, bar path, joint angles, rhythm & timing…) That said, what would you address first? Then second? Then third, etc.?

So take some time and compartmentalize what areas are most critical to the learning and mastering of the skills you teach and train. From there you can create a more systematic method for the order in which you provide guidance to the movement problems faced by your athletes.

Lets’ recap the Coaching Feedback principles from the last few blog posts.

1. SPECIFIC. What exactly are your athletes doing well? Are you limiting feedback that communicates a general or negative action? Read more…

2. INDIVIDUAL. At multiple points throughout the training session, did you recognize or correct individual athletes by their first name? Read more…

3. PRIORITIZED. Are you attacking one issue at a time? Are you starting with the most critical fault, or the quickest fix?

– Coach Hall

The Sweetest Sound

Coaching Feedback, Part II

According to Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, the “sweetest and most important sound in any language” to someone is their own name. The scope of Carnegie’s point goes beyond simply remembering names (a valuable coaching attribute). He goes on to note that a person’s name is what makes them unique; it sets them apart from others. When a coach addresses an individual within a group setting, that athlete has an instant upgrade in status. Another adage from Carnegie is that we all have an innate drive to be important. What better way to let athletes know you recognize their uniqueness, than by taking a few moments to deliver individual feedback as if they were the only athlete you were training that day?

Most of my coaching has been in team or small group settings, so I know the tendency to deliver group instruction and feedback when the training session is moving along. While there is some value in group feedback, there must be an element of individual attention if you are to gain trust, rapport, and accelerate the learning rate of your athletes. If you watch a group of athletes perform a set of 10 yard acceleration runs, jog back to the start line to get ready for the next set; and all you say is “Nice job guys. Remember to lean forward and drive back.”, then you missed a prime opportunity to deliver individual feedback. My coaching goal is to give individual feedback to a different athlete every rep/set. I don’t always hit that goal, but there’s an intentional effort to dish out way more individual feedback than group feedback.

Individual feedback does have some stipulations. In many cases, definitely with children and adolescents, individual feedback in front of the group should be praise rather than correction. I wouldn’t want to scrutinize technique of a 12 year old for the rest of the group to hear. Even when accompanied with praise, it will most always be perceived as a direct shot to their competency. In turn, negatively affecting self-confidence amongst their peers. Instead look to highlight what they’re doing well; “Jessica, I love the how aggressive you’re driving your foot back. That is the best acceleration run I have seen all day!” Specific, individual, and will probably make Jessica’s day. That said, always be aware of individual personalities. Even when praise based, some athletes (any age) aren’t comfortable with being singled out. Those cases call for individual praise to be delivered quietly and off to the side.

Quiet and off to the side is also a smart approach when delivering corrective feedback to individuals. Although mature athletes are sometimes comfortable with receiving constructive information in front of others, most will not be.

So whether it is praise, correction, in front of the group, or done more discreetly; aim to deliver SPECIFIC and INDIVIDUAL feedback.

– Coach Hall

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.

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.