How an Ambitious Coach Gives Feedback

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How an Ambitious Coach Gives Feedback

By Dr. Julie McCleery

This is the first installment in a monthly series about the Center for Leadership in Athletics’ Ambitious Coaching Core Practices. This work is based around our notion of excellent coaching, which we call Ambitious Coaching.

Ambitious Coaches pay attention to their athletes’ sports skill as well as their social emotional health. Ambitious coaches strive to achieve peak performance for their teams as well as social emotional growth for their athletes. They work at the intersection point of those outcomes.

Our research focuses on what Ambitious Coaches do to achieve those outcomes. Ambitious coaches have a depth of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that propel them to success. This work is focused primarily on the skills portion of that equation: what strategies, routines, and moves can we observe in ambitious coaches that we can teach and rehearse with other coaches?

These activities are called core practices. Our research to date has identified 15 Coaching Core practices that apply to coaches working with upper-elementary through college-aged student athletes in any sport. You can find the full list here.

Ambitious Coaching Principles

All 15 core practices are supported by guiding principles. These guiding principles are important because anyone can execute a core practice. Anyone, for example, can give feedback, but that feedback could be given poorly, without knowledge of a sport or without concern for the athlete.

For example, I could give a 12-year-old little leaguer, Ben, some feedback by saying, “Ben, that swing sucked. Next time swing as hard as you can you wimp.” Likely I wouldn’t see great outcomes in either Ben’s social emotional health or his athletic performance with this approach.

The following three research-based principles help guide the practice of the core practices. An ambitious coach approaches the core practices understanding that:

  • A caring coach-athlete relationship is central to all she does
  • Fundamental sports-specific technical, tactical, physiological, and mental training knowledge is essential
  • All student athletes are capable of growth

As we discuss each of the core practices, you will see how these principles are foundational to effective execution.

Focused on Feedback

With those fundamentals taken care of, we can now look more closely at our first core practice—feedback. This is the first of three entries related to providing effective feedback. Below is the core practice definition:

Practice 3: Provide feedback on technical and tactical skills

Effective feedback helps focus athletes’ attention on specific qualities of their movements and actions; it highlights areas needing improvement, and delineates ways to improve. Good feedback is specific, not overwhelming in scope, focused on the particular skill at hand, and bolstered by positive messaging. The coach makes strategic choices about the frequency, method, and content of feedback. Feedback on kinesthetic movement requires that a coach has knowledge of the sport and strategically uses a variety of modes of feedback including tactile, visual, verbal, and technological - choosing methods that are appropriate for the athlete and the context of the feedback. Effective feedback over time helps athletes develop and enhance their own proprioception and awareness and allows them to self-monitor and self-coach.


Feedback is part of the group of core practices we refer to as “Instructional Practices” because they are related to the technical and tactical instruction that is a backbone of teaching sports mastery. All of these core practices, identified in the diagram below, hold together and are linked to one another.

Feedback for Ambitious Coaching Instructional Practices

Instructional Core Practices Effective Feedback is connected to instruction:

When a coach gives directions or instruction, he has the opportunity to cue up the type of feedback he wants the athlete to focus attention on. In this video clip, the coach gives explicit instruction about how the athletes are to pay attention and generate their own feedback. These are called attentional cues.

This rowing coach gave the athletes extensive instruction on “puddles” at the start of the training session before they even went out on the water. Notice how, in the video, she asks everyone to be collecting their own intrinsic feedback on the puddles. She even asks the coxswain, the athlete responsible for the boat’s steering, to only give feedback about puddles. She is keeping the athletes focused on the instructional aim of the day and giving them cues to help them collect feedback about their own execution.

Feedback that comes from left field – not connected to the instruction that was given or the goal of the drill– will be more difficult for the athlete to incorporate.

For example, if I am working with Sasha on her jump shot and give her instruction to hold her follow through, my most effective point of feedback would be on whether or not she holds her follow through. Feedback on her jump stop or ball handling prior to the shot will be harder for her to incorporate. This means coaches have to have a clear sense of what they are looking for when they provide instruction and address elements as athletes are prepared to incorporate them.

Older or more experienced athletes might be able to react to more feedback–18-year-old Sasha could probably process back spin and follow through simultaneously, but in general, staying as tight to the intended instructional aim makes it easier for athletes and more likely that technical and tactical changes will be made.

Effective Feedback is generated through good diagnostic skills: 

This is a bit of a no-brainer, but you can’t give feedback to an athlete if you can’t diagnose what you’re looking at. 

If I arrange a particular drill, let’s say a dodge drill in lacrosse, but I’m not 100% clear on what the dodge should look like and/or can’t discern the reasons why a player keeps losing the ball while doing the drill, I’m not going to be able to give constructive feedback. This is tough because developing a technical eye can take a long time.

I’ve been coaching baseball for six years and I still have a tough time diagnosing mechanics of hitting. So what can I do? Well, I bring in others who are better than I am, and I listen closely; I ask others if they are seeing what I am seeing; I watch videos in slow motion; I take videos of my athletes and watch on my own time so I don’t have to diagnose quickly.

In essence, I work on honing my technical eye and diagnostic skills and rely on other people when I know I am coming up short. I also try to avoid drills and situations where I know I won’t be able to give appropriate feedback and I let kids know when I’m not sure what the issue is.

Feedback should be framed positively to be effective: 

I’m sure this idea is not new to any coaches out there. Growth-oriented feedback is more effective than feedback that re-hashes mistakes or breaks athletes down. For example, tell a volleyball player what you hope to see next time, “strike the ball higher in the hitting window,” versus, “you struck the ball too low in the hitting window.” Be prescriptive, not just descriptive.

Further, providing feedback about what is working well sets athletes up to hear about what they can work on later. Using a praise sandwich (praise, constructive criticism, praise) or paying attention to the 5-1 praise to criticism ratio are tried and true methods to frame feedback positively. However, more important than those specific praise-related “moves” is the general principle that a caring relationship is essential to ambitious coaching. The old adage “they don’t care what you know until they know that you care” is so important to keep in mind when talking about feedback. It’s easier to be straightforward with your feedback if you and the athlete have a relationship that allows for honesty and is based in mutual respect.

I like the feedback clip below for variety of reasons, but primary among them is the positive framing of the message that is given.

The coach is actually asking the athlete to get to failure. He is encouraging her to be so growth-oriented that she does something wrong. What an interesting approach. Get to the point where the athlete is trying something new and fails, from there the coach and athlete can work together to improve to the next level. Simultaneously, the coach is building a positive relationship with the athlete by giving her the space to make mistakes. In our next entry, we will look more closely at using feedback sessions as an opportunity to build relationships. We will also take up other essential components of feedback including timing, frequency, and language.