4 ways to rethink how you give feedback

Communication is critical to coaching. You might be the smartest coach in the world, but if you can’t convey your message to the athlete, you aren’t going to get very far.

Some people call this the art of coaching, but there is a science behind the art. Immense amounts of research have been done to try to measure the effectiveness of different feedback and communication strategies. Professor Kevin Becker is a former elite hammer thrower anda leading researcher in the field of attentional focus and motor learning. He recently put together a 70 minute video lesson on feedback, instructions, and constraints in coaching. It is filled with nuggets of wisdom that can help you improve your feedback and communication. Below are four of my favorite takeaways.

Rethink the sandwich method

When it comes to feedback, we all know the sandwich method: wrap up criticism with praise before and after it. Coaches can also use the sandwich method with feedback. Rather than constantly pointing out what the athlete is doing wrong with their technique, they can give accompany it with positive feedback as well.

The sandwich method was the topic of Becker’s doctoral dissertation. While the approach makes intuitive sense, it has some practical and empircal issues that he identified in our video lesson:

“For how much people talk about the sandwich approach there is really not in any empirical evidence that it actually works in motor learning. I think it actually gets a little clumsy and impractical because you’re not going to always give athletes one good thing, one thing to fix, and then reinforce the good thing again. But I think combining feedback on corrections and reinforcing success can work when sequenced over the course of 15 to 20 throws.”

Rather than thinking of the sandwich method after each attempt, think about sequencing your feedback over the course of training. As athletes warm up, provide some positive feedback while you are starting to assess where they are at for the day. Once you’ve identified something to focus on for the session, bring on the corrective criticism. Then towards the end of the session start to reinforce their good execution as things start to click.

Focus on the feeling

When we talk about giving athletes attentional focus cues, the discussion is normally about whether we to use internal focus or external focus. Do we have the athlete focus on the body movements (internal) or focus on elements in the environment outside the body (external). Examples would be focusing on extending the knees (body) or pushing the ground away (environment).

When we get caught up in this debate we forget that it is a false dichotomy. There are many more ways to use language than to focus on the body or the environment. Becker outlined a few more options such as holistic focus (focus on the feeling), analogy focus (“move like a bird”), or shifting focus.

In many sports we aren’t trying to tech a position, but we’re trying to teach a feeling. So why not use attention focus cues that highlight that? Becker has done a lot of work on holistic focus and the approach is promising:

“What does a good hammer throw feel like. If I can direct my focus toward that, we can get some of the some of the similar benefits that we might have an external focus.”

Does a good throw feel effortless? Or long? Or do you feel the whoosh? Next time you are coaching, try having the athlete focus on finding that feeling.

Put yourself in the athlete’s shoes

Coaches often get so caught up in what we are saying that we forget there is another person involved in the relationship. When it comes to holistic cues, Becker says the best place to start is with the athlete. A good cue connects with an athlete, so simply ask them what a good throw feels like for them. You’ll be surprised by some of the responses and it might lead to some interesting cues.

Similarly, coaches need to put themselves in the athlete’s shoes to see how the feedback is being received. Athletes often translate what the coach says into their own words and this can transform an internal cue to an external cue, and vice versa:

“What’s critical is what the athlete is actually thinking about once they go and take the attempt. I could even give externally focused instruction, but the athlete might interpret to mean they need more leg bend. All of a sudden they’ve translated the feedback from external to internal and now we’ve kind of lost we’ve lost the focus we were aiming for.”

If we know what type of focus we want, talk to the athlete to help ensure that this is how it is being received on their side as well.

Treat feedback like a commodity

Feedback does not have a fixed value. In some ways, it is subject to the laws of supply and demand: the more feedback we give, the less valuable each item is. I’ve written before about the value of the quiet coach, and some interesting research has even quantified the succinct coaching style of John Wooden.

One of the keys to knowing how and when to actually use feedback is thinking about what you are trying to accomplish with it. Feedback should not be stream of consciousness.:

“Think about the the why you’re giving the feedback. You must treat it like a commodity. If I’m not going to use it all the time, then when do you really want to use and what do I want to say.”

This takes us back to the first point. The modified sandwich method Becker proposes provides a structure where coaches can really think about their feedback before employing it. The start of training is the observational period where they can define what the focus will be and how they will deploy it. What type of focus cue might best fit what you’re trying to work on? Or maybe a constraint could be employed to help. Or another approach. Put some thought into it and create a plan for using feedback to give it the most value.