The Three C's of Giving Feedback

A few months ago, Elektra Q-Tion and I wrote a blog on the same topic and posted together (being a team player). After reading her recent blog on how to ask for feedback, in which she gives super-smart advice, I wanted to post what I've written about GIVING feedback. Q, I'm totally doing an unsolicited co-blog. I'm guessing you might enjoy a guerilla blogging, so I'm doing it.

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Giving constructive feedback is an art form and a skill that must always be refined. It's absolutely necessary that coaches are taught how to give feedback before allowing them to address skaters. Let me repeat this: coaches must be taught how to give feedback BEFORE they give anyone feedback. While they may have good intentions, if coaches are not taught how to deliver feedback they most likely will do so in ways that defeat the purpose of helping a skater grow and improve.

I've heard good coaches give AWFUL feedback. I don't mean it's awful because the skater reacted in a negative way. I mean feedback that did not come from a place meant to challenge AND inspire a skater. Feedback that came from frustration. Feedback that came from anger. Feedback that came from a heartfelt place, but was worded in a way that came off as insulting or condescending. Or maybe it was condescending on purpose. If your goal, as a coach, is for your feedback to challenge and inspire, you really need to consider what you say or write before you do so.     

I hope we can all agree that telling a skater something like "that's not how to do it" or "that's not right" is never a good thing to say. That kind of feedback is lazy and does no good for anyone. Feedback should be delivered in a constructive, compassionate, and consistent manner.  

Constructive Feedback

Constructive feedback is specific. It communicates what, exactly, needs to be improved in concise detail. Even if you think you have been specific, assume you have not and find a more detailed way to communicate. For example, let's say you have a skater who cannot stay with her teammates when playing defense. She doesn't leave the wall, necessarily, but she doesn't stay with the wall. You offer the following feedback: "You need to improve teamwork skills" or "You need to stay with your teammates." That feedback specifies the problem, but it does not address the skills hindering the skater from staying with teammates or the skills needed to improve. Here's where your observation and research skills are needed. You watch the skater and try to figure out why she isn't staying in the wall. You discover that she is not near her teammates when the speed of the wall changes. This tells you that she is either unable to stop and change direction as quickly as her teammates or that she can do it, but isn't aware that she needs to. Next you watch her during a stopping drill to see how urgently she executes her stops. You find that she struggles with urgent stops and direction changes. Instead of giving her feedback to stay with her teammates, you deliver this specific feedback: "You must improve your stopping skills and forward/backward agility, so you are able to stay with your teammates when the pack speed changes and/or the pack changes direction." 

This process is not quick, but the more you do it - observing, thinking, researching, thinking, observing, thinking - the faster you are able to hone in on the problem and how to fix it. Once you take this approach to delivering feedback, you will find that you sharpen your observation skills and begin to see the problems and solutions much quicker. 

Constructive feedback must also include suggestions for how to improve. You can tell a skater to improve speed control and forward/backward agility, but if they don't know how to do that, they will get frustrated and probably give up. Offer specific drills and exercises, and do so in writing. Work with the skater to develop a goal plan, so they can access the information. 

I know, you're thinking "Punchy, that's a lot of fucking work. What if I do all that work and the skater doesn't even follow the goal plan?" Yes, it is a lot of work, but the more you do it, you'll find that you build up a collection of feedback that you can recycle. There will always be a skater who needs to improve core strength. I have a google doc full of links to workouts (mostly Bootyquake's), so as soon as I've determined a skater needs to work on a specific skill, I hit up that document and copy/paste links for the skater. I also have compiled goal plans for improving stops, improving lateral movement, and so on, so I can reuse those at any time. (I am also mega-mondo-organized, so it's easy to find this stuff. Also, I sell goal plans if you are interested in purchasing them.) After you build up a system of information, delivering feedback on how to improve is just a few clicks away. Seriously.    

Compassionate Feedback

Compassionate feedback comes from a genuine place of wanting to help a skater succeed. Compassionate feedback recognizes the good qualities of a skater and seeks to build on that. Find a way to compliment a skater - say something positive. Don't lie to a skater, but find something to compliment, even if that means complimenting the fact that she is trying or taking initiative or having a great attitude. This encouragement can mean the world to people who struggle with confidence. Additionally, it helps to establish a conversation that doesn't lead to a skater feeling defeated or defensive. A skater who feels this way won't hear you or won't believe you. 

Compassionate feedback also communicates unwanted behavior in a positive light. Instead of referring to what a skater did wrong, draw attention to how to execute a skill. It's all about the words you choose. Avoid words like no, not, don't, can't, shouldn't, etc. For example, instead of saying "when you work with a partner, you are not working with them or communicating with them," you should say: "I can see that you are trying to work with your partner. The next step is to make eye contact with her, be within reaching distance, and talk to her." You'll be amazed at how positively framing your words will result in positive results.

Additionally, be sure to offer positive reinforcement when skaters accomplish their goals. Let them know when they are succeeding. Ask them to demonstrate a skill they do well (if they are comfortable with that). Offer them praise in front of everyone, so all skaters can share in someone's success. Create an encouraging environment, so skaters are excited to learn and look forward to receiving feedback from you.

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More feedback examples: 

Not constructive and/or compassionateYou are high-blocking everyone, and you're going to hurt someone. 

Constructive and compassionateI love how aggressive you are in the pack. This is an excellent and necessary skill to be a successful player! Be careful with your sternum blocks, though. Aim lower to avoid hitting someone in the face. If you aim for their navel - even though it seems impossibly low - your margin of error decreases. That way, if you make contact a little above the intended target area, you will still be legal.

Not constructive and/or compassionateYou look totally lost, like you have no idea what's happening in the pack. 

Constructive and compassionateYou do a great job of adjusting speed and keeping up with the pack. The next step is to focus on awareness. At all times you need to know where the jammers are, where your opponents are, and where your teammates are. Knowing what's happening in the pack teaches you how to respond.

Consistent Feedback

Coaches must be consistent with the amount of feedback given and when it's given. I think all skaters should receive written feedback at least once a year. Written feedback should be given to skaters after an assessment and/or tryout. Coaches should compile the feedback in easily accessible, digital form, so the skater can view it at any time. The feedback serves as a record of achievement. As often as possible, give feedback in the moment during drills. Don't stop skaters during the drill, but offer quick feedback so they get the most out of that drill. Offer in-the-moment feedback as needed. 

Consistency is crucial when more than one coach gives feedback to a skater. A skater can become confused and disenchanted when coaches offer contradictory feedback. All coaches must be on the same page about how skills are executed. For example, there are several ways to grasp hands when executing an assist (whip) on the outside. At the beginner level, choose one way to teach skaters so they are learning the same skill together. You don't want a skater receiving different feedback from coaches. 

Coaches must also be on the same page about how skills are assessed. They should know exactly what to look for and how to objectively assess the execution of a skill. Early in my derby career I was part of an assessment crew. We were all given a skater to assess and forms to fill out for that skater. After assessing one skill, we switched forms with another assessor, as to avoid bias or one skater getting assessed from a "tough" or a "friendly" assessor for every skill. Our head of training compiled all the feedback and grades into a document for the skater to read. When reading through the feedback, I noticed some skaters received conflicting feedback. One assessor wrote "doesn't stay with partner" and another assessor wrote "works great with her partner!" If I were the skater receiving that feedback I'd be A) pissed B) confused and C) untrusting of the training staff. If more than one coach writes feedback for a skater, that feedback should be reviewed for consistency before sharing it with the skater. When all coaches are on the same page about how to execute and assess skills, their combined feedback is more consistent for an individual skater.

Additionally, when offering feedback in written assessment forms, it's good practice to include a summary that emphasizes at least one positive skill or quality and addresses one or two that the skater should immediately work on. For example: “Suzy Skater, you executed your stops with the urgency needed for game play, you demonstrated focus and control, and your blocks were well-timed and executed legally. Moving into your next phase of training, we would like to see you continue improving those skills and to work on adding more power to your blocks and being more aware in the pack. Below is a list of exercises and drills you should complete every week in order to improve these skills."

Following Up Feedback

Always, always, always, check in with skaters after delivering feedback. Make sure they are implementing your feedback. Most skaters need a reminder. Yes, this is more work, but these little things are what makes a good coach great. Honestly, I struggle with this because I want skaters to trust me. I want them to put in the same hard work I did when I thought about and fretted over delivering the feedback, and when I spent hours creating a goal plan for them. I want them to feel inspired and work hard. When they don't, I get discouraged. The challenge, though, is not to allow that to impact my coaching. I still need to check in with these skaters. I still need to encourage them.  

How Skaters Receive Feedback

People are complex. They receive feedback in different ways, and it helps to know your skaters, so you are aware of how best to deliver feedback. While you may do your absolute best to offer consistent, constructive, compassionate feedback, some skaters are not ready to hear anything about themselves that doesn’t reek of awesomeness. Ego gets in the way of your mouth and their ears. Ego is a gigantioid volleyball player who spikes your feedback - a beautifully served volleyball - away from the intended recipient and straight to the floor. With alarming speed. Ego is a gnarly, dumpster skank who ruins everything. Ego is a festering diarrhea stain. Ego is vagina dentata with mouth AND genital herpes. Okay, you get the picture. Everyone has an ego and sometimes (lots of time) that gets in the way of them hearing, understanding, and retaining feedback. You can talk to them about this, too, and hope they are open to changing their approach to feedback.

Skaters should be grateful for feedback, grateful that someone cares and wants to see them succeed. Unfortunately, this is rare, mostly because many skaters do not have a background with sports or may have never been in situations in which they had to receive feedback or criticism. Not everyone is mentally and emotionally healthy, but you, however, must be professional regardless of the reaction. This is not easy to do, but when it happens I try to focus less on feelings of anger and more on feelings of pity. I feel sorry for that skater because she lost out on an opportunity to grow. And, honestly, the more that happens with a skater, the less time I spend trying to coach them. I spend my coaching time on skaters who are coachable and want to improve. 

Let's summarize the three C's of feedback: make sure your feedback is constructive (specific and offers suggestion for improvement), compassionate, and consistent,  make sure you're in a good place when you deliver feedback, and make sure you remain professional when skaters act a fool when they receive (or refuse to receive) feedback. If you fuck it up, apologize and do it right the next time. You can do this. 

What works for you? What success have you had with offering feedback? Share you experiences with me!