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Thinking more broadly about feedback

Volleyball Coach

Alexis at Coaches Corner has a post where he talks about feedback. In it he says sometimes not providing feedback is the best choice. I certainly agree that coaches probably should not provide a constant stream of verbal feedback (see The more you talk, the less they train).

This is not a contradiction to what I said in It’s more about the feedback than the drill, however. Feedback is massively important in skill acquisition. It is a key component of deliberate practice.

But feedback is not just what we as coaches tell our players. We have to think MUCH more broadly than that.

There are two primary sources of feedback. One is outcomes. The other is external input. I’ll start with the latter.

External input

Feedback from some external source is what we tend to think of most often when we talk about feedback. It is an outside view of things the player doesn’t have for themselves and is thus provided by someone or something else. From this perspective, we usually think of what we say to our players to help them get better as our feedback. Certainly, that is an important type. There are other sources of external input, though.

Let’s think, for example, of who else provides verbal feedback to a player. Their teammates, right? The block didn’t get closed or wasn’t in the right position. The set was too low or the pass was too tight. Or, to flip things around, the set was perfect, or that was a great pass.

Sometimes players get a bit more technical with each other in terms of mechanics. That’s not always a great thing, but in the right situations is can be very valuable. Think player-to-player mentorship as an example of that.

Another source of external input is video. When players watch themselves they can see what things look like from outside to match it up with their kinesthetic sense. Basically, video is a kind of substitute for a coach’s verbal feedback. It isn’t exactly the same, but it goes in the same direction. Players just need some guidance for its proper use.

Outcome based feedback

Every time a player performs a skill there is an outcome. The pass went where they wanted or didn’t. Their serve went to their target or not. The attack was a kill, or it was a blocked ball, an error, or a dig. I think you probably get the idea.

We coaches cannot possible comment on every time each one of our players touches the ball. That means this outcome source of feedback is far bigger than anything we can provide ourselves. And yet, it probably doesn’t get the focus it requires.

This is a tricky part of the feedback system. One the one hand, it’s outcomes we are after. The player needs to know whether they accomplished what they intended. The challenging part is when the desired outcome happens despite the player making a bad choice or executing the skill poorly. In other words, they were lucky rather than good.

More experienced players generally know when they’ve done something correctly. They know when they got lucky. Outcome-based feedback is more problematic for those with less experience. They don’t know yet if they are doing things correctly. Even with experienced players you sometimes have to look at the decision-making element separate from the outcome so they can think in terms of whether there was a better choice. This means we have to consider outcome feedback when looking at our practice activities.

Using the different sources of feedback

So the bottom line is that you have multiple forms of feedback to consider how you do things. How you combine them should have a lot to do with the level of your players. In the case of inexperienced ones, you probably want to rely much less (if at all) on outcomes. Instead, you should focus on the external feedback – coach talk and video – related to the particular thing you are aiming to develop. The concentration is on the process rather than the outcome.

As players become more experienced – at least in terms of their training focus for that particular exercise – you can shift more to an outcome type of feedback, with less of the external sort. Here your external feedback likely shifts away from technical elements to more decision-making.

And through it all players should be encouraged to view feedback in a non-judgement fashion (see The Inner Game of Tennis).

John Forman
About the Author: John Forman
John currently coaches for an NCAA Division II women's team. This follows a stint as head coach for a women's professional team in Sweden. Prior to that he was the head coach for the University of Exeter Volleyball Club BUCS teams (roughly the UK version of the NCAA) while working toward a PhD. He previously coached in Division I of NCAA Women's Volleyball in the US, with additional experience at the Juniors club level, both coaching and managing, among numerous other volleyball adventures. Learn more on his bio page.

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