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Feedback Frenzy

nick ruddock May 19, 2016

If I gave you a few golf balls and a club at the driving range you’d probably like to just ‘hit a few.’ Unless you’re destined for the next PGA tour that’s quite reasonable, but lets assume you are receiving coaching from a qualified professional with the intention of making significant progress as a return on your investment for their fee …

How much information would you want to glean from this pro golfer about how to improve your game? Probably a lot!

But how do you want this information? All in one go, or in small, easy to manage chunks? Do you want a barrage of constant information before and after each strike of the ball or with time to practice in between?

What if I gave you a different piece of feedback each and every shot you took? All the feedback would be correct technical coaching points, but just something different each time? How would you feel about it?

Let’s consider a Yurchenko vault (gymnastics), a skill which has several stages to it:

Run up > hurdle > round off > board position > 1st flight to table > strike > repulsion/flight phase > landing.

There’s an awful lot of technique there to be thinking of. Like many skills, there is a domino effect when making changes to any one of these phases, it can have drastic impact on subsequent parts of the skill.

The logical thing to do is to tackle coaching the skill from start to finish. By refining the earlier stages of the skill as a priority, the learning process of the later phases will be easier. But in reality, this is hard to do. We can’t ignore the latter stages of the skill which are being performed poorly, as this will engrain undesired performance habits.

So we end up coaching all of it at once.

‘Lucy’ is performing her Yurchenko in training:

After Repetition 1 – This was the first rep and therefore the athlete is not fully warm, but the coach has provided feedback anyway to assist her next vault: ‘don’t step across in your round off.’
Before Repetition 2 – The athlete is thinking about ‘not stepping across in the round off’ and performs the skill again, this time alternative feedback is provided: ‘your hurdle was too low, keep your chest up.’
Before Repetition 3 – The athlete is thinking about the ‘hurdle’ as that was the last bit of information she remembers. But prior to performing Rep 3, the coach has also provided a different cue: ‘run faster.’

Let’s STOP for a moment.

Can you recognise the ‘feedback frenzy’ which is occurring? Within 3 repetitions there are several coaching points. They are all relevant, yet different. If the athlete is attempting to improve the points one at a time, and we are aware that it is unlikely they can concentrate on all of these points at once, then the athlete is in fact learning through repetition within certain conditions, and not necessarily the feedback itself.

Further more, this is assuming that the feedback being provided is CORRECT. Often, feedback is not technically accurate, and the athletes are still able to improve their performance over time.

This is the power of practice within certain conditions.

The conditions are that:
a) the athlete is focused
b) the coach has a high expectation of the standard of performance
c) the drill/exercise is a logical progression being used to help the skill acquisition process.

In these conditions both coach and athlete have a desire for progress, and the athlete is able to self regulate their performance through repetition and trial and error.

This differs from low performance conditions, where there is little emphasis of any technique, a patient step by step progression or attention to detail/desire to improve.

I have a few ‘guidelines’ that I Iike to follow when providing information to athletes:

  1. Feedback = information. In order for information to be retained, it needs to be short, sticky (easy to remember) and understood. It also needs to be repeated and reinforced, perhaps packaged in different ways. There is only so much information that an athlete can digest and retain, so it is crucial that they are retaining the important bits. Consider giving ‘tweet’ length feedback, which is providing your information in 140 characters or less!
  2. To ensure your athletes are listening to the feedback that you provide, ask them to explain to YOU their understanding of the feedback that you have just given. If you are faced with a blank expression and shrugged shoulders, you may need to package it in a different way.
  3. Using language that is appropriate to the age and technical experience of the athlete will allow them to understand more of the feedback. It is not an opportunity to demonstrate your understanding of science and biomechanics.
  4. Feedback is not always necessary, particularly with the first few repetitions of performing a skill. Allow the athlete time to warm up and get a feel for the skill first. If the error is obvious to both you and the athlete, do you need to say anything at all? Perhaps just give them a ‘cue’ before their next performance (see point 6.)
  5. It is far more empowering and powerful for the athlete to be aware of their technical faults, than for the coach to tell them. Asking the athlete for their feedback as to where they feel the skill could be further improved is a great way to test their understanding and focus.
  6. Giving a ‘cue’ (prior to performance information) can be more useful than feedback (post performance information) particularly if there is a waiting/rest time between each rep. A ‘cue’ is a nugget of information which will prompt the athlete to think about a particular aspect of the skill. An example would be to say to an athlete ‘lift your hips.’ Saying this just before the performance of the skill is far more likely to be applied than any feedback that was given 2 minutes prior. By then it can be lost through other discussions or forgotten.
  7. I like to work on a particular theme for the session, or break the session into multiple themes. Back to the ‘Yurchenko’ example – Running warm up, followed by hurdle and round off development, followed by 2nd flight phase. This allows me to regulate feedback and not focus on too many aspects of the skill. Consider this a way of ‘isolating’ the technical points of the skill to just one or two areas. Drills work on the same principle, you are able to focus on one or two key aspects of a skill, repeated often to engrain positive performance habits.
  8. Ask the athlete ‘what are you thinking about on this turn?’ to ensure they are listening and focused for each and every rep.

How many times have you watched a movie, for you to watch it again a few months later and only then understand the plot?

Or pick a book you have read in the past. How much of the book can you remember? From a 200 page book I would be surprised if you could even write down a couple of sides of A4 of what happened. Only so much information can be retained over time…

Make your information ‘sticky’ and obvious. Don’t speak unless it improves on silence.

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