A coach's job is multifaceted. One aspect is teacher, as in teaching your athletes how to perform relevant skills and become smart and efficient players. An important element in skill learning for the athlete is feedback. The feedback comes either internally, with the athlete providing his own internal evaluation and necessary corrections of his performance, or externally, where the coach offers feedback in the form of further instruction, tips and performance evaluation. Both types are important and useful. As a coach it is vital that you understand the practical considerations for providing feedback. How much feedback to give, when to give it, how detailed the feedback should be, and how often to give it, are all important considerations.
Your goal as a coach is to help your athletes develop in their skill performance to the point where they can function proficiently on their own. Learning involves problem solving, and the more the athlete can do on his own, the better off he will be in competition.
Less is More
The amount of feedback the athlete requires from you depends upon her current skill level. Beginner athletes may be overwhelmed by too much feedback, so restricting your feedback to only one or two aspects of performance would be more useful. Be specific. "Keep your shoulders relaxed." "Bend your knees." "Watch the ball." Once she seems to have the basics down, you can introduce slightly more complex instruction. "Shift your weight and soften your stance." "Increase the force of the movement and follow through."
Timing of Feedback
Research has shown that, contrary to a coach's best intentions, resisting the urge to provide feedback right away and relying on the athlete's own internal feedback is a better way to go. Studies have shown that athletes get more out of the feedback when they have asked specifically for it, rather than when it is just offered by the coach.
Beginner athletes actually improve their skills quite well with relatively little performance feedback from their coach. A "wait and give" approach by the coach enables the athlete to internalize the movements, the feel, the strategies, and make adjustments on their own--the ultimate goal for the athletes. Wait for the athlete to request feedback (which will likely be more frequent during the first few lessons, or on more complex skills), and then give feedback. Imagine having an opportunity for a "teachable moment" with an athlete who is much more receptive to what you offer, and more likely to put your suggestions to use because they have asked!
Waiting also enables you to see if the athlete is able to pick up on her errors on her own. More often than not, you will notice subtle corrections on subsequent efforts. If not, then prepare to provide helpful feedback, which will not just state the obvious, "You totally missed the ball," but reasons why her efforts were unsuccessful. "You took your eyes off of it" or "Your weight was not centered."
It's in the Details
How detailed should your feedback be? Research has suggested that feedback does not always have to be overly detailed to be effective. It is true of beginners, because in the early stages of learning, general information about their errors is all that is needed. Once an athlete is more skilled, he will benefit from a bit more detail aiming to fine-tune skills and movements.
Recalling that "less is more," you may want to incorporate what is called bandwidth feedback. In this type of feedback, you would establish parameters, a "performance bandwidth" which is the amount of error you will allow before you provide feedback. Anything related to safety, for example, would be immediately addressed, falling outside the bandwidth. But basic movements that approximate what you are trying to teach would fall inside, and be allowed to continue without feedback. When observing your athlete, as long as she performs within the bandwidth, you will not give feedback unless asked for it. But if her performance falls outside the bandwidth, you offer tips and solutions. For example if you are trying to teach a particular throw that requires an overhand movement, as long as the athlete attempts the throw in that way, albeit not perfectly, do not say anything. However, if the athlete begins to try the throw with an underhand movement, this would fall outside the bandwidth you set and should be immediately addressed.
Beginner athletes may be given a wider bandwidth, which will allow them to make any movements relative to the basic skills. Remember you are trying to help them use their internal feedback--what they feel, adjust and correct by themselves--before jumping in. If they stray, offer a general statement to get them back on course.
As the skill level improves, the bandwidth can be narrowed so that even small shifts from proper skill or form would be corrected. Your feedback would then be more detailed or precise. A figure skater just learning to skate on one foot may be allowed to hold her free leg behind in any way, while getting used to the balance of the movement and making internal adjustments. But once she has the skill established, the free leg now should be held a certain way, at a certain height, etc., which you would address.
The Right Frequency
Remembering that your athletes make their greatest improvements when they can do their own problem solving, you probably know the answer to how often to give feedback is "less often." Here is why:
You have so much to offer your athletes in terms of support, experience and skill development. Knowing how and when to provide feedback, how detailed your feedback should be, and remembering "less is more," will enable you to produce well-adjusted, smart athletes who master skills and perform at their best levels. Your coaching success depends on establishing quality, supportive relationships with your athletes. The respect you show for their learning through the "less is more" and "wait and give" approaches will be returned to you many fold.
The demands of coaching are huge. Anyone who has ever coached at any level, from Pee Wees to Olympians and beyond will tell you coaching is a full-time job. Those coaches for whom it actually is their full-time job have a great advantage when it comes to opportunities to truly make a difference and develop the talent of their young charges. However, any amount of time a coach can make available can be spent in mindful creation of a positive environment for their players.
There are as many levels and expressions of athletic talent as there are individual athletes. This is a vital point--these athletes are individuals and, for best results, should be treated as such by the coaches. The following suggestions may seem ambitious and a lot of work, but the benefits far outweigh the time costs for both athlete and team. The extent to which coaches can commit to providing for the athlete's individual needs will greatly influence his or her development and growth in the sport.
In the book, Performance Psychology: A practitioner's guide (2011), Russell Martindale and Patrick Mortimer of School of Life, Sport and Social Science, Edinburgh Napier University, Edinburgh, UK and Aubrey Performance, write in depth about ways coaches can provide effective talent development environments. They say that in order to meet the individual needs of the athletes, the coach should include regular goal-setting, provide purposeful feedback and personal reviews, and offer both formal and informal communication opportunities for each athlete.
One of the best tools for motivation is goal-setting. A coach should make time to sit down with each player and discuss goals. Consider the player's strengths and weaknesses (both from what the coach has observed and from what the player him/herself thinks), with respect to the required/desired skills and traits expected for the particular sport and team environment. These do not have to be limited to physical performance skills, but should include attitude, leadership ability, commitment level, ability to focus, control emotions, etc. Once all of the areas have been identified, discussed and evaluated, it will be much easier to note where improvements can be made and to set goals. These may be practice goals, short-term, long-term, "stepping stones"--ideally, all of these.
Feedback is a useful tool for skill development and behavior modification. It is important, especially since a coach's time is valuable and often limited, to use the time wisely and provide feedback that is purposeful and informative. Simply saying, "Good job," may make the player feel food but does not provide any information as to just what it was about the performance that made it "good." Since the coach and player will have already discussed goals, feedback which indicates progress toward or regress from those goals would be ideal.
On a regular basis, be it monthly, bi-weekly, weekly or even more regularly, coaches should provide reviews which involve sitting down with the player and assessing their progress toward the goals set. Here again, the feedback should be as specific and relevant as possible. Goals may be modified at this time if necessary.
The "open door" policy that many coaches adopt is a great way to encourage communication opportunities between player and coach. But even beyond the formal review meeting and occasional "stopping by" the office, numerous informal methods of communication can provide advantages. Running into players at times other than practice, quick phone calls to check in, meeting for coffee or ice cream, all provide non-threatening situations where players can talk about what is on their minds, how they think they are playing, how the team is doing as a whole. With no specific agenda, coaches may find they hear a lot more from their players than they would have in their office.
The benefits of individualized attention and support of players are many. Coaches who take the time to provide this for their players will be rewarded with happy, motivated, well-adjusted players who are focused on performing at their best.
Collins, Dave; Button, Angela; Richards, Hugh; editors, Performance Psychology: A Practitioner's Guide. Churchill Livingstone Elsevier; 2011: 77.
Articles for Coaches
Information to use with your athletes to improve their individual performance, and your team's success.