Too Many Cooks, Not Enough Gourmets: Examining Provision and Use of Feedback for the Developing Athlete

21 Mar 2022

Too Many Cooks, Not Enough Gourmets: Examining Provision and Use of Feedback for the Developing Athlete
This study began after a conversation with a player I was coaching. Between academy, school, international and senior team, he had nearly 30 people inputting on his development. I was interested in the phenomenon as a whole in coaching and talent development, and the networks of input that surround an athlete.
Underpinned by the concept of feedback as a process (explained in an earlier post). Here, we longitudinally tracked 8 rugby league players from different clubs as they made their transition into the elite game. We were interested in three things:
  • How many feedback providers were offering players performance relevant information?
  • Was this feedback coherent?
  • How did players make sense of the feedback they received?
As players progressed through to the 1st team, they tended to pick up more and more feedback providers from some expected, and some unexpected places! Moving into their respective Super League teams the mean number of feedback providers was 18.62. A lot of people with the ability to influence athlete development.
We also found that players appeared to experience a significant amount of incoherence between these various stakeholders as they moved between different environments and between senior team/academy duties. For example, senior coaches offered players different feedback to their academy coaches, often on the basis of snapshots in training sessions, or short term tactical priorities for the starting team, rather than their long term needs.
For the coach working in talent development, this may not be surprising. However, what was really interesting was how players made sense of the feedback they were offered. Much like other findings in mainstream social science, it may not be as simple as some social media memes would suggest.
In this case, the core feature of player sensemaking and desire to take action came as a result of the power/status of the feedback provider. Although players also identified the quality of relationship with the provider, this was often rejected based on different input from a higher status source. As one player put it: “speaking to [academy coach] was getting monotonous, but when the first team coaches started speaking to me it felt better because they are higher up”.
This also showed that players often lacked the ability to make sense of the different performance information they received, they seemed to approach their sensemaking based on: who was offering it, what was offered, how it was offered, with other factors often moderating their engagement.
There also appeared to be a number of moderating factors that influenced how feedback was understood and engaged with. This often came in the form of senior 1st team players, who came with their own, sometimes helpful or contradictory views. Players also described their use of coaches and whilst they might not fully believe in the feedback offer, they would show coaches that they were acting on feedback as a means of impression management to further their career.
Ultimately, what we found here is complex. But, what is clear are that social media memes of coaching (e.g., “they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”) are a long way from the full story.
Whilst the data challenges simplistic narratives, it also presents challenges for the coach - especially one who does not hold significant status/credibility in the eyes of the athletes that they coach. There is a socially complex mess for the coach to navigate. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be done.
So what can a coach do?
  • Ultimately, we need to consider how to deliberately curate the experience of athletes, ideally, this should involve the coordinated use of the what, how, and where of feedback.
  • Coaching is a team game – it is rarely reducible to a single athlete-coach relationship. Engage with the broader network around you and the athlete.
  • As has been suggested before, it is a good idea for you to integrate your practice with the the rest of this network. An effective way to do this is the creation of shared mental models amongst different stakeholders (coaches, practitioners, international squads, parents). To integrate with others, consider using stakeholder mapping with athletes to understand how to maximise the impact of feedback and who might moderate it? Ask the athlete who they receive feedback from and what feedback they get from different sources (just beware impression management!)
  • If athletes are not acting on important feedback, consider how you might use ‘higher status’ providers to get the message across. For example, asking senior athletes to reinforce a message or spend time looking at a particular element of an athlete's performance.
For Talent Development
  • We need to prepare performers to make best use of feedback and engage in sensemaking – especially given that feedback is well established as being one of the most important features of performance enhancement. We want athletes making decisions based on quality of information, not shallow perceptions.
  • This means athletes need to develop a psycho-behavioural skillset as they progress. They also need opportunities to critically engage with feedback. This is a very different approach to the 'feedback sandwich', making the message simpler, or identifying the 'right types' of feedback.
Author: Jamie Taylor, Senior Coach Developer at Grey Matters

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