How coaches respond to an athlete can influence their motivation and desire to win, as Dr Josephine Perry explains
Athletes benefit from feedback: in many ways it really is the fuel of champions and, as a coach, it is your place to give it.
Given correctly it can significantly improve the athlete’s learning, behaviours and skills. Mishandled, it can absolutely crush an athlete, at best impairing their self-confidence or, at worst, prompting them to reject their sport.
With every athlete needing different things depending on the discipline they specialise in, their age, their experience, their level, their personality and even the mood they are in that day, there are endless different ways of receiving feedback.
Feedback is essential and by following these 10 tips you can see your athletes soak up your knowledge, advice and positive behaviours to become happy at training and successful at competition.
1 Understand your athlete
We all filter comments and view the world through our own lens so put yourself in your athlete’s shoes to understand what perspective they are bringing to their training or competition.
Think about what they need for their event, what their current situation (age, level, attitude towards their event) requires and then how their own personality will enable them to filter comments.
If you design your feedback with these things in mind, explaining how behaviour changes will help them match their goals, motivations or values, they are more likely to make those changes.
Shaun Dowling, head coach at Chichester Westgate Triathlon Club, says he aims to adapt his communication style to meet his athletes’ needs.
“The youth group I coach has teenagers with different personalities and very different motivations,” he says. “Some respond very well to non-verbal feedback; others require more frequent, verbal reinforcement and support so I vary my feedback accordingly.”
2 Be specific
Generic words like ‘good’ or ‘well done’ do not actually help an athlete. What is meant by good? Their attitude, the skill they displayed, or the tactic they used? Make it specific and give concrete examples to make your points stand up.
“Non-specific comments are common but have limited value,” says Dowling. “Excellent feedback is specific and has usually followed questioning of the athlete.”
3 Keep praise genuine
Everyone loves receiving praise but if you praise too much the athlete may translate that as you having low expectations of them. Praise too rarely and they may give up trying, knowing that nothing they do will please you. So, use praise strategically and only when deserved.
4 Do not compare athletes to each other
Some athletes will thrive from hearing about their competitors and see it as a motivator, but others won’t and may give up before they have even started.
Research has found that comparing athletes with others reduces their confidence, minimises the amount of emotional control they have and increases their anxiety.
Francesca Cavallerio, a lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University, says she witnessed a coach giving feedback to an athlete who had not performed as expected.
“The coach emphasised the underperformance and stressed the comparison with another athlete and the way she always performed well,” says Cavallerio.
“This kind of judgmental feedback completely shattered the athlete’s self-confidence and increased their anxiety. They are now considering leaving their sport.”
5 Give behavioural critiques in private
Technical feedback is helpful to receive mid-session. Feedback focusing on poor behaviours or lack of effort is different. It is emotionally fraught, may embarrass the athlete and can feel personal and attacking in front of their peers.
The best way to give this feedback is to take them aside, focus on the behaviours or actions that are not working and explain that you are giving them the feedback to help them be a more successful athlete.
6 Focus feedback on technique and effort
Most athletics coaches work with a number of athletes, some of whom are naturally talented, some incredibly dedicated, some driven and ambitious. But others are just keen to participate and enjoy the social side of their sport. If your feedback focuses on performance you immediately alienate a large number of your group.
Instead, focusing feedback on the effort put in, changes made as a result of previous corrections or on great behaviours displayed will ensure you increase the internal motivation of all your athletes.
7 Admit mistakes
If you can self-reflect and admit where you have gone wrong as a coach it opens up the door for athletes to feel comfortable doing the same.
And self-aware athletes need far less feedback as they spot problems or issues themselves making them more likely to deal with them without you needing to intervene.
8 Be concise and constructive
More words are not always better. Research has shown people only remember a couple of things from any conversation, so don’t overload your feedback.
Pick the one point which will make the most difference to the athlete and stick to that. Cavallerio suggests that when the coach is able to give “balanced and task-oriented feedback it means instead of just labelling the whole experience as a ‘competition to forget,’ athletes are able to frame the competition as a useful experience from which they had learnt something.”
9 Don’t direct, enable
If you direct your athletes towards changes they are less likely to follow them than if they come up with the solution themselves.
Have some productive suggestions but leave these as options not orders. Dowling is an advocate of the Timothy Gallwey coaching style.
“I encourage coaches I work with to ask athletes to ‘pay attention to …’ and follow that up with questions such as ‘what did you notice? ‘what should be happening there?’,” he says.
“Asking questions of the athletes involves them in the learning process and challenges them to think rather than simply be dependent on the coach. If the athletes are only reliant on my knowledge they are limiting themselves.”
10 Leave some time before giving negative feedback
Give it at the end of the session, or after a competition, not during it. It helps you take the emotion out of the situation and means the athlete can go home afterwards and digest what’s happened. Catch up with them before the next session to see where their thoughts are and how they are feeling which will help clear the air of tension.
» Dr Josephine Perry is a sports psychologist at performanceinmind.co.uk