Athlete Centered Skating

Read the fictional story below.  There are feedback exchanges between coach and skater and parent and skater.  How many instances can you count when there are issues with the feedback exchange?  What issues did you notice?  Which exchanges were effective?

The Common Scene

A figure skater is hard at work in a private lesson with his coach.  The boy skates around to prepare for a triple jump.  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. 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.  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.

Next, it is time for the skater to perform his routine with music – his long program.  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.  The coach counts out each rotation: “One, two, three, four…”.  The boy exits his spin into a whirlwind of edges and choreographic movements.  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.  As he catches his breath, the coach moves closer to share her thoughts.

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.

After practice is finished, mom drives her son home for the night.  She initiates a discussion in the car.  “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.  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!”  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.”

Though the situations described above are fictional, they do represent traditional feedback exchanges that take place between coach and skater and parent and skater in some form or another.  Take a moment to review the story again.  How many instances can you count where the parent or coach resorts to an ineffective feedback practice?  Some of the examples may even appear to be positive at the surface (and the intentions of the parent or coach may certainly be positive) yet do not represent effective feedback practices and we will address each instance specifically in the ongoing blog series.

This is the first in an epic series on feedback (e.g. the discussion between a coach and student). It is so epic that we are not even sure how many blogs this will cover though I can tell you right now – we’ve written about 20,000 words so far and there is much, much more to write about! We will explain what feedback is, its purpose, and the different types of feedback available to an athlete. Then we will discuss how the timing of feedback influences learning, several important ‘distinctions’ regarding learning and performance, and, finally, how to make feedback an effective component of athletic training.

Feedback is a sensitive topic in both motor skill acquisition and academics research literature and, unbeknownst to many, the traditional feedback practices coaches, teachers, and even parents rely upon fail to accomplish the true goal of feedback. For example, in higher education, students complain that feedback from teachers is not helpful to their learning. In sports, athletes and coaches tend to perceive feedback differently where coaches assume their feedback is effective and the athletes feel it is not[1].  Feedback effectiveness also goes far beyond information to support learning. Feedback influences athletes’ motivation, feelings of competency and autonomy, and persistence.

We build our discussion around research literature in sports and motor learning, academics (especially higher education), and our experiences as athletes and coaches.  We will discuss: what exactly feedback is, the types of feedback available to an athlete, feedback content, how the timing of feedback impacts learning in different ways, misconceptions about feedback and learning (e.g. the influence of within session improvements; the distinction between learning and performance; and physical guidance).  We will use all this discussion to finally equip parents and coaches with effective feedback strategies they can apply themselves to support their athletes’ learning and development.

Here is how you can submit your findings (I actually provide the first issue!):

ACSkating Feedback Challenge

  1. “Get your arms up.” The athlete only briefly complied with the feedback and was not held accountable for keeping them up.  The feedback served as only a momentary reminder.  When feedback is given as the athlete performs (called concurrent feedback) this is often the case – athletes tend to ignore it.  Though there certainly are times when concurrent feedback can be helpful – so long as it is reinforced and the athlete held accountable.

[1](Stein, Bloom, and Sabiston 2012)