March 13, 2017 • Athletic AdministrationCoaching

Louder Than Words

Why visual demonstrations, body language matters to athletes

It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. This concept is relevant in coaching, especially as it relates to young athletes.

Players respond differently to instruction, cues and feedback. Some respond well to demonstration, while others respond to verbal instructions. Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of the coach to make sure a team is cohesive and responds positively in most situations.

Coaches and athletes must be on the same page to maximize potential. Most high school and college teams have time restraints on practice, making the coach’s time much more valuable. The right type of instruction and cues are imperative, and coaches may only have one or two opportunities to connect with each athlete. Instruction must be thorough, direct and effective, and it has to reach each player.

Providing the right ingredients in the least amount of time is a major key to emphasize player execution. Understanding how to effectively utilize the power of demonstration and provide adequate instructional cues and feedback ultimately increases the athlete’s motivation, dedication and self-efficacy.

The power of demonstration

Knowing when and how to demonstrate is a tool that coaches can use with all levels of learners and performers. Demonstrations offer the athlete visual pathways to the kinesthetic learning that translates to correct execution of a skill or technique. There is an art to demonstration, one that coaches must work to improve. Effective demonstrations allow the athlete to pick up important cues of the movement that might be missed or omitted in verbal dialogue.

Brain activity begins in the visualization phase, which means that the mental connections are already happening before the athlete attempts the movement, skill or technique. When providing demonstrations, coaches should take time to allow the athlete to first visualize each part independently, then comprehensively at full speed. Coaches should try to incorporate game-like situations as much as possible to improve the translation of the skill to practice and competition.

Demonstration is not limited to the personal instruction. Taking advantage of video analysis showing athletes performing the skill increases the athlete awareness of his or her movement of the skill. With mobile technology, coaches can use recordings to show the athlete how their execution of the skill compares to the desired outcome. Seeing themselves performing the skill or technique helps athletes strengthen visual pathways, and using mobile technology does not demand extensive time or expense.

Cues, feedback and instruction

Although visual demonstrations are effective, the majority of coaching communication comes in verbal cues, instruction and feedback. It’s critical to emphasize effective verbal strategies, especially since most competitions do not allow for demonstrations.

Competition instruction can be intense because the game can change at any moment, and effective cues must be made in reaction to the change. The wrong cue from a coach, or the wrong interpretation from the athlete, could lead to a negative outcome. Coaches should practice different methods of providing instruction, cues and feedback. For example, verbal instructions should be provided before the performance of a motor skill and include specifics. Verbal cues, however, are one to two words in length and responsible for directing the athlete to a specific mindset that was created in practice. Feedback is given before or after the performance of a motor skill, which can be the response to a skill or performance. It can be positive or negative, but research within the field of sport psychology shows that positive feedback is most effective, and negative feedback is more effective when used sparingly.

Don’t fall into the trap of over-emphasizing cues and instructional statements. “Follow through” is a common cue in volleyball and basketball, and while shooting hinges on correctly flicking the wrist, not explaining the phrase in detail can lead to confusion, misunderstanding or an overcorrection that diminishes the skill. A follow through when spiking a volleyball looks entirely different than one for shooting a basketball. For multi-sport athletes, that could be confusing.

Body language and verbal timing

To communicate effectively, coaches must first master their tones. Body language and voice inflection communicates strongly, sometimes beyond words.

Getting to know each player individually is a good starting point. If a coach knows each player well enough, he or she is aware of the kind and tone of instruction needed to get through to that athlete. An aggressive style of coaching isn’t always effective, and programs can lose athletes who don’t respond well to this approach.

Timing is everything. It helps coaches know when to start practice, end practice, give instructions, punish athletes or give encouragement. To be good at timing, coaches must have self-awareness, strategizing what to say and when to say it. Most athletes do not respond well to long periods of instruction, especially during the performance of a skill or movement. Bad timing can diminish the skill or frustrate the athlete.

Timing is also critical. Research suggests that when learning a skill in the initial stages, immediate, constant positive feedback is the best strategy for skill mastery. The athlete can learn the skill in a positive environment and associate the desired outcome with correct performance.

As learning progresses, the frequency of feedback can decrease. Incremental feedback is best, and it should be more focused on specific instructional skill. As mastery improves, the coach can implement a more autocratic style of feedback and instruction. Remember that research shows athletes respond better to positive coaching.

If a coach sees his or her athletes as learners, and makes learning a priority in their relationship, performance can improve. Providing effective feedback at the right time might be a coach’s greatest asset. Coaches need learning athletes, and athletes need teaching coaches, so by applying these strategies, performance and attitude will improve.

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