In my role as a coaching educator, I have observed thousands of coaches. I have noticed a common ‘trap’ that, at times, coaches can be ‘frozen’ when unsure of what to say or how to say it. This leads to either being silent for long periods or engaging in ineffective’ coaching babble’ (e.g. Good!, Good!, well done! great shot!). Although some may say this is motivational, anyone who takes lessons knows that this kind of feedback makes players tune-out to the coach’s words. This type of feedback (or lack of feedback) results from a coach not defining the purpose of their feedback.
FEEDBACK MUST ALWAYS HAVE A PURPOSE:
For example, in regards to verbal coaching feedback, the reason a coach speaks is to produce a particular response. If a coach has a specific purpose for opening their mouth, their feedback will be more effective. There are two primary purposes for coaching feedback; motivation (motivational feedback) or correction (prescriptive feedback):
- Motivational feedback: Often, performance can be improved by targeting the effort and focus a player puts into their performance. For example, to apply more effort to get to a wide ball or display courage rather than fear when an offence opportunity presents itself. Motivational feedback is about empowering the player.
The motivational feedback becomes even more potent through the relationship and attitude of the coach. A coach needs to adopt the attitude that they believe in the player. They think the player can do more and come up bigger than the player even believes for themselves. The coach conveys the player can push beyond perceived limitations (e.g. ‘I can’t reach that shot’). Remember, confidence and self-efficacy are more ‘caught’ than ‘taught.’ Players’ smell when you don’t believe in them, affecting the quality of their practice and development.
One crucial concept regarding motivation feedback is avoiding the potential counter-productive aspects of praising what would be considered ‘innate’ qualities. This is excellent research done by Carol Dweck (Ted Talk). For example, telling a player, they are ‘talented’ or ‘smart’ only ends up having them withdraw effort. They prioritize holding on to their status as a ‘talented’ player rather than having it exposed they are not.
The solution is to motivate them towards effort. For example: ‘You can do this if you work.’ ‘I know you can solve this problem if you focus.’ ‘Practice more, and you will master it.’ It is phrasing the feedback so that it comes across as ‘You are not doing this yet (but you will).
- Prescriptive feedback: This is when a coach helps a player change a tactic or a technique’s physical performance. ‘Send the ball with more angle’ or ‘Level off your swing’ are common examples of prescriptions given by a coach to ‘cure’ the issue.
To have a prescription for action, the feedback needs to be specific. For example, ‘Recover faster’ is not a prescription a player can follow easily. What does that actually mean? Giving general feedback can be confusing to the player. The coach may know the specifics, but it just leaves a big mystery in the player’s mind if they cannot express it clearly enough. However, feedback like “Cover more ground on your crossover step by engaging both legs to push & pull” is specific.
I heard an excellent example from a national swimming coach. He was walking beside an athlete in the pool during practice and kept yelling, “kick harder!”. After several times repeating the command, the swimmer popped their head out of the water and said, “I am not deaf, tell me how!”.
The tennis corollary would be a coach saying, ‘Hit harder,’ which is general feedback that has no real how included. Does the coach mean to speed up the racquet before impact? To engage more body parts? To rotate faster? To step & lean into the ball more? To increase the size of their backswing? All these (or any combination) could produce the result and, the player may need the coach’s expertise to clarify what they need to do specifically. Non-specific feedback may even distract the player from performing the correct action making it worse.
As a general guideline, if the feedback can produce something measurable, it is on the right track.
The best way to keep feedback purposeful is to ensure it is targeted. This gives feedback a goal. The axiom ‘If you aim at nothing, you will usually hit it’ applies well to feedback. There are three helpful targets a coach’s feedback can be directed towards in any training activity. These are captured in the three keywords of ‘Drill,’ ‘Will,’ and ‘Skill.’ Both Motivational and Prescriptive feedback can be direcetd at these targets. The order of these is important:
- The ‘Drill’: The priority is to ensure the players are doing the activity correctly. Players must do the activity the proper way to gain maximum benefit. Drill feedback helps keep things on track. Drill management ensures maximum repetition and a smooth, safe transition from activity to activity. For example, if the activity is to place the overhead with control so a continuous lob/overhead sequence can be practiced, but the player keeps smashing a winner, how they are executing the drill needs to be corrected.
- The ‘Will’: This is where the previously mentioned Motivational Feedback is best applied. If a player doesn’t have the appropriate performance attitude, the actual physical performance is doomed. Merely going through the motions of a shot with poor focus and attitude won’t win any matches.
- The ‘Skill’: For most coaches, this is on the top of the target list. However, it works best if it is on the bottom. After the will and drill are on track, then prescriptive feedback can help correctly perform the skill. For example, the player may need the information to’ Swing more low-to-high to clear the net.’
Having a defined purpose and target for feedback will help the coach place the feedback in the right place, at the best time possible, for the greatest effect. A coach who masters this helps players learn much faster.