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.