Less is More: The Feedback Guidance Hypothesis

Mental Skills
By Andy Bass

Scenario: A coach is in the cage with a player and throwing them batting practice from behind an L screen.

Swing 1: Coach- “Your hands were too low at launch position.”
Swing 2: Coach- “Ok better, but you didn’t stay on your backside long enough.”
Swing 3: Coach- “Make sure you keep your head steady as long as possible.”
Swing 4: Coach- “Try and keep both hands on the bat when you follow through.”
Swing 5: Coach- “Choke up just a bit more.”
Swing 6: Coach- “Narrow your stance to straighten up.”

The intention of this coach, like nearly all coaches, is to help the player. While this example may be somewhat extreme—we have all experienced something akin to this situation either as a player or as a coach… over coaching and using verbal instructions too often. And while we can certainly see how, on the surface, this form of coaching can be unattractive to athletes (the athlete wants time to figure it out on their own, the various forms of verbal feedback are taking their focus too many directions, and rarely do athletes want to be lectured at/spoken too constantly throughout practice). However, the more pressing concern is that when we provide too much feedback, we can hinder learning and performance.

The problem with providing too much feedback is because the athlete is not tasked with ‘solving’ the issue on their own. Feedback has ‘guiding’ properties. This makes sense—we provide feedback because we want to guide athletes toward a movement solution. However, in motor learning there is a concept that builds off the guiding properties of feedback that is, appropriately, called "The Guidance Hypothesis."

The Guidance Hypothesis suggests that, because feedback from a coach serves to direct athletes to a solution, athletes can become dependent on the feedback to make corrections on their own (Winstein & Lewthwaite, 1994).  For example, if a player is constantly corrected by a coach in practice, and not allowed to struggle and work to find the solution on their own, they will become dependent of the feedback to make corrections. And while the athlete is practicing, this is not a problem—the coach is there to jump in and help. But… the coach is not in the batter’s box in the game. The coach is not on the mound. The coach is not in the infield or outfield. And now the athlete does not possess the skill to be able to adjust in the moment, make decisions—and their performance can greatly suffer because of it.

One way to think of how an abundance of feedback can be detrimental to the athlete in game is to liken it to the ‘bumper lanes’ we used when we were younger and learning to bowl. When the bumper lanes are up, it is impossible to throw a gutter ball. Verbal feedback from a coach can be like those bumper lanes. Constant correction and information from a coach acts like a crutch for the athlete as they never are forced to fail/explore movement on their own. Now what would happen if the bumper lanes were suddenly taken away? How well would that bowler do if they had always practiced with the lanes up? Constant feedback from a coach in practice is like having the bumper lanes up. And in the game the bumper lanes are taken away because the coach cannot instruct in the moment—and the athlete will suffer because of that.

What can we do about this? For one… the first step to solving any problem is knowing that there is one. We can bring a clicker to the field or facility with us, and every time we provide feedback (e.g. good job, stay back, keep it up, get lower, etc.) we can click it. And then at the end of the day we should notice how often we are interjecting ourselves, and the next day work to limit how much we speak. There are also methods of providing feedback we can work to help in mitigating how often we speak:

1) Summary feedback- Only provide feedback after the drill is over, and provide a general form of feedback rather than specific to each rep… a summary

2) Bandwidth feedback- Only provide feedback if the athlete falls out of a certain bandwidth. If we are turning double plays we only provide feedback if the infielders turn the double play slower than five seconds. If we are working with a pitcher only providing feedback if their velocity dips below a certain speed.

3) Self-controlled feedback- Only provide feedback when the athlete requests it. Allow them to self-control when they want instruction from us as the coach.

It is not wrong to provide feedback. Coaches have knowledge to impart to athletes, and there are certainly times and places where verbal feedback is necessary. However, we should work to limit how much we are talking during practice. We should strive for the drill itself to provide the information to the athlete… and not necessarily our words. One hypothetical to ask ourselves as we are designing practice should be “How could I teach this skill if the player and I did not speak the same language?”

Andy Bass is currently a Mental Performance Coordinator for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Bass played college baseball at Davidson College and was drafted in the 18th round of the 2011 MLB draft by the Tampa Bay Rays. He received his PhD in Sport Psychology and Motor Behavior from the University of Tennessee.