Providing meaningful feedback

Mark Lebedew pointed out a couple interesting posts by blogger Hugh on the subject of feedback (here and here). Being good at providing meaningful feedback is definitely a key coaching skill. This is true both on an individual level and on a team basis. It’s something very dynamic because every team and every player is different. As coaches we need to constantly adapt. We have to be able to provide the right feedback at the right time consistently. It is a massive part of our communication.

On the positive side

I will readily admit that getting better at providing positive feedback or praise has been a long-term developmental need of mine.There were times I think players were semi-convinced that I only ever saw them make mistakes. It’s not true, of course. It was just the case that when they were doing something incorrectly I was there to try to get it fixed. No doubt that resulted in more of that kind of thing than “good job” type comments. And in fact I only stepped in if I was seeing the same mistake repeated.

Likely my positive feedback shortcomings come from the fact that I personally am not the sort who ever really cared about hearing what I’m doing well. That stuff I can generally figure out for myself. I want to know how I can get better, so the positive stuff doesn’t carry much weight. Ironically, that has probably made me quite good at avoiding the sorts of issues Hugh brings up regarding parents and coaches being uselessly positive with their feedback.

Obviously, not everyone is like me, though. Over the years I’ve learned that I need to be more conscious of providing positive feedback. That definitely isn’t to say I now offer a steady stream of praise. That most definitely isn’t the case. No one will ever accuse me of being a cheerleader type coach. I will not say “good job” whenever a player simply meets expectations. They need to earn it by doing something that takes them to a new level in some way. I do, however, try to make sure I positively reinforce what I talk with them about doing developmentally – “good hand position”, “nice fast arm swing”, etc.

Now, having said that, there are times when being positive about just meeting expectations is a motivational requirement. This comes at times when players are frustrated or down on themselves. In those cases they often struggle to see that they are actually doing at least some things well. That puts us coaches in a position where we need to try to get their mindset from “half-empty” to “half-full”. Using praise in this fashion doesn’t work very well, however, if we are already providing positive feedback for every little thing they do. It loses its impact in the same way more yelling by a coach who already yells all the time tends not to change anything.

Criticism without correction

And to the latter point, criticism can be just as useless as praise if not done properly. It’s not constructive if there’s no corrective element. Telling a player they need to pass better is stating something that’s probably pretty obvious. Telling them they need to change their platform angle or communicate seem responsibilities better is much more helpful. This is especially true if it links to something you’ve worked with them on previously.

As much as possible I provide 2-way feedback – what is being done well and where improvements can be made – in as objective a fashion as possible to let the players see the path forward I have in mind for them. This is true in training, meetings, and time outs. Sometimes one side or the other needs more of a focus. Good coaching is knowing when that’s the case. Great coaching is being able to also deliver the right words and tone to motivate players as dictated by the situation.

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John Forman
About the Author: John Forman
John most recently coached for an NCAA Division II women's team. That followed 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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