For Coaches
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Fading Feedback


By Greg Bach

During practices coaches often dispense lots of feedback in the quest to help young athletes learn, grow and be able to perform at their best on game days.

But bombarding kids with a flurry of feedback and never-ending instructions can stall development.

And compromise those game day performances.

“The role of the coach is not to provide answers to all the athlete’s challenges, but rather to create an environment where children learn to problem solve as independently as possible,” says Mark Williams, one of the world’s leading sports scientists and co-author of The Best: How Elite Athletes Are Made with Tim Wigmore.  

Williams is an adjunct professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Utah who has written more than a dozen books and presented in more than 30 countries. The Best features exclusive interviews with top athletes – Steph Curry, Pete Sampras and Elena Delle Donne, among others – detailing how they developed extraordinary skills and are able to perform under the most intense pressure.

And how coaching impacts the developmental process.

“If, as a coach, you want good performance during practice then the research suggests that you should provide lots of instruction, demonstrate often, provide blocked and repetitive practice opportunities, avoid stress in all its various guises, and provide lots of feedback,” Williams says. “However, here’s the paradox: while these conditions promote superior performance during practice, the reverse conditions are better for long-term learning and skill development. That is, coaches should consider the least amount of instruction that is needed for the kids to practice the task; they should provide variable and dynamic practice conditions that are reflective of competition, include stressors such as fatigue and anxiety; and provide the least amount of feedback. The latter conditions have conclusively been shown to promote superior retention and transferability of skills to competition. So, as far as coaching is concerned, less is often more.”

Check out what Williams shared about coaching and parenting young athletes and use his insights to help your young athletes squeeze the most out of their experiences:

SPORTINGKID LIVE: You mention that the goal of the book is not to provide a template for future would-be champions, so what do you hope readers take away from it?

WILLIAMS: The book aims to increase understanding of the factors that impact on elite athlete development. In particular, the focus is on some of the sociological and psychological factors that influence how athletes develop and the important role played by coaches. The book presents a nice balance between interview material with top athletes and coaches and cutting- edge science. The book is not based on subjective opinion – it’s based on science and in this regard it dispels myths raised by other popular science books. We do not present a template for would be champions, because each sport and athlete are different; a template does not exist. However, what we do is highlight the things that we know through cutting-edge science to be important on the journey to greatness.

SPORTINGKID LIVE: You feature some great insights from Judy Murray when tackling the issue of helicopter parenting that is so prevalent in youth sports today. She spoke about how she would ask questions of her kids after matches instead of telling them what they did wrong. Why is this parenting approach so beneficial for young athletes?

WILLIAMS: In keeping with the need for coaches to be more hands-off during practice, the same advice could be offered to parents when engaging their children in sport. Parents play a key role in creating a positive and supportive environment for children to engage in sport, but there are dangers associated with hyper-parenting that may increase stress and the chances of children suffering burnout or just dropping out of sport all together. Parents must give their children space to breathe and grow in a safe and supportive environment. Judy Murray provides some great examples of how she created an environment that was conducive to developing Andy and Jamie, both serial Grand Slam winners.

SPORTINGKID LIVE: What’s something an athlete shared with you that a young athlete could use or embrace on their athletic journey to help them derive more enjoyment from competing and enjoying the process?

WILLIAMS: All athletes share great passion and interest in the sport, which drives them to continually engage in practice. The best athletes are highly driven to master the sport and demonstrate key psychological characteristics such as grit, resilience, mental toughness and motivation, all of which are linked to some degree with engagement in practice. However, the path to excellence is long and never smooth. Many athletes describe ‘speed bumps’ along the way that periodically stall progress and one of the key skills is the ability to see failure as an opportunity for growth. We all fail – the key issue is how do we learn from that failure and what do we need to do to reduce the chances of repeating that failure in the future? To this end, the best athletes actually spend more time practicing the things that they are not good at, rather than the things they have already mastered - they have a growth mind-set; whereas, in contrast, less elite athletes spend longer practicing skills they have already mastered.

SPORTINGKID LIVE: Why do younger siblings have a greater chance of becoming elite than older siblings?

WILLIAMS: Siblings, particularly older ones, play an important role in providing companionship and emotional/instructional support, as well as acting as facilitators providing greater opportunities for adaptive learning and the development of coping and resilience skills. Younger siblings are statistically far more likely to become an elite athlete than older ones, albeit having any sibling at all is a major advantage. Younger siblings have access to other people to play with, are introduced into the sport at an earlier age, have the opportunity to imitate and copy older siblings, and are more likely to become motivated to outperform their older sibling. Younger siblings have to strive more to compete against their older siblings, presenting more opportunities to make the adaptations needed to progress in the sport. Generally, younger siblings are disadvantaged, at least physically, when competing with older siblings and this creates a challenging environment where they have to become more adaptive and creative in order to succeed, helping focus attention on technical, tactical and psychological skills.

SPORTINGKID LIVE: From your research and conversations what are the common characteristics associated with the childhoods of elite athletes?

WILLIAMS: These characteristics vary from one sport to the next and across cultures and contexts. There is no doubt that the child needs to develop a love for the sport, but invariably no one reaches the elite level without prolonged engagement in the sport – and practice is by far the most important factor. Clearly, however, it’s not any type of practice or even a certain amount of practice, but it’s the right practice at the right time supported by top quality coaching. Success is never a smooth journey – it’s a rocky road and having the perseverance to continue to engage in the sport even when things are difficult is key.

SPORTINGKID LIVE: In closing, is there anything you would like to add?

WILLIAMS: Clearly, passion, interest and enjoyment are some of the key factors in continuing engagement in a sport and whatever level of competition athletes are performing at there is always scope for improvement with perseverance and the right type of practice. We can all improve, and the advice is keep challenging yourself and keep improving, and above else continue to have fun.

Feedback Coaching Practice Leadership Mark Williams The Best Elite

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