Friday, 28 February 2014

Ideas about Feedback when Coaching Adolescent Cross Country Skiers

focusing on the important stuff...

Pick up any undergraduate textbook on motor learning, and you'll find a couple of chapters on feedback.  Its important stuff when you're learning and refining a motor skill.  Important because its how our brains work - when we first learn to walk, falling down and getting back up provides great feedback to refine balance - with enough practice and some hand holding from mom and dad, we learn to balance on our legs.  Feedback is important information provided by an agent (coach, peer) about aspects of one's performance or understanding. 

If you've been following my blog, you'll know I've been reading John Hattie's Visible Learning lately.  Hattie points out that there are four different types of feedback. 

1. feedback about the task or product of work - e.g. a description of how an athlete is performing a task
2. feedback about the process used to create the product/task - e.g. hey, you worked through that skill progression really well - you did this, then you did this, then you did this...
3. feedback focused on self regulation - e.g. hey, you did a good job listening to the description of what i wanted you to do
4. feedback that is personal in nature - e.g. hey, you're a great skier

Of these four types of feedback the least effective has been shown to be feedback that is simply personal in nature.  This is because when feedback draws attention to the self, learners can sometimes try to avoid risks involved with tackling challenging tasks - they tend to minimize their effort, and have a high fear of failure in order to minimize the risk to self.  This is important when working with novice skiers.  Giving them feedback that draws attention to themselves as a person can lead them to taking less risk in their learning.  Ideally, learning focuses on the task and then to the processes necessary to learn the task and then on to more challenging goals.  With learners at the acquisition stage it is better for coaches to provide elaborations than to provide feedback on poorly understood concepts.  Simply stated - when you're working with kids who arent at a refinement stage of learning a skill, you should focus more on giving elaborations of the skill than on telling them what detail of their skill is incorrect.  It comes back to the old adage of telling kids what you want them to do and not what you don't want them to do.

So much of what we do in working with children has a starting place with working with older athletes.  With older teens, or young adults we think nothing of error detection and correction.  With younger kids though Hattie's research would show us that focusing on the errors doesn't necessarily provide the most powerful learning, but instead Hattie points out a number of other important feedback priorities. 

Feedback needs to:

- prompt active information processing - e.g. how does what I am telling you as a coach fit into what you already know and help you close the gap on getting to where you want to go

- have low task complexity - e.g. - feedback should focus on one task alone rather than on for example six components of a skill

- relate to specific and clear goals - e.g. - cutting out wasteful movement

- provide little threat to the person at the self level - e.g. feedback should describe the task rather than the person

Hattie goes on to state "a feedback intervention provided for a familiar task that contains cues for learning, attracts attention to feedback standard discrepencies at the task level and is void of cues that direct attention to self is likely to yield impressive gains in achievement".  Big idea  - to optimize learning from feedback, give kids a clear picture of the task, describe or show them the gap between what they are doing and what they should strive for, and don't direct feedback at the person.

Out of over 150 different learning influences that Hattie identifies in his research, feedback is #10 in the most impactful interventions on improving achievement.  In our context, as coaches of adolescent cross country skiers, achievement is the increase in proficiency with which a child can perform a skill.  Feedback is important stuff and is often most impactful on learning when kids can tell their coaches what they know, what they understand, and where they are making errors.  Feedback has been shown to be least impactful when provided as praise, punishment, extrinsic rewards or programmed instruction. 

So what's the big deal - we all know feedback is important.  For me, the big deal is that some forms of feedback are shown to be more effective in helping kids learn.  Figuring that out is huge part of effective coaching.  Not all coaches are equally effective in the work they do.  The good ones  have thought about how they structure feedback; intertwining feedbak and instruction.  These are things I think about and try to incorporate in the work I do with adolescents.  I encourage you to do the same.

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB

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