Performance evaluations and feedback are important in all aspects of life. In school, students are graded on daily homework and weekly exams. In the workplace, there are continuous performance reviews. But with sports, there aren’t any legislative standards or financial metrics to be graded on, which has created a grey area on best practices and techniques on how to effectively provide constructive feedback to develop athletic skills. Here are some helpful tips and recommendations to help your athletes accelerate in their respective sports with encouraging athlete evaluations.
Give Athletes Your Best with a Great Athlete Evaluation
Goals of Feedback, Evaluations, and Why They’re Important
First, I think it’s important to understand the goals of providing feedback and athlete evaluations. Dr. Denise Wood summarizes these goals in three key areas:
- Motivate and encourage
- Reinforce good performances/discourage poor performances
- Speed up improvement
Remember, this isn’t about you – it’s about the athlete. Your job as a coach is to let each athlete know where they need improvements and how they can get there, all while boosting their confidence and keeping them engaged in the sport. Sounds easy, right? So where do you start?
Four Areas to Focus Development
While there are many areas of each sport you can focus on, they all boil down to four categories, and you should tailor specifics based on the sport you coach.
- Technical – Relates to the basic and most practical motions, like throwing motions, passing technique, hand-eye coordination, ball control, etc.
- Tactical – Relates to the thought process of the game, like anticipation, reading the play and knowing when to perform certain actions.
- Physical – Relates to stamina, quickness, power, strength, etc.
- Character – Relates to leadership, coach-ability, attitude, communication, determination, etc.
Each piece of praise or criticism you provide will fall into one of these categories. So, what are some best practices and things to consider when providing feedback to your athletes?
Tips for Effective Feedback
Understanding Descriptive vs. Prescriptive Feedback
As Craig Wrisberg states, you can either tell athletes what you saw (descriptive) or tell them what you think they need to do based on what you saw (prescriptive). There isn’t a right or wrong, and both forms of feedback need to be provided to have a balanced barometer. However, it’s important to understand the age group of your athletes and the training situation in order to provide feedback in the most positive light possible. For example, younger and less experienced athletes can take descriptive feedback more personal, and your goal is to motivate. An example of these differences would be, “that was a poor shot, it went over the net” (descriptive), versus “keep your chest over the ball and keep your ankle locked” (prescriptive).
Understand the Timing
As they say, there is a time and place for everything. That includes when to dig into your athletes and when to uplift. During the fourth quarter in a tight game, it’s probably not a good idea to dig into the negatives of their play but rather stay positive until after the game is over. If it’s important, try to provide feedback sooner rather than later, before that example fades in their mind. If they can’t remember it, they can’t learn from it.
Use a Good Positive to Negative Ratio
John Wooden, one of the most successful coaches in all of sports, coached by 3:1 ratio. For every one piece of criticism he gave, he provided three pieces of positive instruction. As you coach, are you balancing the two? What’s your ratio?
Don’t Forget Effort
Many times, we as coaches look at results and not the effort used to achieve that result. Sure, the ball may have gone over the net, but was it due to sloppy effort or was your athlete pushing through defenders to create the goal scoring opportunity?
One of the most popular philosophies of feedback is “sandwiching” the negatives in between the positives. When providing constructive criticism, let them know what they’re doing well, the meat on what they need to improve on, and one positive area to conclude the dialogue and soften the blow.
Less Is More
If you’re unsure whether you should make a coaching point or not, don’t. You’re unsure because you don’t know if it’s a habit or a mistake. We’ve all had the coaches that just like to hear their voice. You’ll notice as bad habits evolve, so make your points then.
Athlete Feedback vs. Athlete Evaluations
While the goals of the two are the same, I believe feedback and an athlete evaluation have separate elements and things to consider. Providing feedback is expressing different components of an evaluation, and is done all of the time at practice, in games and in the locker room. Providing a more formal, detailed evaluation is usually done after an event or when the season ends. You will “grade” an athlete on a scale and provide a full list of criteria all at once. Now, let’s talk about some best practices by breaking the two up individually.
Tips for a Powerful Athlete Evaluation
Use a Consistent Scale
Whether you’re evaluating the athlete’s ability out of 5, 10, or 100, choose a number that has a middle point that they can relate to. The middle point is usually defined as “satisfactory” or “average”. Choosing a scale without a middle point will make you have to choose below or above average for each topic point.
How to Compare and Score
Make sure the athletes know what you’re comparing their performance to. Are they being graded against their peers or competition at that event, their teammates, age group, or professional athletes? Is a “1” good or bad? Does a “10” mean I’m going pro? Also, keep in mind that in larger settings (i.e. after a camp), the first thing kids do is take out that sheet and read through it with their peers. Find a way to balance out their evaluations – don’t give a kid all high or low marks. Make sure to have a solid balance of strong and weak areas. You shouldn’t have trouble scoring less technically talented kids… that’s where the personality related sections are most valuable!
After you hand off the evaluation, understand you’re the one who is accountable for any questions or follow up. Make sure to include your email address and be prepared to offer additional details as to why an athlete received the scoring he/she did. Again, you’re doing this to help them improve their abilities, not to discourage them.
Sandwich the Negatives
Your evaluation should include a section to write additional thoughts. Sandwich critique between positive comments. Mention what they did well, some areas of improvement and then suggested actions they should take to reach the next level.
Ultimately, the role of a coach or instructor is much larger than teaching the X’s and O’s or wins and losses. You’re a leader in the community, a role model and a motivator. When giving feedback to athletes, keep these tips in mind and remember to relate it all back to the objectives; motivate, reinforce good and bad behaviors, and develop their skills.