by Tim Curry, MS ACSM-RCEP
Feedback; everyone’s received some at some point, perhaps from a coach, friend, or NICA OTB instructor. Feedback can take a wide variety of forms that range from helpful to hurtful. The aim of any NICA coach is to support the improvement of their athletes’ performance in a safe and fun environment, and providing effective feedback is vital to that goal. What can we learn about the way we, as coaches, approach feedback and how can we improve our practices? Let's dive into some research to find out!
What Do Coaches Think About Feedback?
Feedback research has been conducted all over the world with a wide range of coaches. The data covers a variety of topics, including:
Purpose - Most coaches believe that feedback is a useful tool to enhance athlete performance
Learning Styles - Many coaches utilize the concept of learning styles and try to tailor feedback based on an athlete's preferred learning style
Philosophy - There’s a huge range of styles from high-control to athlete-centered approaches
Valence - Valence refers to whether the feedback is negative or positive and, unsurprisingly, there’s a wide range in behaviors from almost all (90%) negative to balanced leaning towards positive
Patterns - Coaches believe they provide plenty of open-ended question-based feedback, and at the rate their athletes want
Reception - Most coaches evaluate the effectiveness of feedback based on subsequent athlete performance in competition
Comparing Research and Beliefs
How do you think coaches' opinions on these aspects of feedback stack up against the best practices from scientific research? Which of the items above did you agree with based on your experience or practices? You might be in for a bit of a surprise as we dive in:
Purpose - The coaches and data agree completely on this part. Feedback is an essential component to helping athletes, and teams if applicable, improve their performance. This can go beyond skilled movements in a sport to items like strategy and beyond.
Learning Styles - Here we have a disconnect between beliefs and facts. Learning styles is an educational concept that's efficacy has been debunked for decades now. Unfortunately, the idea has become so ingrained in mainstream beliefs that many people and most coaches are not aware of this fact. Pigeonholing ourselves into a single learning style can lead to issues if that style isn’t available. Instead of focusing on one learning style, it’s best to utilize all of them! Current data indicates individuals learn better through a variety of experiences. You can easily implement this through NICA’s recommendation to ‘tell, show, do, and review’. Coaches can also work to dispel the learning style misunderstanding within our teams. Remember we aren’t just coaches, we‘re also educators teaching best practices!
Philosophy - Beliefs and data don’t disagree with each other directly, but there’s nuance in this topic. While working with athletes who are brand new to a sport we may have to use a highly-controlled philosophy where we tell athletes exactly what to do. For this group, this may be the right choice because they have limited or no experience to work from when trying to improve. However, we want to move away from this style to an athlete-centered philosophy quickly. An athlete-centered philosophy focuses on having the athlete identify what is good and bad, providing open-ended questions, and encouraging athletes to develop intrinsic skills. This prevents dependence on the coach for any and all feedback. A simple way we can do this is to provide opportunities for athletes to show their knowledge. Try asking open-ended questions during practice about a topic athletes have learned about already or have them analyze videos of themselves before providing feedback to them.
Valence - Similar to philosophy, valence is also a nuanced point. We know providing predominately negative feedback can be detrimental to almost any athlete. This approach can quickly lead to demotivation and abandonment of the sport, especially in new athletes. Swinging too far in the other direction can also cause other issues. Feedback that is all positive and/or unearned (positive feedback for doing something they could do already) can lead to an inability of athletes to accurately gauge their abilities, as well as cause attitude and personality issues. These are two significant problems. The former athlete is likely to experience a situation where they believe they’ll do well only to get crushed. This can lead to a crisis in self-efficacy. The latter scenario could create an athlete who is viewed as entitled and cannot withstand negative feedback, which reduces their coachability. The most effective approach is a mixture of positive and negative feedback based on the athlete’s needs and abilities. Make sure to observe the manner in which the athlete responds to feedback and adjust accordingly. There is an additional item to consider related to feedback valence: the classic feedback sandwich (positive, negative, positive). There is a chance this popular style of feedback can create some issues where the recipient can reach an artificially positive conclusion about their performance while overlooking the negative; meaning it doesn’t produce a positive impact on performance. This is something to consider rather than a hard and fast rule since the current research data for this is limited in scope and is not done specifically with athletes.
Patterns - Research shows that coaches tend to overestimate desired feedback patterns of athletes, underestimate how much they provide direct instruction, and overestimate their use of questions for athlete self-evaluation. This is another situation of differences between coaching behaviors and reality. We can improve our practices through two simple acts. First, discuss with your athletes how often they want feedback on their performance. Is it after every attempt? Every three attempts? Etc. Second, once they have the basic knowledge needed for a skill or ability try to provide more open-ended questions instead of just providing straight feedback. For example, if you noticed going down a mountain bike trail that an athlete failed to drop their front heel as they braked then you could ask “Do you feel like you dropped your front heel?” instead of just telling them that they did not. This method allows them to improve their ability to assess and correct their performance, reducing the risk of dependence.
Reception - Unsurprisingly, coach beliefs don’t align with the data on this point. It’s easy to see why physical performance, especially in competition is the standard yardstick to judge feedback effectiveness; this is what most coaches are hired to prepare athletes for at the end of the day. This of course is one measure, but it should not be the only one. Aspire to find ways to measure athlete reception of feedback throughout your time working with them. This could be an open-ended question on the topic for them to answer, or you could ask them (don’t force them!) to explain or teach the concept to their peers. Another approach is to find a new scenario or environment where the concept or skill would be used differently from the initial one, then ask them to walk you through what they would do. Assessing how athletes receive feedback and translate that to performance or knowledge improvements is something coaches should aim for every practice.
What Does This Mean For You?
You may have found at least one thing in our list that surprised you or challenged beliefs you have. There are two major takeaways for any coach when it comes to feedback. First, there are many ways for us to improve our coaching skills that require minimal effort. Switching from instruction to questions is an easy example of one. Incorporating these behaviors takes practice, especially if you are changing something you’ve done for a long time, but it’s worth the effort! Second, coaching behaviors are something many coaches learn through informal conversations with other coaches. A common issue arises when incorrect (or harmful) behaviors continue to spread. This issue is often not due to malicious intent but rather being unaware of or lacking exposure to current scientific research. To overcome this issue it’s important to improve our understanding of academic research relevant to our coaching work and promote a more rigorous science-backed approach to coaching to benefit ourselves and the youth we work with.
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