The Art of Feedback (Part 2 of 2)

We have all given someone every cue in the books to rotate, and they still do not. But, all of a sudden, we can say that one thing that makes sense to them, and they will rotate! When we think about coaching cues and feedback, we tend to think every athlete is different, so the more coaching strategies we have, the better. Although this is true, are there any rules as to what makes a feedback or cue more effective than others? Here’s what I have learned.

There are two big categories of athletic cues: internal and external. Internal cues are descriptions of how a movement should feel or how an athlete should think about the movement. External cues are descriptions of how an athlete’s body should relate to the outside world. Here are some examples:

Internal feedback:                                                        External feedback:

  • Rotate your hips                                                  – Point bellybutton to your partner
  • Reach forward                                                      – Reach to the front of the boat
  • Drive your legs                                                     – Push the boat forward
  • Apply top arm pressure                                     – Drive tgrip towards the gunwhale

It turns out that in general, external feedback works better. This makes sense. When someone hasn’t figured out how to rotate, they don’t know how it should feel yet. To a novice person, telling them to drive the leg might be getting them to extend the knee, the hip, or the ankles. You might only want one of those, or you might not care which one it is. On the other hand, external cues provide a much more concrete way for athletes to know what they are trying to accomplish. They don’t have to wait for you to tell them whether they have rotated their hips. If their bellybuttons are facing their partners, they know they’ve accomplished what you’ve asked them to do! This gives us a much more objective way of communicating what needs to happen, rather than trying to get them in our heads to know what it should subjectively feel like.

These external cues are much more helpful for a novice athlete, who has not had to navigate their body through space in a sport-specific way. If you are so lucky as to coach athletes who has played other sports or who has done weightlifting, you will find it much easier to communicate with them with whatever cues you have.


Another big difference between novice athletes and seasoned athletes is their need for positive feedback. When someone just joins our team or tries the sport, it is critical that they feel confident that they can continue and that this is the right thing for them. For beginners, it is important that they receive plenty of positive feedback. In fact, I sometimes give only positive feedback for first-day paddlers. However, as a paddler becomes better, the effectiveness of the positive feedback diminishes. Intermediate and advanced paddlers need, and want more constructive feedback. In other words, if they already know they are good, they don’t need to hear it from you. They want to get better. That is not to say you can throw positivity out the window. It simply means they want to know much more critically where they can be better. As a coach, it is very important to recognize this difference. This means that we need to look hard at how a beginner paddler can improve, but we need to look even harder at how a good paddler can overcome his plateau. Otherwise, a good paddler will not become great. Even worse, a great paddler will leave you because he doesn’t feel he’s getting any better.
What are some ways you keep new members learning, but veteran members engaged? Join the conversation!