The Art of Feedback (Part 1 of 2)

The Art of Feedback (Part 1 of 2)

Most coaches have heard about the importance of positive reinforcement. In fact, the most important thing that I took away from the first and only dragon boat coaching clinic I attended was the compliment sandwich. The idea of giving more positive feedback than negative feedback has proven to be an important, time-tested way to build good relationship with my athletes. However, I have since learned that the art of feedback is much more nuanced and not really what I thought it was for years.

The biggest shift in the way that I think about feedback came from the book “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle, which highlighted some of the ways that John Wooden coaches. John Wooden is considered one of the best basketball coaches in history, coaching UCLA’s team to a dynasty in the 60’s and 70’s. Before reading about John Wooden, I used to think that the best coaches were the ones who can motivate their team, get everyone on board, and give inspirational speeches. It shocked me to find out that at the first day of practice, Coach Wooden did not spend a lot of time talking to his team about last year’s successes, or this year’s plans, or what needed to be changed. Instead, he welcomed everyone to practice, and started everyone on the courts almost immediately. If motivating speeches weren’t the magic that got his team to win, what was? Well, it turned out, there was no magic. His players were just plain better than any other team’s. That’s why they were winning! So, what did he do to get his players to be so good and to play his system so well?

The answer: feedback. Coach Wooden gave his players feedback in a very specific way: “Do this. Don’t do that. Do this.” He would correct players’ mechanics, movements, or rotations by first reminding them what he wanted. Then, he showed his players what they were doing instead, before finally repeating what he wanted. Many coaches do some aspects of this, and it’s easy to see why this works. Simply telling someone what you want has its limits. By showing players how they were not doing what he wanted, he makes it obvious how the players need to fix the issue. Just doing this would make you a better coach, but what made Coach Wooden great? He gave this level of feedback with an average of 7 words! So, let’s breakdown why John Wooden was such a great coach by looking at two aspects of his feedback:

  • Specificity: The reason that Coach Wooden is able to give feedback in such short bursts is that he’s extremely specific. Each one of his feedback is about one small correction that he needs his athletes to make. He does not confuse feedback with evaluation. He does not overwhelm by trying to correct more than one thing at a time. Of course, this requires years of thinking and breaking down the tasks that he tried to teach so he can be that specific.
  • Frequency: Because Coach Wooden gives feedback in such small chunks, he’s able to give feedback with much higher frequency than other coaches. As a result, his players constantly knew if they were doing the right thing or the wrong thing. During the course of a practice, each player would have several things corrected about their game. Over the season, that frequency of feedback per practice becomes the ultimate factor of how few kinks there were in each person’s game. Of course, if you were John Wooden, it’d be an anomaly for one of your players to make a mistake towards the end of the season! (Because you have corrected it so many times over the course of the season.)

Understanding this really helped me understand why my team wasn’t producing good paddlers. I knew the technique, and taught it. People listened, and understood it. Yet, they were not executing. I realized I was just teaching the concepts, and walking paddlers through the drills. I became really good at explaining, and I got people really good at it during the drills. But, I was missing a huge piece to the puzzle: feedback. I started to rethink my job as a coach. Anyone with sufficient knowledge of the stroke can teach it. If paddlers were to actually learn it, I needed to:

  • Give better and more specific feedback
  • Direct feedback towards individual paddlers
  • Give feedback as often as humanly possible
  • Give feedback when it counts the most: when paddlers need to perform (during actual pieces)

Part of this problem was my awareness as a coach. Another part of this problem was the coaching structure on a dragon boat in general. Sometimes, it is simply too much to ask one coach at the front of the boat to provide all the feedback. How has your team gone around this issue? How does your team provide specific, and frequent feedback to your paddlers? Join the conversation below!

In part 2, I will dive a bit deeper what makes feedback more effective.


(Part 2 of 2) Build something bigger than yourself

Work for your business, not in your business (Part 2)

To effectively lead my team, I don’t need to be the person with the most knowledge on mechanics, or the person who gives best individual feedback, or even the person who speaks the most at events. I need to be the person with the clearest vision of where we are headed, and know who can get us there. I need to be the person who can iterate to find the best systems to teach mechanics, give feedback, organize events, etc. And, I need to know who can fit into those systems. If there are nobody on my team better than me at doing specific tasks (coaching, managing membership, fundraising, etc), I shouldn’t be proud, I should be panicking. One person could not be and should not be the best at everything, and if I think I’m best at everything, it means my team is in SERIOUS lack of talent, or I am delusional about my strengths. If my team is lacking talent, then my most important job is to develop that talent.

Implicit in my ability to develop talent within my team is a belief that people can be developed, which I have discussed here in another blog post (My Motivation). Once I believe that I can develop talent in the people on my team, I need to learn how to delegate and teach specific skills to them. Releasing your responsibilities onto others by delegating tasks to them is the only way to help develop their skills. They need to be given ownership of their work to truly grow into the capable people they can be.

When I first stepped in as the President of my team, or when I first became a teacher, I had a very hard time delegating tasks to people and found myself swamped with busy work. One specific idea changed the way I looked at things. This idea is called the Benjamin Franklin Effect, the idea that someone is more likely to like you if you ask them for favors. It is strange, but I find my relationship with students and athletes get better because I ask them for favors. The scientific research suggests some rationale to this, but I also have a couple speculations. By getting people to help you, you are increasing your chances to interact with them, giving you more opportunities to build relationships. By getting people to do something that will have an effect on the team (no matter how small), you are giving that person some ownership of the team; it gets them to contribute. Lastly, by giving thanks and appreciations after someone has helped you, it encourages them to continue to help.

So how do you delegate? Here are a few things I’ve learned from being a teacher:

  1. Over-communicate the goal. As a leader, your job is to create a vision that is motivating for your paddlers. When giving someone a task, the most important, and sometimes only thing you need to communicate, is the end goal. If you can get them to see exactly what they are trying to accomplish, they can most likely do it. Many times, this is much harder than it sounds. For example, when you delegate someone to help coach, what is the goal? “To teach paddlers how to rotate” is not a goal; that is a task. A goal would be “At the end of practice, all paddlers will rotate with pelvis facing partners and de-rotate back to square.” That immediately makes the mere “teaching” seem insignificant.
  2. Clearly set guidelines. Guidelines are not instructions. They are pointers, warnings, or rules of thumbs. For example, when delegating coaching responsibilities, once you have made the goals clear, a guideline could be “whatever you do, paddlers need to be excited at the end of practice.” Another guideline could be “try to use positive reinforcement more than negative feedback.” A guideline doesn’t limit what the person can do for you; it just ensures that whatever they decide to do fits into the bigger picture.
  3. Check in and motivate from a proper distance. Know your members. If someone is helping you with something, do they like reminders? Do they like texting, or email, or phone calls? Does this person like immediate feedback, or do they like to have their reflection time first? Delegation does not stop when you have clearly communicated goals and set proper guidelines. It is a relationship, and it is a continued process.

If this form of delegation sounds like a lot of work, it is. But if you do this well, you will notice that the investment you make in people will return twofold. Once you get people to feel invested in the team, they will do amazing things that you could never have done by yourself. The true power of delegation is not to get things done, but to enable more people to take ownership of your team. The true art of delegation is not just to get people to be busy, but to orchestrate a true team effort so that everyone is contributing effectively. It could be really scary to not know exactly what others will do when given a task, but I have found that more often than not, if I delegate well, amazing things get done beyond my wildest imaginations!