How and When to Use Feedback with Athletes

It’s an interesting thing. Listen to coaches during games or in our case track meets. Most coaches confuse practice with competition in giving feedback. There is a basic premise in sports psychology regarding performance and feedback that goes something like this: practice is to learn, prefect, and get feedback to adjust what you do to get better; while race/meet day is for competition – race day is for racing.

This premise is often violated by well-meaning coaches by trying to “coach” athletes on competition day offering far too much input. Some recent research in indicate the following findings:

In technique events (hurdles, long jump, shot put, etc.) feedback focused on specific body parts can decrease performance due to tension/retraction of muscles etc.
[This has not been well evaluated yet for endurance events.]
Feedback as related to practice: more feedback is better; less feedback is not as helpful to improving performance.
Feedback as related to competition: more feedback yields poorer performance; limited feedback yields better performances.

For distance runners, we often focus on split times or running tall. This is excellent for learning pacing and good form while coping with progressively longer distances (or more reps) to get runners accustomed to race demands. And though we may advocate certain race pacing tactics depending on the competition or course (such as a hilly cross-country course); race day must be reserved for racing. That means to become overly preoccupied with “even splits” or trying to “run tall” you may lose a race you would otherwise win. Or, you may lose contact with a pack that would otherwise pull you to a new PR.

So, feedback in competition must be different than what is given in practice to be effective. Like driving a manual transmission; just do it. This is not the time to explain how to depress the clutch then slowly let it up until you feel it engage…

What kind of feedback is most helpful in competition?
Whether you are a coach, parent or fellow team member we can all become more effective giving feedback on race day. Keep comments short, powerful and meaningful. Here are the types of comments that will help versus hinder an athlete during competition.

Try these:
“Hang with them”
“Do it”
“Tuck in”
“Go for it”
“Don’t wait”
“Get with the pack”
“Beast it”*

* These last comments are examples of terms that are unique to a person or team (like a season motto or rallying cry). To make these especially powerful, create the cue word or phrase to help elicit the physical response desired. My son and his friends came up with this whole “beast” thing. So, for them it’s great when someone “beasted” on someone else; had a “beastly” workout; or they are out to “beast” on the competition. The point is, it does not have to be everyday proper English. It has to be meaningful to those using it.

Remember, the goal is to get an athlete out of the training or “evaluation” mindset and into the “just do it” mindset. You’ll have plenty of time after the race to evaluate what went right and what went wrong and then work on that in practice.

If you have rallying cries your teams have used or terms, phrases or other utterances that you have used – please share them. I love learning from everyone.


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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4 Responses to How and When to Use Feedback with Athletes

  1. run4change says:

    I love “BEASTING!”

  2. Dean Hebert says:

    I personally think the phrase was coined with you in mind! Time to go beast Strolling Jim!

  3. Ria says:

    Hi! I love this post. This reminds me of John Eliot’s book, Overachievement – It’s filed in under self-help, but boy, if I could recommend only one self-help book, this would be it. This differentiates the “training mindset” from the “performance mindset”, and says that a reason why lots of people fail during performance is that they use their “training mindset” while at it. It’s a pretty engaging read because it covers all kinds of “performers” (and the scientific data to back it all up)- athletes, musicians, businessmen.

  4. Dean Hebert says:

    So right… the same principle applies to all performers. In fact, having a long career in training and development in the workforce it also applies to learning and doing on the job!

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