I previously posted a review of the book Barking Up the Wrong Tree by Eric Barker. The book is not a coaching text, but some of the material definitely has coaching implications. The following quote is an example.

“Novices seek and need positive feedback because it keeps them working at something they’re not very good at. But there’s a tipping point. As someone becomes an expert they deliberately seek out negative feedback so they know how to keep improving now that their mistakes are fewer and subtler.”

Think about the level of the players you work with. Are they beginners? Or are they more toward expert? For most of us it’s somewhere along spectrum – not beginners, but not quite into the expert realm either.

As an example

Let’s think about serve reception in terms of the quote above.

A beginner has a lot to learn and will make lots of very obvious mistakes. They won’t move properly to the ball. They won’t form their platform correctly. Maybe they will swing at the ball. They don’t know seam responsibilities. There are probably other things you can think of.

Meanwhile, the expert makes many fewer mistakes and they are more subtle. Their platform angle is a little off. They didn’t get a good read. Those sorts of things.

The observation from the quote is we should approach the two groups differently in terms of our feedback. Beginners generally lack confidence and motivation. As a result, positive feedback helps to encourage them. It builds their confidence and motivates them to want to continue improving. Experts, on the other hand, are already confident and motivated. They don’t need that side of things. They just want to know what they did wrong so they can fix it.

Content vs. Tone

I want to be very clear about something. When we’re talking about positive or negative feedback in this context it’s not a question of tone. We’re definitely NOT saying you should be happy and cheerful with beginners and scream at experts. While there is probably something to be said about being more of a cheerleader for beginners, yelling at anyone – including experts – is not a particularly effective strategy.

Instead, what we’re talking about here is content. By that I mean whether your focus is on what was done correctly or what was done incorrectly. For the beginner you want to catch them doing it right, as the saying goes. Expert players, however, need to understand what went awry.

Intra-player variation

It’s worth noting that players can be at different points on the beginner-to-expert spectrum for each of their skills. While true beginners and highly experienced players tend to be fairly uniform across skills, it’s more of a mixed bag in the middle. Even more so when you consider players learning new techniques – such as a player trying to shift from a standing serve to a jump serve. They could be effectively an expert at the former, but a total beginner at the latter.

This is definitely something to keep in mind when working with your players. In some skills they might be quite expert, so favor more negative feedback. In other skills, though, they might be at a much more beginner level and thus require more of the positive.

That’s kind of a deep thing to think about, isn’t it? You can’t coach all the players the same way, and can’t even necessarily coach one player the same way all the time. No one ever said coaching is easy, though. 🙂

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently Technical Director for Charleston Academy. His previous experience includes the college and university level in the US and UK, professional coaching in Sweden, and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. Learn more on his bio page.

Please share your own ideas and opinions.