Athlete Centered Skating

In the previous blog we presented a story about a boy at practice.  We asked readers to analyze the feedback exchanges between the boy and his coach and mom to determine if there are any issues.  Believe it or not, every single feedback exchange had potential issues.  Below, we break down the story into three different exchanges and label the issues as “red flags.”  We will dig deeper into these red flags in upcoming blogs.  Each number in the test corresponds to comments following.

A figure skater is hard at work in a private lesson with his coach.  The boy skates around to prepare for a triple jump. (1) His coach calls out, “Get your arms up!”  The boy briefly complies- he raises his arms a bit higher but only for a moment.  They sag back down as he continues the approach. Then comes the jump.  He vaults into the air and comes down tilted to the side and falls in a heap on the ice.  (2) He slides to a halt, pops back up, and slowly shuffles over to the coach waiting by the rink barrier.  The skater looks up to his coach and she starts to talk.  He remains quiet, but appears engaged, as she demonstrates with her own position how the boy erred on his jump takeoff to result in the fall. She shows the incorrect position using her body again and then moves into the ‘correct’ takeoff position. Then she asks the boy to imitate her position.  He complies. (3) As the skater holds the position, the coach physically guides his arms slightly and then turns him to slowly imitate the movement of the jump takeoff.  Then the skater edges away for another jump attempt that hopefully incorporates the coach’s insights.  This “cycle” repeats itself several more times.

Red Flags

(1) When a coach calls out feedback as the athlete performs it is called ‘concurrent feedback’.Though there are times when concurrent feedback is helpful, in this specific case it is not.  Coaches should be careful with concurrent feedback because athletes have to ignore their own thoughts and the feelings and sensations of performance to process what the coach is calling out.  Often, the athlete is left with the dilemma: “Which feedback do I ignore- my own or the coach’s?”  In this case, the athlete only briefly complied with the coach’s feedback.  He brought his arms up only for a moment most likely because he went back to focusing on his own thoughts.  On top of this, the athlete was not held accountable for making the correction.  This devalues the feedback and sends the message: “This isn’t important.”

The bigger issue is when concurrent feedback is overused because it shuts down the athlete’s own error-detecting capabilities and other self-regulatory processes.  It’s as if the coach is a navigation device telling the athlete where to go.  Think of how a navigation device works: it tells you where to go so you don’t have to think about it yourself.  The problem is that you don’t know where to go without one!

(2) The athlete skates over to the coach without analyzing his performance first. The skater has learned to wait for the coach to tell him what was wrong.  This commonly occurs from repeated cycles of this type of exchange.  Throughout this exchange the skater may be attentive and alert but he plays a passive role in the exchange.  Academics research literature calls this a “transmissive” or “one-way” exchange between teacher and student.  These types of exchanges have several issues:  a) The athlete is not actively involved in the learning process b) the athlete’s own thoughts and feelings are ignored; they cannot develop their inner voice c) the coach does not learn how or what the athlete is learning- she can only imply what the athlete is learning.  Therefore, the coach doesn’t know how to adjust the training effectively.  Sometimes coaches will tack on a “Do you understand what I mean?” and the athlete responds, “yes” but only to avoid looking foolish for not understanding. Most often it is the athlete who is wrong for not understanding rather than the coach for not communicating in a suitable way.

(3) When the coach moves the athlete through a position it is called “physical guidance”. Physical guidance has a long history in motor learning research and it is generally considered another intervention that turns the athlete into a passive agent of their own learning. The athlete’s own nervous system is not initiating the corrected movement. Therefore, the experience is quite different from when they will actually perform it separately – different muscles engaged, different tempo, different sensory feelings etc. In fact, even if an athlete performs the movement themselves but in slow motion, it could disrupt the actually timing of the skill.  Experts urge athletes to “visualize” their skills in real time to maintain the correct timing of performance.

Next, it is time for the skater to perform his routine with music – his long program.  (4) The music comes on and the coach starts to call out instructions: “Fill this movement out here… remember your arm movement there… keep your head up…”. Then comes a spin element which requires the skater to achieve a specific number of rotations to earn credit in a competition.  (5) The coach counts out each rotation: “One, two, three, four…”.  The boy exits his spin into a whirlwind of edges and choreographic movements.  (6) The coach launches from the wall to chase after the boy.  He continues on and the fatigue sets in.  The coach claps her hands.  She calls out, “now push here- push, push, push- faster!”  The boy continues on until the final pose.  Exhausted, he glides over to the wall and rests his hands on his knees.  (7) As he catches his breath, the coach moves closer to share her thoughts.

(8) Meanwhile, the boy’s mom sits in the bleachers to watch his private lesson.  She observes that the coach is animated and engaging and seems to be a true motivator.  She hears the coach call out instructions quickly and clearly.  The coach seems to catch every mistake her son makes and points them out immediately so he won’t go astray or develop any bad habits.  The mom also observes that her son is well-behaved in the lessons.  He seems to respect the authority of the coach in knowing what to do.  He stands quietly, nods his head as the coach instructs, and then tries to make the corrections.  Noting these behaviors gives the mom satisfaction.

(4) Here are more examples of concurrent feedback that are most likely ignored by skaters as they perform – not because they are bad students but because there are so many other things to process at the same time – something has to be ignored! Yet again, none of these commands hold the athlete accountable for remembering the behaviors in the first place or for actually taking control of the performance.

(5) When the coach calls out the spin rotations the athlete doesn’t have to count them himself.He is not forced to learn how to count the rotations; he does not have to think for himself – he’s got a navigation device to do that for him!  A better learning experience would be to tell the boy AFTER he completes the program that his spin was short and now he must do it three more times with the correct rotations.  Though this approach (called “delayed feedback”) didn’t help the spin in the actual performance, it holds him accountable and will set him up for doing it right the next time.  Lesson learned!

(6) Though parents might think that when coaches call out, yell, and clap their hands to “motivate” athletes through their programs, the behaviors reflect effective coaching practices – they do not. The coach should not be the drive behind the athlete’s motivation (called an “extrinsic” form of motivation) – the athlete should be!  Rather, the coach should create conditions that will turn on the athlete’s own motivation and this is a completely different approach (and requires a different skillset from the coach).

(7) The athlete, again, is not given time to reflect on his own performance. He is not held accountable for anything when the coach shares her feedback first and in a transmissive way.

(8) An animated and “engaging” coach can be very misleading. Engaging should mean that there is an active dialogue between coach and athlete (rather than a bunch of “uh-huhs” from the athlete).  A “motivating” coach is equally misleading because what’s most important is that the athlete finds his own motivation to improve performance.

After practice is finished, mom drives her son home for the night.  She initiates a discussion in the car.  (9) “How was practice today?” she asks.  “It was ok,” he responds.  Mom knows he struggled with the double axel and is feeling down about it.  (10) & (11) To be supportive she states, “I know you struggled with the double axel but I saw you also land a bunch of those three jump combinations and the rest of your program was clean.  I’m proud of you for not giving up!”  (12) She then discusses the boy’s off-ice class.  The off-ice instructor mentioned recently that the boy didn’t seem to be putting enough effort into this training.  Mom takes the opportunity to explain to her son how important off-ice training is for his skating.  “Hey, the off-ice trainer said you aren’t putting enough effort in to class.  If you don’t put effort in then you won’t get your triple jumps on the ice.”  The boy responds, “yup.”

(9)Is this a daily ritual? He had a hard day and might want to get lost in his own thoughts before engaging in discussion with a parent.  Even if mom is well-intentioned, the boy might perceive this as a form of surveillance.

(10) Again, though the parent is well-intentioned here, there is a big issue with her words of support: She is inadvertently reinforcing what is called “within session improvements” to her son: “Landing is good, falling is bad.”  However, practice should be about learning and learning requires athletes to explore, experiment, and make mistakes.  When coaches and parents want athletes to learn something new but also judge the quality of practice based on what skills were successfully landed it creates two contradictory goals.  The ultimate solution is to find a way to land the jump without changing anything. On the positive side, the athlete learns to be adaptable but on the negative side they do not improve the technique or quality of the skill making it, at the very least, less reliable or, worse, an injury provoking issue (poor technique leads to more injuries).  This refers to the learning versus performance distinction.

(11) Even a comment with a positive message (at the surface) can be perceived as a “controlling behavior” from the parent or coach. For example, “I’m proud of you for not giving up” could be perceived by the athlete as “To make my mom happy, I cannot give up.”  Another point is the focus on the negative- not giving up- rather than the positive- persisting.  When we focus on the negative it doesn’t convey specifically the behavior the athlete should target (which is to persist).  In fact, if we say something like, “Don’t open your shoulder on the jump take off” the athlete’s brain processes first the action “open the shoulder” then tacks on the “don’t” part after.  Therefore, the brain actually primes the negative behavior!

(12) Yes, if there is an issue with the boy’s level of engagement in a class it should be discussed and in this case the mother made an effort to allow her son to take ownership by stating he has the power to decide what to do in the situation.However, mom should have worded her statement in a positive way such as “If you put effort into the off-ice class you will improve your jumps and spins on the ice!”

In future blogs we will take a deeper look at these situations and types of feedback and many many more!