Dealing with Aggressive Coaches

The question put to me by a friend was essentially – what can she do to ask her daughter’s primary school coach to be less harsh and loud?

The primary school softball team had started holiday training in preparation for next year. She observed that the coach tends to yell at the kids when they make mistakes, as a result they tend to be very tentative when they play. Her daughter tends to “freeze out” especially when it’s her turn to bat.

Yogi Berra Quote

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Why ‘Good Job’ is not good enough…

Ever came across “positive” coaches who praise athletes for almost anything they do? I vividly remembered a rollerblading coach who was constantly praising kids even when they performed the drills incorrectly. There was this one kid who told her that he needed to leave early and her reply was “Good Job! Go ahead”.

How is leaving early deserving of praise I wondered…

“Why Good Job is not Good enough…” 

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Feedback should be Immediate and Specific…Really?

We may not exactly know why but many coaches have figured out intuitively that immediate feedback may not always be effective, even for beginners. I was recently reminded about this when I came across news that Dr. Peter Vint left Everton as the academy’s director. Many years back, a PE teacher showed me Peter Vint’s study explaining how frequent feedback may not necessarily be better for skill development. Only then did I realize that there were many studies since the 90s with similar findings.

“There are exactly two things which contribute more to the development of skill and human performance than anything else. These two things are practice and feedback. Without one, the other is ineffective and in some cases can be completely useless.” Dr. Peter Vint

This may sound familiar to other coaches too – I am correcting my player’s backswing but as soon as his backswing was high enough, other parts of the skill (such as the follow through and bent knee) breaks down. Mistakes that he didn’t commit initially will surface as he brings his attention to that one thing or cue that you tried to enforce. And when I leave the player to practice alone (usually when I get frustrated), he suddenly gets it, seemingly miraculously.

Promote Introspection and Avoid Dependency

A possible explanation would be that immediate feedback causes the athlete to constantly react to different cues without fully understanding the “whole” skill. For example, my player could be doing multiple throws and after each throw I will be barking “higher back swing”, “lower release”, “faster approach” etc. etc…This may also cause anxiety which has implications on the ability to learn too.

Meanwhile, in the absence of extrinsic feedback, the learner is forced to rely on intrinsic feedback instead, i.e., he begins to recognize his errors and feel what the correct execution is like through a process of testing, feeling and introspection. He begins to feel and understand why he has to execute the skill in a certain way instead of just being told how to. Other instructional approaches such as Games for Understanding, process based feedback and peer learning (through vicarious observation and discussion) also promotes introspection, independent decision making and ultimately self-directed learners (instead of having to rely on external feedback all the time).

Ultimately, we want our athletes to be able to learn on their own without being overly reliant on us.

Coach Zai
Photo courtesy of Coach Zai

Here are some pointer for giving feedback that I’ve jotted down from these studies…

  1. Wait a few seconds or tolerate some mistakes first before giving feedback .
  2. Ask learner to self-evaluate before providing feedback
  3. Positive – Instead of “Stop gripping so tightly”, say “Relax your grip” (Golf)
  4. Make use of bandwidth feedback – for beginners feedback should be frequent and general, i.e., “ball park info” such as “reach and glide further (swimming)”, since they are still unable to make use of detailed information.
    As skills improve, reduce the frequency and use specific cues instead (refer to Gentile’s Model to understand this better).
  5. It’s NOT necessary to give feedback when the outcome of the skill is easily detectable, e.g., whether the shot is on target or otherwise.
  6. ASK the learner when best she would like to have feedback.
  7. Make use of processed based feedback, or even stories and summaries that encourage introspection during the review of the lesson.

We’ve got to be flexible and take the stage of learning (The 4 Stages of Competence) into consideration when applying these pointers.

p.s. Let’s remember that we are coaches and NOT Kiasu mothers who are persistently reminding their kids what to do and what not to do!

Coach Hansen