Like many coaches, I work with a variety of players. This includes older teens looking to make the transition to pro, juniors that are still honing their skills, seniors that want an edge and pros climbing their way into the top 100. On top of that, it’s a mix of females and males.
This gets me thinking (and contemplating) - is my on-court and off-court feedback impactful? Is it driving change? Or impeding it?
Often times, when faced with difficult questions, I step back and revisit the science and research on the topic of interest. When it comes to feedback and cueing, there are no black and white answers, but there is research that can provide some clarity.
The questions I’m most concerned with, include the following; what types of feedback can we as coaches provide? How do different learning types respond? At what frequency should feedback be given?
I believe that knowing these various feedback nuances can help direct coaching outputs; and ultimately, facilitate positive progressions with students.
Below, we’ll lay some of the groundwork on this topic by exploring key terms while providing examples along the way.
KR vs KP Feedback
When it comes to feedback types, at the core, there are 2:
Knowledge of results (KR): this feedback type is related to the outcome.
Knowledge of performance (KP): this feedback type is related to the quality of the movement, mechanics or process that produced the outcome.
In tennis, KR could be related to where the ball lands, how fast the ball is traveling, how much spin was generated etc. In the gym, it could be feedback on the amount of weight lifted, how far/high someone jumped, how fast they performed an agility task and so on.
Overall, KR is more number driven. And as a mentor of mine once said, data can be a great and wise teacher. For instance, during preparation periods I often prescribe time-based hitting drills. An example is a simple crosscourt drill with a focus on depth. I mark a line on the court, measure the distance from the baseline, ask one player to count the number of shots that land past the line and record the time it takes to execute a given number of ‘depth strokes’.
I often don’t provide any feedback on stroke mechanics as I want full focus on the target. In this drill, we can provide many different types of KR feedback. The obvious one being the time it takes to hit the prescribed number of balls in the target area. Beyond that, however, we can provide info on the height of the ball, whether a ball was short, long or wide, whether it needs more spin etc. These are all results/outcome based.
Serving is another example, I often use a radar gun and provide feedback on speed, recording the best serve on that day and tracking that on a weekly basis. During the session, I’ll provide intermittent feedback on the speed output but often times, no feedback on technique/mechanics - this is purposely done.
Interestingly enough, motor learning research suggests that providing feedback on 50% of the outcomes can be more effective than providing feedback 100% of the time. From my own observations, I’ve found that when I provide KR feedback primarily on successful attempts (i.e. the serve landed in and was struck with good speed), players gain more confidence and have greater successes - in that session and subsequent ones.
In contrast to KR, KP feedback relates to the movement that produced the outcome. KP feedback is a bit more complex as it’s less objective and thus can be more open to interpretation.
For instance, because KP deals with how a player executed a certain movement or action, we can use different forms of feedback to reinforce good mechanics or to correct a technical flaw. I can tell the player what they did or didn’t do well. I can show the player by demonstrating the movement. I can use video or still photos to allow them to see it for themselves. I can guide the player through it by moving their racquet or helping them with a particular body part/action. I could also use a sound - either to provide context for rhythm (swish sounds for swings are often used) or tapping my hands to describe a footwork pattern.
This is one area that I often struggle with as every player learns (and prefers to learn) in a different manner. And there are often layers that we as coaches don’t always account for when providing feedback. For instance, if a player is a kinaesthetic learner, their proprioceptive organelles need to be fresh to reap the benefits of this type of learning. If they’re sore or fatigued from a previous session, their ability to learn from touch/feel will be greatly diminished.
Recently, with one athlete, I found using still images to be very helpful in understanding the proper movement sequencing on a forehand, but then getting them to actually feel the movement when focusing on a particular body part was the best way to get that movement to manifest itself correctly.
On the other hand, a new player I recently began working with didn’t respond well to this form of instruction. From what I can gather, they prefer seeing the movement performed in real-time - either by myself or another player, and then simply aiming to copy it (visual learner).
Extrinsic vs Intrinsic Feedback
Most experienced coaches will intuitively provide either KR or KP feedback, depending on the aim of the session/drill. Other times, however, it might be appropriate to combine the 2 types of feedback: “That ball landed short of the target line (KR), because you didn’t accelerate your hand/wrist through contact (KP)”.
The issue as I see it, however, is that players are getting this type of feedback too often - sometimes after every single shot! This is the frequency part of the equation (which we’ll explore in next week’s post). But there’s one important factor we must consider in all this; whether a player knows it or not, there is always an internal dialogue in their heads - i.e. self-feedback.
This self-feedback is called intrinsic feedback; while KR and KP feedback (which is provided by the coach or could be by some other observer/training partner etc) is referred to as extrinsic (or augmented) feedback. Here is Reid et al’s (2007) take on this:
“The provision of too much extrinsic feedback is suggested to breed an over-reliance on the coach, and impair an individual’s ability to independently process and evaluate information. This may manifest on-court with some players becoming anxious at the prospect of having to problem-solve without direct, extrinsic feedback or guidance.”
As coaches, we all want what’s best for our players - at times, however, that might mean to let them be. I’ve dealt with this situation many times; a player constantly looking towards me after every lost point in a practice set. While my instinct is to provide them with the solution, I try to bite my tongue and give them the platform to ‘figure it out on their own’. In the moment, they aren’t always happy, but after the fact, they realize the benefit of this coaching strategy.
A lot of this is dependant on the level of the player, and their subsequent stage of learning. Motor learning literature (Reid et al 2007), does suggest that as player’s skill develops/augments, there should be less and less reliance on extrinsic feedback, allowing intrinsic self-talk to carry the brunt of the work.
Final Thoughts and More to Come…
Coaching isn’t as easy as it may appear. Should I provide KR feedback, KP feedback or say nothing at all? At what moment is it most appropriate? And with what frequency? In a follow-up post, we’ll explore these questions related to timing and frequency, providing further guidance to coaches based on both anecdotal and research-backed evidence.
For now, I believe it’s key for coaches to reflect on what type of feedback is being provided (KR or KP), the specific content of that feedback and how it’s being presented to each individual player. Because we all know that player differences exist and catering to each individual’s learning style will likely contribute to both better and faster progress.
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