By Carl Valle
Now and then a coach will ask me about different ways to evaluate practice; most of the time I explain that coaches are trying to keep practices from resembling a low budget circus. Coaches are sometimes doing traffic control with athletes sprinting and are similar to lifeguards ensuring the safety is present during training. Coaches have the option of teaching and regulating efforts when practices are organized and planned efficiently. One of the areas I am interested in is the mental and physiological impact with scoring output on the track and in the weight room. Given recent internet discussions on how sharing and transparency about athlete training may help or harm egos, now is a good time to show some interesting research and methods that may fit anyone’s coaching style. In this article, I will touch on the five common ways of giving objective feedback from a temporal angle, meaning how quickly objective information is given to the athlete and in what form.
Honesty and Deception of the Truth
Objective feedback is when an unbiased measured summary of the task is shared to athletes directly, and this can sometimes be a great confidence boost or ego killer. As a former athlete myself, the reality of getting information from a coach is part of the interesting dynamics of the relationship. For one thing, an athlete should be thinking of what is the responsibility of a coach to give objective feedback when equipment such as wearable sensors are now going directly to the athlete. In the 1970s a stopwatch and a coach would benefit from both being present. Now the bar must be raised beyond “go faster” during each repetition. Coaches sometimes know when to massage a bruised ego when athletes do poorly during training sessions, and have enough experience to deflate the athlete when he or she is accidentally tapered from missing practice and is doing better than their compadres. Speaking of tapers, sometimes an athlete may not feel great or feel flat during peaking and may struggle a bit. The wise coach knows that this phenomenon is normal and throws a few white lies to keep the athlete confident. Athletes are now far more empowered with technology and they may have immediate access to the data. This where coaches must evolve beyond holding the data and sharing what they think others should know, since many athletes are getting video and speed/power directly received from the tools in training. Two important decisions coaches must consider when purchasing equipment that measures athletic training, how rapid the information is available and how to deliver it to athletes.
Measurement in a Moment — Feedback Rates in Training and Competition
I remember in high school when electronic timing in both swimming and track was only for facilities that had the budget or during meets that mattered, such as championship meets or Club competitions. Soon as one finished in swimming and hit the touch pad, the athlete could look up and see the placement and time one performed and immediately know if they won their heat or event. In track and field it took longer, since sprints required the “photo finish” to have a little manual intervention because athletes ran through the line and no sensor detected a completion. Electronic timing, while very fast in general, isn’t instantaneous for the most part because the output is usually splits or final times. Therefore, many coaches use words interchangeably such as real-time, instant results, and immediate feedback. So what are the categories? Hard to say but to keep things simple I divided objective feedback into four concrete categories based on criteria that are clear enough for coaches to understand. Feedback timing is not the same as feedback type. Verbal feedback (how the information is shared) versus what the feedback is (motivation versus technical for example), objective feedback can’t be considered just when the information is presented. To keep things simple I have created the five definitions for coaches with examples of the objective feedback modes in action with speed and power athletes.
- Inferential Feedback – This is information or measurement given before the action or sport activity. Examples include a squat weight or a high jump height.
- Real-time or Instantaneous Feedback – This is information or measurement given during the action or sport activity. An example is a speedometer on a race car.
- Immediate Feedback – This is information or measurement given at the conclusion of the action or sport activity. An example is the electronic timing of a 30 meter acceleration.
- Session Feedback – This is information or measurement given at the conclusion of the practice or event.
- Seasonal Feedback – This is information or measurement given at the conclusion of the year or sporting season.
The above definitions are not too complicated, but the first can get fuzzy now that coaches are expecting a certain standard with Velocity-Based Training devices. The difference between instantaneous feedback or real time and immediate feedback is a matter of as little as a second, causing confusion when people are talking about weight room training. The distinction should help not only explain the differences but also guide teams with best practices. Feedback is a responsibility and a matter of preference, and each choice coaches decide on can make or break seasons.
Inferential Feedback – Before Activity
One could argue that unless the athlete makes a successful attempt, feedback is not possible. In reality feedback from a coach or training system starts with goals, not just results or measurements of outcomes. Rarely does a coach or athlete attempt something they know they can’t succeed doing so feedback before someone tries to so something is sometimes predictive. The best examples of this is when someone is going for a personal best; sports that are distance or weight-based clearly demonstrate the information first, before an attempt is made. A pole vaulter going for a record or weightlifter attempting a heavy load is given the measurement before the attempt. The only issue is whether success or failure happens. Sometimes sports based on the clock are less obvious, such as someone attempting a world record in Olympic sport. If the athlete is the current record holder and they are having a good set of rounds or races leading up, people are expecting a great performance, especially the athlete. Athletes visualize themselves winning and most of the time only one is a winner, but the entire process is a cycle. Previous feedback leads to predictive feedback, and while nothing is a guarantee, past success or failure is part of predicting the future.
Earlier I wrote about arousal of testing in general creating a positive boost to performance, but having something more tangible like a barbell loaded with a heavy weight, or doing another task with similar demands increases the arousal more than just measuring. The meaning behind the number elevates when an athlete is attempting to do something they have never done before. Personal best performances are major releases of adrenaline, and just having athletes aware of the gravity of the coming test is feedback.
Real-Time Feedback – During Activity
When someone asks me for technology that provides real-time feedback, they are often thinking about getting data after the task is over. Few speed and power coaches need real-time feedback because the activities are so short and so reflexive, getting the data would slow down performance. Think about it. When someone is sprinting or doing an explosive exercise, does any data in the middle of the action really help? Even a quick shout or bark from coaches isn’t helping when we are talking milliseconds. The brain can’t process information fast enough for feedback during explosive activities, so real-time feedback, the fastest reactive data, is paradoxically applicable for endurance sport. A cyclist getting RPMs (revolutions per minute) or BPM (beats per minute) are getting pace data, meaning rates of output based on activities that last minutes, not fraction of a second. Elite speed and power athletes simply don’t use anything real time because most activities in training are so quick and chaotic that feedback is usually between reps or between whistle blows.
New technology like accelerometers can potentially create a score before the activity is done because some actions or parts of activities are all that is necessary to provide a score. One example is the use of a power sensor to get the power during the early phase of the concentric portion of a lift. That information can be alerted in visual and audio form directly to the athlete, something that may be helpful if the pause rate between reps is low and one is trying to drive the output. All of this is milliseconds though, and with technology getting smaller, faster, and better, this may be a new area to look for benefit. Time will tell if this is overkill or something coaches can harness.
Immediate Feedback – Right after Activity
Repeated bursts of power gives athletes who are trying to increase speed and performance rest periods to get immediate feedback. Some actions like repetitions while squatting may give feedback in less than a second, valuable information if coaches want to stop the session because of fatigue. Some expressions of power have minutes, and athletes and coaches can exchange thoughts on the past repetition and if another one is wise or not. Immediate feedback is essential to the ballistic athlete, as Brooks Johnson stated a few years ago when discussing the use of electronic timing. Speed athletes went to get better just as fast as the data is coming, and immediate feedback is the essential part of training for speed and power for three reasons I will get into more detail.
- Athlete Safety – Reducing injury is paramount to coaching and immediate feedback delivers a safe way to gauge fatigue. Every explosive activity is a playing a game of risk, and the return can be something injurious if not handled properly. Each bout is a way to compare to the previous rep and past reps to see if the athlete is just beating a dead horse, building a bigger battery of capacity, or getting faster. Even great workouts with blazing speed must be carefully monitored as near personal best performances are hitting outputs the body simply is comfortable with and can be very straining on the tissues or physiological systems.
- Athlete Learning – Immediate feedback is also a way to get athletes to calibrate and connect sensations they are feeling to objective output. Sometimes an athlete will make an effort to relax and feel smooth, but run painfully slow. Other times athletes may feel strong and solid, but their times may be slow as molasses because they are rigid. Some athletes feel off or uncomfortable with a change, and their times or outputs are excellent. The individual must connect the great performance to the sensations and focus on what got them at that level of execution. Some coaches call this biofeedback, or ways to connect the actual objective result with the athlete’s perceptions.
- Athlete Adaptation – Higher levels of precision and rapid response improves the results of the training. Dr. Gil from the All-Blacks collaborated with other researchers and found immediate feedback with power devices increased results of performance more than those that didn’t get objective feedback. Provided that athletes are not driven to the ground with fatigue, immediate feedback increases output and is a simple advantage. Higher outputs and workouts that don’t drain the body too much increases performance down the road. Coaches can motivate or have athletes tone down output to hit the sweet spot of training when repeating precise execution in training.
Session Feedback – Reviewing the Entire Workout
Overall ratings of a training session can be done more accurately when objective feedback is transparent to the athlete and coach. A review of all of the workouts is expected in a summary of training, not just one repetition or bout of effort. For example, athletes need to have a great average of training, not just a one hit wonder because most improvements come from consistency, not just a fluke or a single performance. Having the entire main session data athletes have a direct summary of what happened.
What I have learned using the Freelap timing system is that I must toss away previous lore from sprint coaches and look at the entire session quality instead of just chasing the perfect rep. Quality of the season training and consistency improves an athlete more than just one magic workout. I do still believe in breakthroughs in training, but that is more about the athlete learning what to do with their bodies rather than the one workout that triggers some genetic mutation or something. Longitudinal data is the strongest way to get athletes better, and simple statistical breakdown is enough to see the key areas of improvement.
Session review of the data requires sometimes just a table with no analysis at all. Just the raw data can sometimes tell a story, or force the athlete to think of why some bouts or efforts were better than others. The key takeaway with reviewing session data is that it allows both the coach and athlete to step back just a little and review the day, not just pick or celebrate one repetition. At times, it is convenient to get excited or get spooked when one repetition or bout looks amazing or disastrous, but the trend needs three or more data points to show a useful pattern.
Seasonal Feedback – Reflecting on the Year
I am now focusing on end-of-season reports for athletes so they can see the complete picture of training and competition. Henk Kraaijenhof blogged about simple ways to summarize performance and it was an excellent read. Now everyone should be able to at least reflect on seasonal data from training to get some sort of indication of what worked and what didn’t. Also, seasonal training should be compared and contrasted with monitoring and the actual performances as well to connect a direct cause and effect. Seasonal feedback is far less emotional and will not create “adrenaline spikes” but it’s very haunting and reinforcing to one’s spirit, because it values the entire year, not one workout. For years as an athlete it was humbling looking at my coach’s practice books in the coaching office; at times I expected improvement to happen because I “put in the time” but really I needed to put the effort in with my training.
Seasonal feedback is very powerful when compared to previous years when athletes reach elite status. I can recall a few athletes who came out of retirement and had a very strong year while missing an entire fall preparation period. While they did very well, they wanted to see more on the peaking side, and it was helpful to share months of training missing from the year when whiteboarding or talking about next year. Another excellent lesson is looking at the workouts and asking why is an athlete better than the previous year when a program changes instead of builds on what is working. I am all for variety, but don’t change anything in the program unless you can prove the training is stagnating the development.
To me season feedback is great to show how life helps and harms the growth of an athlete. Simple areas of training can examined, and the athlete can look to what was the underlying problem. I love showing college athletes how an end of season disappointment may not be an indication of the training or their efforts, it may be just mirroring their financial woes or holiday distractions. When people tell me that data is sterile, or people are more than just numbers I agree, and they usually are very humble to see the relationships and conversation depth one gets when presenting objective information. The goal of numbers is not to have a data discussion, but force a real conversation about what is going on between the ears and sometimes deeper.
Applying Feedback and Conclusion
You don’t need any objective feedback to get results, but clearly the above five options will enable coaches to get more if it is applied properly and efficiently. Coaches have to be accurate and specific when exchanging ideas and methods of feedback, since using a word as an instant feedback in the speed and power world is unlikely to be what he or she is wanting. Other types of feedback exist such as behavioral, mental focus, and technical information, but don’t underestimate objective feedback. A combination of feedback and knowing when not to say anything is extremely powerful. A coach should plan how and when they want to provide feedback when designing training, and much of it is based on philosophy and what equipment one has. I do find that being transparent is an honest and ethical way to work with athletes and pays off in the long run when things don’t go right. When things are going well, it reinforces what is working with something concrete instead of theoretical. I have used objective feedback for years, and now we have more and more ability to get it faster and more conveniently by removing the monkey work and allowing technology to work for us.
Randell A.D., Cronin J.B., Keogh J.W., Gill N.D., & Pedersen M.C. (2011). Reliability of performance velocity for jump squats under feedback and non-feedback conditions. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 25(12), 3514-3518.
Argus C.K., Gill N.D., Keogh J.W., & Hopkins W.G. (2011). Acute effects of verbal feedback on upper-body performance in elite athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 25(12), 3282-3287.