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Teach Your Athletes to Give Positive Feedback

If you’ve committed to giving primarily positive feedback, some of this will happen by osmosis. Some of your players will naturally pick up on what you’re doing and start speaking in a similar way. But helping make positive feedback a part of your culture does require intentional work as well. I like using questioning and debriefs to help with development.

Questioning is great because it allows you to frame positive intent in instances where peer feedback comes across as negative. “How could you say that in a different way?” is one of my go-tos. If they can’t figure it out on the spot, I follow up with “think about it and I’ll come back to you at the end of practice.” Just make sure to follow up – I make a note on my practice plan anytime I have something like that to follow up on to make sure I hit upon it during the debrief.

Debriefs at the end of practice are a great way to set the table to teammates to recognize each other. I usually start by keeping it all positive – “Tell me something you saw someone do really well today”. Or if a specific kid needs a pick me up “what is something you saw Sally do really well today?” Just be ready to have one positive loaded up to share yourself in the rare case you get a bunch of blank stares looking back at you and no one can come up anything.

For Advanced Teams and Mature Athletes:

If you already have a cohesive team, or once your team gets to a solid level of cohesion, and you know your athletes have the maturity to handle it, you can ask for constructive criticism and direct it from peer to peer. This is the truest test of your culture. Teams with athletes who can give constructive criticism to each other, and receive it in the spirit with which it is intended are the teams that can maximize their potential. That said, and I cannot stress this enough, DO NOT DO THIS UNLESS YOU’RE ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN YOUR TEAM CAN HANDLE IT. If you think your team can, here is how I would recommend implementation.

I would start by asking one teammate to share one thing they think a specific teammate does really well, and another thing that should be a primary focus for improvement in the next practice session. Skew it as positive as you can at first, and build upon that. I would initiate this with my most mature players, and if possible, I would want the initial feedback directed towards the strongest player(s) or leader(s) of the team. Maybe you prep them for it before practice starts, so they’re not caught off guard. If they can take the criticism in a positive way, it sets the tone for the rest of the team.

This debrief format is a controlled environment where you, the coach, can jump in if you notice the conversation starting to go sideways. You can reframe, clarify, or steer the conversation in another direction if you need to. I would also follow up with both athletes involved, independently, before the start of the next session to make sure they both felt good about the interaction. If the experience remains positive, proceed, if not, take a step back and rebuild trust. Treading lightly is critical, and only proceed when you’re confident the results will be positive or you can steer them back to positive if they start going sideways. If you’re not, you’re better off just framing the positives.

Thanks for sticking with us this far - we conclude tomorrow with Part 4 - make sure to check back for the last edition of this initial series.

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