The art of feedback

Feedback - self-gainedLast month I blogged about how we can ‘funnel’ our decision-making to identify what we might work on to improve a paddler’s performance. This month, with courses cancelled as the UK went into lockdown, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on what write about and this blog focuses on how we might use our observations to support feedback.

Like most other things in coaching, managing effective feedback is an art which benefits from practice. I find it perfectly natural to watch someone perform a manoeuvre and have my mind racing with possibilities of things they might do to improve and eager to share my thoughts. But I also know I need to slow down and even stop.

Keeping quiet is often one of the most difficult parts of coaching but we need to create space to allow both coach and performer to collect their thoughts and prepare to discuss their feedback. If the performance has been high energy, the paddler will probably need to let their heart rate return to normal and maybe their breathing too. Different studies suggest different times required for this to happen – maybe 4-5 seconds, maybe 12-15 – but for me the optimum time for a coach to start discussing feedback is when they have eye contact with the performer, or if coaching a group, each performer. 

As the performer(s) settle is also a good time for the coach to think about what element of the performance they might focus on and, importantly, where the initial feedback is to come from. When working with groups of beginners we tend to start with coach-given feedback. This is generally most effective, recognising that our performers are likely to be making the same common errors – eg not trunk-rotating or not using the whole of the blade in the water – and may not yet have understood what they should and should not be doing.

As our paddlers progress we can start to introduce peer feedback. Our improvers are beginning to build their knowledge of what constitutes a ‘good’ performance and can help each other, exchanging observations and using the knowledge of what is and isn’t working for their partner to improve their own performance also. Coaches can aid the process by ensuring the peers are focusing on appropriate elements, typically using the Body/Boat/Blade framework. You will recognise this as classic peer or reciprocal coaching.

Well-considered feedback from coaches and peers, often referred to as external or extrinsic feedback, has the benefits of being impartial, honest and accurate. But very often it is self-feedback, the performer’s own experience and response to that experience that can be the most effective in improving performance, particularly for highly motivated performers.

The two young canoeists pictured above were clearly processing plenty of self-feedback as they turned their boat using pry strokes. They knew that they were aiming for a smooth, fluid performance with the blade well covered and most of the power being generated while the paddle shaft was near vertical. They were also well-practiced with their draw strokes and appreciated how to feather their blades for an efficient recovery. In a situation like this it takes only a few open questions from the coach to help the learners work out for themselves how they can make the pry more effective, develop better coordination between the pair, or whatever it might be that the learners and the coach agree they should focus on.

We may not be doing much coaching at the moment but we can take the opportunity to think about the internal/intrinsic feedback we are getting as we work to keep fit during the lockdown. Whether you’re walking, running or cycling for exercise this could be a time to listen more carefully to what your body is saying and think about what you might do to improve your efficiency. The questions you ask yourself could well give you new insights when we resume paddling and coaching. Stay safe!


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