Coaching feedback is a critical tool to help people learn. By being masterful at the different aspects and applications of feedback, coaches can accelerate players learning. This is why I consider feedback a coaching ‘power tool’.
DEFINITION OF FEEDBACK
Feedback in its simplest form is ‘reflecting a player’s performance back to them’ (feeding-back). It is ensuring players have an accurate mirror so they can see their performance for what it really is and how they can improve it. This is accomplished by either directly communicating to them or, setting up an environment where they gain feedback through other sources.
One of the key categories of feedback is the difference between Outcome Feedback (called in Motor Learning, Knowledge of Results) and Process Feedback (called Knowledge of Performance). Let’s explore each one:
OUTCOME FEEDBACK (KR: Knowledge of Results):
In tennis, Outcome feedback has two levels of ‘effect’:
- What the ball did (related to the technical term, ‘Effectiveness’): This includes the Direction, Height, Distance, Speed and Spin of the ball as it flies through the air, where it bounces, and what it did after the bounce. For example, a player could see their ball went higher over the net than they wanted. It may have landed out, it may have stayed low after the bounce. In tennis, manipulating the ball is what the game is about. Consistency is also in this category. For example, when a coach gets players to count if they achieve 10 rallies in a row, that is a form of outcome feedback.
- The result on the opponent: Affecting an opponent is just as critical as what the ball does. It is the basis of tactics. For example, if I see that I successfully made the opponent stretch for my wide slice serve, I have received Outcome feedback. It is important to help players learn the game (not just learn to stroke) by providing feedback that helps them become aware of the effect they had on the opponent. Too many players just hit balls and don’t even see they are causing no trouble for their opponent (or don’t see they have put them at a disadvantage). And, too many coaches are only focused on where the ball lands to the exclusion of the opponent.
The main goal of a shot (after consistency) is to challenge/disrupt/prevent an opponent’s timing. A player’s perception of results (Outcome Feedback) is whether this goal was accomplished or not. To break it down, even more, there are 3 basic ‘effects’ a player’s shot can have on their opponent:
- Challenge their ‘Lateral timing’ (make them stretch or ‘Jam’ them)
- Challenge their ‘Horizontal timing’ (make them impact too early or late)
- Challenge their ‘Vertical timing’ (make them impact above or below their comfort zone)
Opponents can be moved around (side to side, pulled in or pushed back), but those are primarily means to affect their timing.
TARGETS & MARKERS TO IMPROVE OUTCOME FEEDBACK:
To clarify some coaching terminology, it may be the same yellow strip or cone however, it has two completely different functions. If the Yellow strip is a ‘target’ it is about ‘projection’. It is where a player is aiming their shot. The most effective target is an area (the right size to provide challenge but also a sense of success) with a small target inside (e.g. a cone which provides additional focus).
If the Yellow strip is a ‘marker’ it designates the location of a player to receive the ball. It is all about ‘reception’ (the player’s or the opponent’s). For example, using that Yellow strip to mark an area that the players shot must take their opponent beyond.
This is why targets and area markers are so useful. They provide valuable feedback. Research shows that when a target is used a players’ accuracy improves by 300%
In my observation of hundreds and hundreds of coaches over the years I have concluded that it is only laziness on the part of coaches that prevents them from setting up targets and markers
PROCESS FEEDBACK (KP: Knowledge of Performance)
If Outcome feedback is all about what the ball did and the effect on the opponent, Process feedback is all about what the player did (with their feet, body or racquet).
For example, when a coach tells a player they needed to swing their racquet more low to high to increase height, that is Process feedback. If a player realizes they could cover more ground with a cross-step rather than the shuffle they did, that is process feedback.
It is important to realize that, in tennis, the process is just a way to get to the outcomes a player needs. It is not like gymnastics where the process of doing the moves is also the outcome. In tennis, the technique (process) is not the goal, the technique is the means to get to the outcome (tactic) to win the point.
If you listen to the majority of coaches’ feedback, you would think that the entire goal of tennis is to perform the ‘correct’ technique. This may handicap players learning the game as they lose sight of what it means to play (you can hit the most technically perfect serve right into an opponents’ strike zone and lose point after point). They have assimilated the wrong priority because that is where the coach’s feedback led them.
WHAT TYPE OF FEEDBACK IS MOST EFFECTIVE?
The answer to the question of ‘Does Outcome feedback help learning more or, does Process feedback help learning more?’ is ‘yes’. Both are useful tools. In my opinion, Outcome feedback (KR) has the most advantages and should be utilized most since tennis is a game with the objective to win points.
In addition, your whole Central Nervous System (CNS) is designed to recruit all the appropriate muscles, in the appropriate order, to accomplish any task you intend to perform. For example, if you decide to get up from a chair to get a pen from a table, think of all the muscles and movements that need to be executed in a specific order. And, it all can be done without any cognitive thought about the movements. Of course, tennis shots are far more complex however, coaches would be wise to let a players’ body do as much as it can ‘naturally’ and then use feedback to bridge any gaps between the ‘natural’ movements and the most effective version.
Process feedback (KP) can have the detrimental effect of distracting a player from the true goal (win points). Their match performance can be inhibited by getting too focused on performing movements. They can be caught in ‘information constipation’ which freezes the natural flow of motor programs. This disadvantage can be minimized greatly by only providing feedback that will accomplish the task effectively and efficiently.
For example, potentially ineffective use of Process feedback (KP) would be a coach harping on about where a player should end their follow-through. This feedback only serves to make a player look nicer while not necessarily getting them to perform better in matches. Do players lose matches because of poorer follow-throughs than their opponents?
In contrast, a player may be having difficulty with controlling the direction of the ball in a rally to hit to the open court. The coach first checks the appropriate tactical goal. Does the player know where they want to hit it to get the desired effect on the opponent? It is determined the player wants to place the ball but is unable to do it (they are at the limit of their ‘natural’ ability). The coach then provides Process feedback to lengthen their Hitting Zone by extending their racquet with the appropriate angle towards the target longer. This will provide a better ‘margin of safety’ of the correct racquet angle. This will accomplish the task and is far different than telling a player to follow-through to a particular endpoint. The Process feedback should be about accomplishing the outcome (Tactic) not to ‘look correct’.
By understanding the differences and uses of Outcome feedback (KR) and Process feedback (KP), a coach has powerful tools to improve a player’s match play performance.
Outcome Feedback Tips:
- Increase the Outcome feedback you provide
- Provide feedback on what the ball did and the effect on the opponent
- Do drills where points are gained only if they do something to an opponent (e.g. make them hit above shoulder level, make them run to the outside of a marked area, etc.)
- Take every opportunity to use targets and markers in practice to increase Outcome feedback (and help you attach Process feedback to it).
Process Feedback Tips:
- All process coaching needs to be linked to the identified outcome goals. Only give technical feedback that helps accomplish a task (tactic).
- Avoid Process feedback that only serves to make the stroke look nicer.