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September 21, 2017 • Coaching

Delivering criticism to athletes

I recently asked a group of coaches to give me their main challenges with athletes. Almost immediately, the majority of coaches agreed they see many athletes shut down upon receiving negative feedback or criticism. They believed the biggest influences were club sports and parents, but they still had no idea how to prevent athletes from getting upset.

“Parents play a huge role — they really do,” said Mike Willahan, head girls basketball coach at Mountain Vista High School (Colorado). “It’s something where a lot of parents will battle the coach, and being a parent myself I understand you don’t want to see your kids hurt or cry.”

Earl Boykins, former NBA player and head boys basketball coach at Douglas County High School (Colorado), shared similar insight about club sports: “In Colorado, anyone that has money can start a club and play. Whenever there’s pay to play, there will always be players that can’t afford it, which affects how players develop.”

Regardless of the cause, problems exist. In fact, in having worked with athletes and conducting developmental workshops for several years, I see a clear disconnect: Coaches are upset with how athletes handle feedback, and athletes are upset with how coaches deliver it.

I once worked with a women’s basketball coach who was great at his job. However, he used a stern and militant coaching style, which often destroyed the morale of his team. When his players were behind going into halftime, the girls often returned to the court worse off than when they went into the locker room. Players ended up making unforced errors, lost their determination, and failed to come back and win. The coach didn’t recognize what was happening and how his style of delivering feedback and criticism affected his team.

There’s a simple solution for coaches to offer constructive feedback very quickly, and without causing athletes to shut down. We survey more than 300 athletes, and 90 percent said they were upset by how coaches offered feedback, not by the feedback itself. When asked to identify what really upset athletes, they narrowed it down to two reasons: First, the coach only focused on what they did wrong; and second, the coach delivered the feedback in front of everyone, embarrassing the athlete.

We asked coaches to give their perspectives on this response and how they work with changing demands.

“As a coach, you always have to adapt to the kids you have,” Boykins said. “If you can’t, you’ll always have friction. I try to always be honest with the parents about their child’s ability. I think everyone appreciates honesty.”

“It’s different for every player,” Willahan said. “Sometimes, players react better to getting after them. Other players are more reserved and need to be talked to differently.”

Coaches have very little time to give feedback during practice and even less time to give feedback during a game. Similarly, it’s unrealistic to expect a coach to deliver private feedback to individual athletes during a game. There isn’t time.

Willahan and Boykins shared different views on giving feedback during games versus practices.

“There’s a bigger sense of urgency during games and corrections need to be made right now,” Willahan said. “During practice, I can sit down and talk through things, but I can’t do that during games. I have no problem using the bench as a tool during games.”

Boykins advocates a different approach.

“The things we do in practice make the games easier,” he said. “The games are for the kids to show what they’ve learned (at practice), not to see the coaches. During games, I allow my players to play and showcase their skills, whereas other coaches believe in calling everything on the court. You have to have freedom for them to make their own decisions on the court. The way I coach is much more ‘free of pace.’”

For these reasons, there are two different methods for delivering feedback — one for practices and one for games. Both are proven to be highly effective and efficient.

Practices: 10-second feedback

Ten-second feedback received its name for the ease and speed in which it can be delivered. This style of feedback consists of a fast, one-on-one conversation between a coach and athlete. The conversation empowers the athlete to identify his or her own mistakes while allowing the coach to add insight. As a result, the athlete learns how to effectively take responsibility for his or her results without feeling embarrassed.

The 10-second feedback focuses on what the athlete does well and where they can improve in a balanced way and without judging mistakes as “bad” or “wrong.” Doing so prevents any coach from focusing too heavily on mistakes, which is major issue among athletes.

What’s great is that the 10-second feedback is a simple, three-question dialogue that’s easy to implement. A coach calls over an athlete, and asks the following questions:

  • “What worked with that play?”
  • “What didn’t work?”
  • “What can you do different next time?”

Games: Urgent feedback

While Boykins takes a more freestyle approach, many coaches still believe it’s important to engage players during games. That’s where the urgent feedback strategy can help.

Urgent feedback, according to our survey, is what caused athletes to shut down. However, there’s a way coaches can prime their team to be receptive to this type of feedback without creating negative energy.

A coach first needs to have a conversation with his or her team to establish a foundation and environment where athletes understand and accept this type of feedback during a game. When coaches explain the reasoning for a certain procedure or behavior, and get their team’s permission to implement it, they create a new context in which the behavior or procedure is now acceptable.

For this conversation to be effective, a coach needs to explain the differences between practice and games. The explanation creates a clear distinction for the athletes so they don’t misinterpret the coaching.

Surprisingly, many athletes misinterpret a coach’s true intentions. When coaches scream feedback or give stern directions, athletes often assume they’re upset. They don’t fully understand a coach’s demands during a game and why a coach must use certain styles.

Despite the advantages in giving an explanation, and having employed this with many teams, a common question among coaches is, “Why should I have to justify my actions or criticisms? I’m the coach.” This is a valid position, and one that any coach can take, but it limits results. Coaches can run their programs however they wish, but they could gain a much higher level of commitment and desire from their athletes by simply taking the time to explain the process.

Taking five minutes to include the athletes can lead to a season of more coachable and committed athletes. Feedback is certainly an issue that deserves attention, and although the results of poor feedback can be devastating, the solution is simple and something all coaches should consider.

Stu Schaefer is the president and CEO of Infinite Leadership Solutions (ILS) in Colorado.


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