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, which makes feedback a coaching ‘power tool.’
GENERAL DEFINITION OF FEEDBACK
In its simplest form, feedback is ‘reflecting a player’s performance back to them’ (feeding-back). It ensures 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 directly communicating with them or setting up an environment where they gain feedback through other sources.
An important category of feedback is the difference between a coach using internal feedback cues (which produces internal attentional focus in a player) and external feedback cues (which produces external attentional focus). This is very much related to the concepts of Process versus Outcome feedback explored in part 3 of this series:
EXTERNAL VERSUS INTERNAL FEEDBACK
This is what comes to most people’s minds when the word feedback is used. It is feedback that comes from outside oneself (like from a coach). It is the information you receive about your performance from various sources (verbal, visual, etc.). External feedback is more often connected to outcomes. E.g. The player saw the ball landed shorter than they intended.
When a coach employs this kind of feedback, they produce in a player what is called ‘External Attentional Focus.’ This is when your focus is on the effect of the action. For example, anything to do with the ball, the racquet or a target is an ‘effect’ (e.g. ‘Hit the ball lower over the net.’ ‘Send it to the BH corner,’ etc.)
Internal feedback is the feelings one has about how their body is moving. In motor learning, it is called “proprioception” or kinesthetic feedback. Although it is a process that occurs ‘inside’ a player, the coach can directly influence it.
When a coach provides this kind of feedback, the player’s attention is drawn to the task’s internal requirements and the action itself. This is called ‘Internal Attentional Focus.’ For example, “Turn your shoulders” is feedback given regarding the action a player performs. Tennis coaching is full of such instructions directed at one or more body parts.
Here is a beneficial article by performance coach Matt Kuzdub on the topic. He did such an excellent job with the article I have included the link here.
Which one enhances effective performance more?
As Matt’s article and multiple studies reveal, external attentional focus is far preferred. On the other side, internal attentional focus can even be a detriment to performance. That is not surprising given how our brains are wired. Our brains and muscles are geared to consciously and unconsciously perform actions (e.g. walk over to that chair, pick up that cup, throw the ball over there, etc.). Thinking about what our body parts should be doing interferes with the natural process. It destroys any fluidity and rhythm that is critical for most sports actions.
Providing internal feedback cues is very ‘teacher-centered’ because it seems to make sense to tell someone how to move. However, it may not be the preferred ‘Learner-centred’ approach. Although it is easier for the teacher, it doesn’t help the player learn to execute the action successfully since it is counter to how we are wired to learn things. Every action has a flow, and tennis especially involves nuanced movement since adaptation in technique is the critical requirement for successful technique.
To move to coaching that maximizes external attentional focus, we have a couple of tools in the Canadian System that are external attentional focus oriented. They are grouped around the external attentional focus elements of the racquet and ball.
The Ball Characteristics:
This list describes all the ways a ball can be manipulated in tennis:
When a player uses these elements to solve their problems on court, they are externally focused (e.g. my opponent came to the net, hit the ball high over their head, etc.).
The P.A.S. Principles: This was an acronym I created to remember (and practically apply) the physics of what makes the ball do things. It stands for:
- Path of the Racquet
- Angle of the Racquet
- Speed of the Racquet
These are all about what the racquet does to make the ball do what it needs to do to perform a tactic. When a player focuses on getting the right ‘recipe’ of P.A.S., it produces many body and arm movements naturally. For example, to hit a topspin lob, a player could:
- Swing steeply low to high
- Keep the racquet angle mostly vertical
- Swing at medium to fast speed
Another very useful tool is ‘Feelings.’ This tool is a unique one as it fools the body to do internal things while maintaining external focus. Click here for a helpful article that provides more details on learning through ‘Feelings’.
APPROPRIATE USE OF INTERNAL FEEDBACK
Although it may not be helpful to provide internal feedback cues and shift a player’s focus to internal attention, internal focus still has it’s uses. It is useful for a player to be more aware of how they are moving. For example, feeling how much one’s body is engaged or not in a shot.
This self-awareness helps a player learn. However, it is not without challenges. I remember a study from long ago that asked players (without looking) where their racquet was on their backswing (how high and how far back). On average, they were wrong up to a foot. This misperception of the racquet on the backswing obviously affects the shape and path of the swing. What they thought was happening with their body wasn’t happening the way they perceived.
So, to use internal feedback in a useful way would mean working with the player on having a clear outcome goal and then helping them truly feel what is really happening with their body and its connection to the outcome. In other words, we are enhancing the accuracy of their internal feedback.
What do I mean by that mouthful? Firstly, it all starts with a player having a clear intention of what they are trying to achieve in terms of ‘outcome.’ The coach then engages in this ‘bridging the gap’ process. The goal of the process is to have the player accurately feel what they did match what the coach actually saw. This is typically best done by the use of ‘What did you feel there?’ questions.
To evolve your coaching, start identifying when you use internal attentional focus cues and think about how you can replace them with external options. For example, you may feel it is important for the player to ‘turn their shoulders’ for more power on an attacking shoulder height inside-out forehand. However, saying ‘Level the racquet off and use your body to make it go faster towards your target’ may get the same job done without short-circuiting their natural learning process. Look for the ‘effect’ you want the movement to achieve when tempted to tell them what body part to move and replace that as the cue.
Again, it so much easier to say, “turn your shoulders’ (I catch myself all the time) but, it has the potential to disrupt the learning more than help it, and it also causes players to have what I call ‘inward eyeballs.’ They become so focused on ‘moving properly’ they can’t see the actual goal of what they should be doing. They become ‘strokers’ rather than real ‘players.’
By masterfully using external/outcome and internal/process feedback, the coach helps players have improved tactics (intention) and better kinesthetic awareness to solve their problems and self-correct, resulting in a better player.