Flipping The Feedback Conversation – Dr. Rob Mason

How Is Feedback Received?

“How can I give better feedback to my athletes?

There’s a great reason why coaches frequently ask this question. Feedback is a commonly used tool for getting a performer from their current level to their goal and has the power to be incredibly impactful when done well.

Some coaches seek a formula, a golden ratio, or a simple 3-step framework to give effective feedback – but giving and receiving feedback is such a beautifully complex interaction between coach and athlete that can’t possibly be distilled so easily.

The main issue with seeking a formula or framework is that this approach often helps a coach to fix their thinking that there is a right way to give feedback in any circumstance or context. The purpose of this post is to challenge this thinking and instead flip the question to ask how our feedback is received by athletes.

By starting with the receiver in mind, we can better serve our athletes by providing what they need, when they need it in a bespoke and responsive manner.

Below are a few questions to ask yourself as a starting point when considering the variables that might impact the reception of feedback by an athlete.

Is my athlete ready to receive feedback?

There are many elements that can impact an athlete’s readiness to receive feedback. For the sake of this blog post, we’ll stick to the issue of timing here.

Most sports programs schedule film sessions at set times throughout the week, at a time that fits in with the vast array of other activities an athlete must undertake, or at the mercy of ruthless travel schedules.

Considering variables such as the time that has passed between performance and the film session, or even the time of day, could boost the effectiveness of your video feedback sessions.

While some will prefer to dissect a game shortly after the event, when the sting of a loss might still be fresh, others will need some breathing space and an opportunity to regain composure before digesting game footage with a cooler head. The time of day may also impact player energy levels and the attentional resources they can devote to the film.

Sneaking in a film session at the end of a full day of training may help you to feel better about ticking things off the to-do list, but is it best for your athletes?

Consider the benefits of priming a training session with film, or using film immediately after training for a quick debrief.

Is my athlete primed to pay attention to the right things?

Several guests on the Codex blog have tackled the topic of attention in brilliant detail. From the perspective of the receiver, consider the attentional processes that might be taking place whenever you show a clip;

Where is the player going to look?

How can you help them look to the right spots?

Will they have a chance to review the clip again if they miss it the first time or the second time?

There is some evidence to suggest that players look for themselves on the screen before paying any attention to anything else. One of my favourite quotes on this topic comes from a paper by Middlemas and Harwood (2017):

I’m listening to the coach talk about the team shape, but I’m watching myself, whether I have a good touch if I get the ball, or whether I look OK on-screen”

This ties in with the concept of having psychological safety in the group – if your players spend a good deal of time ribbing each other about mistakes, or don’t feel safe being vulnerable in a session, your players might be more likely to fixate on how they ‘look’ on the screen, to the detriment of the learning outcome you are trying to achieve for that clip.

Perhaps a first roll of the clip to get this initial fear out of the way could be of benefit?

Is my athlete able to remember everything I’m about to share with them?

Even if you create a safe learning environment, design a flawless film session, and your athletes do learn what you were intending them to, there is no guarantee that they will remember this information an hour, a day, or a week later when they need it. There is mounting evidence that athlete recall of coach feedback is not as close to 100% as many might assume.

As many coaches can attest to, a room full of 30 athletes will contain varying abilities to remember information. Coaches ascribe characteristics like “forgetful” or “it goes in one ear and out the other”, while at the other end we applaud “sponges” or “students of the game”.

We can help all learners to fight the rate of forgetting with simple methods. Finding a way to provide athletes with multiple exposures to the key pieces of learning is a great first step. This could be via some videos sent out to their phones, a few clips rolling on a gym TV during weights sessions, or by hosting short ‘refresher’ sessions after the main film session. Taking notes is another great way to record information for easier retrieval at a later time.

If you don’t have any objective evidence of what your athletes have taken from a session, or what they remember after a certain amount of time – find ways to get this evidence, and use it to adjust your sessions accordingly.

Do I know my athlete’s preferences for receiving feedback?

The proliferation of coaching Twitter gurus in recent years may encourage coaches to think there is a “right” way to give feedback, based on expert opinion or 140 characters of catchy content. Consider ways that you can place athletes at the centre of this conversation and position them as experts in the feedback equation – after all, they receive a lot of it!

Asking athletes how they like to receive feedback can be a simple and effective way to practice being an autonomy-supportive coach.

As a successful coach once told me, this is the “art” of coaching – knowing who wants what and when. Some athletes respond brilliantly to seeing a highlight reel of positive clips. Others will want to be driven harder and delve into the finer details of an imperfect performance.

Of course, some athletes won’t be ready for that conversation – they may not know what their feedback preferences are, because nobody has ever asked. The concept of feedback literacy has been introduced in the world of education and has more recently been explored in the sports coaching world.

Part of developing feedback literacy in your athletes involves helping them to understand how they make sense of the feedback they are given, and the barriers that prevent them from acting on it. Simply asking the question can be a great way to begin raising awareness in your athletes that feedback is not a one-way transaction.

Final Words

There are countless other variables that impact how an athlete receives feedback; this is by no means an exhaustive list, but the start of a conversation into how we think about tailoring our feedback to the individual.

By continuing these conversations in our own environments, with our own coaches and athletes, we can begin to flip the conversation and keep the athlete at the centre of everything we do.

Dr. Rob Mason – www.masonlearning.com

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