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The Feedback Trap(s)


One of the many debts I owe to Ron Larsen is the day he handed me a study taken of John Wooden’s feedback. The study codified Wooden’s coaching and linked it to the actions of his players in order to judge it’s effectiveness. It was an eye-opening paper for me. I marveled at how remarkably rigid Wooden was in adhering to the laws of learning when he spoke.

Here are some things the researchers showed:

– short, oft-repeated phrases (he spoke in keys)

– precise physical demonstrations alongside what he was describing (goal presentation)

– Rarely, if ever, stopping practice (maximum # of reps always a priority)

– The Wooden Sandwich: A positive image, an image of the error that just occurred, concluding with a positive image (kin esthetic, visual and auditory learning simultaneously)

– Lots of information and demands for focus and effort. No belittling character or personal attacks. (“I care about you, and here’s how you get better”)

It’s easy to see if we always spoke in this manner, we’d have pretty successful practices. So, why don’t we do it all the time? Here are some traps we sometimes set for ourselves;

1. The Perception Trap: Sometimes we deliver feedback that is more for ourselves than for our athletes. When this happens, our motivation for what we’re saying is coming from a disingenuous place, which can alienate the athlete and prevent learning from occurring. The more we do this, the more time we’re wasting and the further we’re distancing ourselves from our players.

The perception trap happens when we say things so people can acknowledge how smart we are, or how good a public speaker we are, or how tough we are, or how talented we are (or were), or how badly we want them to like us. While people can make assumptions, in the end, the only one who really knows where the motivation for our statements is coming from is ourselves. Great teachers say things with the athlete’s best interest in mind.

2. Lack of clarity: If we “kind of” know what we want our athletes to do, then we can expect them to “kind of” do it. Our athletes learn best from clear, short, visual statements that will be repeated over and over. Clear vision allows for clear action.

3. Talking way too much: Our mind’s have a limited ability to process information (try to memorize a phone number while replying to an email..) so when we talk for a long time, we’re essentially doing it for ourselves. Our athletes will only remember a small portion of what we’re saying in that moment.

4. Multiple things to work on at the same time: We can often see how far our players’ need to go. We also know the process takes time. Our discipline in having the patience to allow our players to focus on just one thing will go a long way towards them staying motivated and hungry to improve. There is no quicker way to demotivate someone than to overwhelm them.

For me, a great way to get myself out of these traps is to ask for help from my assistants and players, as well as read that wonderful article Ron gave me awhile go. It’s amazing how much Wooden did right.

What traps and solutions have you found in your coaching?

Tom Black

Georgia Women’s Volleyball

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