Giving Feedback on Skill Performance
This post is intended to give an overview of several aspects of coaching science, in particular surrounding provision of feedback to athletes, something which numerous coaches (both strength and technical/sport coaches) often don’t do effectively.
There are two main types of feedback – intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic feedback can be viewed as ‘self’ feedback and something that the athlete knows occurred, for example if an athlete bails from a snatch they are intrinsically aware that this occurred. Extrinsic feedback comes from external sources such as, and most commonly, a coach, but can also come from video analysis and the use of mirrors.
In terms of extrinsic feedback, most authorities in coaching science (i.e. Gabriele Wulf and Nick Winkelman) agree that using external feedback/cues is more effective than using internal – for example in a vertical jump ‘touch the ceiling’ instead of ‘extend your knee and hips quickly’. There are two types of extrinsic feedback, you can inform them of what you saw (descriptive) or elaborate on what they need to do to fix the error you witness (prescriptive). Descriptive is regarded as better for athletes with a lower training age/less experience, whereas prescriptive is better for more technically mature athletes.
The author of the article referenced below (Wrisberg) talks about when to give feedback, providing a key quote – “when in doubt, be quiet”. He (Wrisberg) is of the opinion that coaches should resist the temptation to provide assistance and coaching cues too often and instead permit the athletes to practice skills on their own (a form of guided discovery). He then goes on to say that the least helpful form of feedback is simply providing extrinsic feedback that is the same as their own intrinsic feedback – provide feedback only when an athlete can’t identify the error or pick up on the intrinsic feedback. An example of this is if an athlete drops the bar mid-way through a deadlift there is little point in informing them that their grip failed/was weak. The most beneficial form of feedback for an athlete will direct them towards sources of intrinsic feedback. I recently encountered an example of this in my own coaching practice whereby an athlete who I was teaching to clean wasn’t keeping the bar close and ‘brushing’ the thigh. To rectify this I put lines of chalk from the middle to the upper portion of his thigh and told his to try to brush the chalk off with the bar with every repetition.
Once athletes are proficient at identifying relevant intrinsic feedback on their own, they will eventually need less extrinsic feedback and cueing from the coach. The caveat to this is that if athletes have not fully ‘bought in’ to strength and conditioning they may not be interested in learning the skill we are teaching (such as the clean) thus they are unlikely to ask for feedback and they will not focus on their own intrinsic feedback. This highlights a motivational aspect to this element of coaching science.
Recent research in coaching science has suggested that giving more frequent feedback is not more effective when it comes to promoting skill development when compared to giving less frequent feedback. Wrisberg suggests that coaches give the minimally effective amount of feedback to avoid overloading the athlete. If more feedback is deemed necessary then it may be appropriate to utilize summary/average feedback after a session during a breakdown. Athletes’ performance will still improve in the absence of frequent extrinsic feedback as the athlete is required to solve their own movement errors and they are able to focus more acutely on their own intrinsic feedback. If feedback is provided too often athletes may become dependent on it, as they will immediately attempt to incorporate the feedback in the next repetition and, if they’re provided with different feedback each time, they will be incapable of achieving any stability in their performance. As a result of this they will not gain an understanding of what they’re doing and the outcome that they’re achieving. Thus an overall rule is to give feedback to athletes more regularly during early learning phases and progressively less frequently as their skill levels improve.
Quality of feedback is more important than quantity; to achieve higher quality feedback coaches must consider the content, precision, timing, and conciseness of the cues in order to deliver the most effective message to the athlete/s. Wrisberg also says that delaying feedback has some benefits as it encourages athletes to become self-sufficient. The best way to delay feedback is to first ask athletes questions such as ‘why do you think ____ happened?’, which will force them to evaluate their own intrinsic feedback, only after they answer will extrinsic feedback be provided by the coach. Challenging athletes to detect their own errors and come up with solutions will facilitate skill development and improve their ability to detect and correct mistakes.
Increasing feedback precision is another important aspect of skill acquisition and coaching. Wrisberg suggests the use of bandwidth feedback, something that I have utilized regularly in my coaching practice. Bandwidth feedback requires establishment of a performance bandwidth – this being the amount/extent of error you will tolerate before cueing/providing extrinsic feedback to the athlete (a tolerance zone). If an athletes’ skill performance remains within the tolerance zone, there’s no requirement to give feedback, if it deviates outside of this zone then corrections must be made via feedback. With lesser skilled athletes the bandwidth will be wider, which allows coaches to provide more general feedback in order to improve gross performance of the skill. With athletes of a higher level (and where precision is more important) the bandwidth should be narrowed, meaning feedback will be given for even minor performance errors. From a skill acquisition perspective I believe this is a very useful tool. If working memory can only store seven +/- two pieces of information then it’s important to avoid overloading the athletes’ memory with excessive cues (particularly if they’re poorly thought out). In my coaching I try to focus on three main points for every skill/lift in the session (plus any general safety considerations), for example when coaching band resisted acceleration drills in speed/agility sessions I inform the athletes to focus on a good torso lean, powerful arm drive (hip pocket to eye socket), and to apply maximum force into the ground with every step. I then only emphasise these points (or cues relating to these points).
Being aware of the science of giving feedback not only allows us to coach our athletes more effectively and efficiently, it also helps in preventing reinvestment. Reinvestment is the attempt to consciously control your own movement during skill execution by constantly trying to apply explicit and rule-based knowledge to the skill. For example immediately prior to the second pull in the clean an athlete might think ‘how do I catch the bar?’ if they’ve been over-coached/had excessive feedback in their rack position or catch technique. This can also be known as choking, freezing, or the ‘yips’.