Feedback to Win

By Stu Schaefer on March 27, 2017 Coaches

Recently, I asked a group of coaches to give me their top challenges with athletes. Almost immediately, several coaches agreed they see many athletes shut down upon receiving feedback or criticism. They went on to suggest that the two biggest influences – from their point of view – are club sports and parents.

“Parents play a huge role; they really do,” said Mike Willahan, head girls basketball coach at Mountain Vista High School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. “It’s something where a lot of parents will battle the coach, and being a parent myself I understand you don’t want to see your kids hurt or cry.”

Earl Boykins – former NBA pro athlete, and head boys basketball coach at Douglas County (Colorado) High School shared similar insights about club sports: “In Colorado, anyone that has money can start a club and play. Whenever there’s pay to play, there will always be players that can’t afford it, which affects how players develop.”

Regardless of the cause, the problem exists. In fact, in having worked with athletes and conducting developmental workshops for several years, I see a clear disconnect: coaches are upset with how athletes handle feedback, and athletes are upset with how coaches deliver feedback.

I worked with a gentleman who coached women’s basketball. He was one of the best coaches I have encountered, and very qualified. However, he used a very stern and militant coaching style, which often destroyed the morale of his team.

When his players were behind going into half-time, the girls often came back to the court worse off than when they went in as a result of his halftime coaching. They ended up making unforced errors, lost their determination, and failed to ever come back to win.

The coach simply didn’t recognize what was happening and how his style of giving feedback and criticism affected his team.

Nevertheless, further investigation reveals a simple solution for coaches to offer constructive feedback very quickly, and without causing an athlete to shut down.

When surveyed, more than 90 percent of athletes were upset by how the coaches offered feedback, not by the actual feedback itself. When asked to identify what really upset the athletes, they narrowed it down to two reasons: First, the coach only focused on what they did wrong; and second, the coach delivered the feedback in front of everyone, causing the athlete to feel embarrassed.

We asked coaches to give their perspective on this response and how they work with changing demands.

Earl Boykins suggests, “as a coach, you always have to adapt to the kids you have. You have to be able to adapt to the kids. If you can’t, you’ll always have friction. I try to always be honest with the parents about their child’s ability. I think everyone appreciates honesty.”

Willahan also agrees.

“It’s different for every player,” he said. “Sometimes players react better to getting after them. Other players are more reserved and need to be talked to differently.”

Undoubtedly, coaches have very little time to give feedback in practice, and even less time to give feedback during a game. Similarly, it’s unrealistic to expect a coach to deliver private feedback to individual athletes during a game. There simply isn’t time.

The two coaches we spoke with, Mike Willahan and Earl Boykins, share very different views on giving feedback during games versus practice.

“There’s a bigger sense of urgency during games and corrections need to be made right now,” Willahan said. “During practice I can sit down and talk through things, but I can’t do that during games. I have no problem using the bench as a tool during games.”

Conversely, Boykins advocates a very different approach.

“The things we do in practice make the games easier. The games are for the kids to show what they’ve learned (at practice), not to see the coaches,” Boykins said. “During games, I allow my players to play and showcase their skills, whereas other coaches believe in calling everything on the court. You have to have freedom for them to make their own decisions on the court. The way I coach is much more ‘free of pace.’”

For these reasons, there are two different practices to deliver feedback: one for practice and one for games – both of which have been proven highly effective and very efficient.

10-Second Feedback (for practice)

10-second feedback received its name for the ease and speed in which it can be delivered. This style of feedback consists of a fast, one-on-one conversation between a coach and athlete. The conversation empowers the athlete to identify their own mistakes while allowing the coach to add additional insights. As a result, the athlete learns how to effectively take responsibility for their results without ever feeling embarrassed.

In addition, the 10-second feedback focuses on what the athlete does well and where they can improve in a very balanced way and without judging mistakes as “bad” or “wrong.” Doing so prevents any coach from focusing too heavily on mistakes, which is the second problem athletes reported.

What’s great is that the 10-second feedback is a simple, three-question dialogue that’s easy to implement. A coach simply calls an athlete over to them, and asks the following questions (with each question, the coach can add additional feedback):

 What worked with that play?

What didn’t work?

What can you do different next time?

Urgent Feedback (for games)

While Boykins takes a more free-style approach, many coaches still believe it’s important to coach during games. For this reason, the “urgent feedback” tool is important.

This “urgent feedback” is essentially the type of feedback athletes reported as the cause of shutdown; however, there is a way coaches can prime their team to be receptive to this type of feedback without shutting down or burning out.

To be effective, a coach simply needs to have a conversation with his or her team to establish a foundation and environment where athletes understand and accept this type of feedback during a game.

When coaches explain the reasoning for a certain procedure or behavior, then get their team’s permission to implement it, they create a new context in which the behavior or procedure is now acceptable and understood.

For this conversation to be effective, a coach merely needs to explain the differences between practice and games (i.e. time restrictions, pressure, etc.). The explanation creates a clear distinction for the athletes so they don’t misinterpret the coaching.

Surprisingly, many athletes misinterpret a coach’s true intentions. When coaches yell feedback or give stern directions, athletes often assume they’re upset. They don’t fully understand a coach’s demands during a game and why a coach must use certain styles.

Despite the advantages in giving an explanation, and having employed this with many teams and coaches already, there is a common concern among coaches: “Why should I have to justify my actions or criticisms? I’m the coach.”

This is a valid position, and one which any coach may certainly take; however, this position also limits results. Although it’s perfectly suitable for a coach to do things without justification, they could gain a much higher level of commitment and desire from their athletes by simply taking the time to explain the process.

Simply put, taking five minutes to include the athletes can lead to a season of more coachable and committed athletes.

Feedback is certainly an issue that deserves attention. Although the results of poor feedback can be devastating, the solution is simple and something all coaches should consider.