A Major Change in My Feedback

By John Kessel | Jan. 15, 2016, 1 p.m. (ET)
Growing the Game

 

Focus on the swing of your arms… I can hear my golf pro telling me that. “Focus on the swing of your club.” There might have been that, too. The thing is, a 2007 study showed that the latter increased shot accuracy in novices and experts alike. The reason is largely the focus of this blog.  

Most coaches who have taken IMPACT learned that a coach’s feedback/feed-forward is the most important form of changing an athlete’s skill set. In the see/do/tell loop of a simple motor-program loop (as in goal/skill/feedback), the best form of feedback is intrinsic. The worst is extrinsic, as in when a coach simply tells a player what to do.

This classic form of coaching of, “Do this as I am the coach” is the worst remembered and does not develop the player’s ability to problem solve novel situations. Retention shows something is learned, not simply being able to do it the same day as it is “learned.” This area of motor learning has not been studied as long as same-day testing of what is acquired. Checking retention takes patience, which too many coaches only have in short supply.

It pains me to see players err, then quickly turn to the bench to get the “answer” or feedback from the coach, showing they cannot problem solve on their own.

To combat this, I have long studied the Socratic methods of coaching (questioning/exploring) over that of sophism (debating, convincing). Perhaps it even seems to some players that I don’t know the answers as I repeatedly question and guide discovery with them, rather than preaching to them.

Help Your Players Solve Their Own Problems

As time went on, I began to increase my guiding of the player’s discovery of the answer. I could tell, and the research backed it up, that they were becoming more independent in competition and remembering my stories and their solutions better. The research clearly shows, as do my parenting experiences over a quarter century, that giving them hints, but never the rule, made my players able to problem solve without me.

This is important in the math of learning in a team sport. One coach + 12 players in 120 minutes = an average of just 10 minutes of attention/feedback per player.

What a player can do on their own during the other 110 min of a practice is what makes an athlete excel, not what they do while the coach is watching them individually. As BJ Leroy teaches in his IMPACT course “24 hours/1 day = 1440 min; 12 players/2 hour practice = 1440 minutes – Coincidence? I think not…”  

Also, your 10 minutes of talking at the start of practice to 12 players totals two full hours of practice time. But it is more than that, as Alex Trentor said so wisely, “The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see.” 

Getting on the right page is important. This chart helps you see when you need to dialogue with your athlete.

YES/YES = You both agree it was done well, discussion is optional and should be about helping them discover other options.

NO/NO = You both agree it was done improperly, discussion is optional, feed forward with the athlete telling you the proper solution is desired

NO/YES = Where you see it “wrong” and the athlete feels it was done properly and then vice versa with YES/NO where you see it performed well and the athlete thinks it stunk

When you check for understanding/agreement on skill in these two situations, you really need to guide the discovery of your player to see why they were off target. It may take a video captured on your cell phone to guide them. I love having a projector showing the action filmed on the court up on a wall; delaying it say 10 to 30 seconds from live by using the open-source app Kinovea or Video Delay or other ways that are commercially available.   

The above information can be found in IMPACT and in many of my blogs in various forms.

Changing Your Feedback

Back to that first “arm vs. club” statement at the start. Why the increase in shot accuracy and why am I changing how I give feedback? 

It’s all based on the book "Attention and Motor Skill Learning" by Dr. Gabriele Wulf and subsequent research I have discovered on the topic. This is a textbook that costs more than $50, so I recommend that a club get one for sharing and learning. Dr. Wulf shares far more research than I can summarize.

That said, her work is groundbreaking, and it has made me change many of my words. The compilation of research across many sports shows that an external focus of attention for feedback – for both the coach and the athlete – is clearly superior to an internal focus.

In a nutshell, the more you tell the performer, young or old, to focus on something inside their body – especially a body part, but also even the idea of “breathing” – the less effective the learning. The skill is not only performed less effectively that day; the retention is also inferior.

Internal feedback phrases from the coach often result in a player performing/retaining worse than having no coaching at all. 

Related: Getting Your Players to Show You the Answers

The research shows this in so many varied sports that we need a change in volleyball. I welcome you to share your own change to external feedback phrases from common internal phrases. The key is to move from an internal focus – concentrating on body movements – to an external focus, or CONCENTRATION ON THE EFFECTS OF MOVEMENT. 

Looking at other sports, the difference in improved times and retention for swimming – changing from “pull hands back” to “push water back” is fascinating, as the only change is from internal to external. She also shows this in:

  • Weightlifting (bar focus over arm = more weight lifted),
  • Golf (club focus over arm swing = lower scores),
  • Agility runs (cone focus over moving legs faster = lowered times),
  • Skiing (edge focus over legs/feet = more balance),
  • Jumping and so many other examples.

Metaphors that do not use body parts also are effective. Thus here are some examples of what I am changing from and to:

Skill

Old Way

New Way

Spiking

Keep your elbow up

Swing faster at ball

Serve

Reception

Arms to Target

Platform to target/

The ball knows angles

Setting

Right foot forward

Extend your arms

Be open to teammates

Fly like a superhero

Serving

Arm loaded/hand high

Move your arm/shoulder faster

En Garde/Fence

Open (the) door, slam (the) door

Blocking

Penetrate with your arms

Get over maximum

Digging

Body under the ball

Dig up Off net

It is my intent to simply stop referencing body parts in all aspects possible, or perhaps query something like, “What external phrase gives you the solution/form needed when I say, 'right foot forward?' ” Then let the player come up with their cue word(s).

I know this; when I present the goal to a beginner, words have little meaning. So I have limited my words (Bill Neville calls this the 4x4 method: No more than four cues that are a maximum of four words long) and focused on the most important thing – making the positive error in this learning process, as noted in the article “From Positive to Perfection Training.”  

When I was a young coach, I taught with words like “don’t,” “try,” “but” and others. Now when those words start to come out of my mouth, I swallow them and say “DO,” “How many out of 10?” and “AND” Rather than “BUT."

I will make the same change when words like foot, arm or leg start to form as my feedback. I am going to creatively say something that provides an external attention to movement for the player. Dr. Wulf’s and her colleagues’ research impels me to make this change for the sake of better learning.

After all, as John Wooden titled one of his books, "You Haven’t Taught Them If They Haven’t Learned." It is my job as a coach to maximize every player’s learning in the short amount of time I have them training with me.   

I would love to see your shared examples in the comments from an internal focus of attention to an external focus on movement.