The term “Strength and Conditioning” has long been associated with the idea of heavy barbells and running until one’s legs collapse. The strength coaches who exploit our social media pages are often shown yelling until their veins pop at an athlete performing a 700-pound squat. Unfortunately, this has skewed the public’s eye on what a strength coach should represent. Negative reinforcement, yelling, exercise punishment, and representing the villain who runs the team into the ground after the loss predominates the strength coach persona. However, as psychology and motor learning research enters the weight room, it becomes increasingly obvious that these traditional strength coach’s tendencies may hinder an athlete’s performance and psychological well-being. Therefore, it’s time we reexamine the words a strength coach uses and understand how much power one’s word choice can carry beyond barbells.
First, let’s cover some of the basics on feedback. In sport and the weight room, there are two types of feedback: Task-intrinsic feedback (sensory based) and Augment feedback, which is not inherent to the task. Augmented verbal feedback is going to be our focus today. The initial questions becomes, does all this talking we do as a coach even matter? Rest assured, research shows you still matter. A study in 2009 showed that video and verbal feedback combined improved performance more than a no-augmented feedback group in university athletes learning the Power Snatch.
My biggest pet peeve in the weight room is hearing coaches who use words with their clients that they can’t connect to and thus their augmented feedback is meaningless. It’s safe to assume that for words to change someone’s behavior those phrases must mean something to that person. Cues that don’t connect to any of the athlete’s previous knowledge, or schemas, won’t change much. One of my favorite ways to create meaning is to use analogies that innately relate to the athlete’s sport. We often deal with individuals who are attempting to become experts in their respective sport, so why not connect the weight room to movement they certainly understand? A classic study using youth athletes showed the power of analogies. The research found that moving with a position in space, a clock-face verbal label resulted in better remembering than a meaningless spatial direction.
Next, we need consider how and when we should deliver information to a client to reduce their reliance on our augmented verbal feedback. In other words, it should be the goal of any good coach for your client to eventually not be reliant on your words. We want to create self-sufficient athletes who can recognize and fix errors and perform movement without our help. We aren’t on the field yelling at them to not let their knees cave in as they cut, so we better create some independent athletes in the weight room. Remember that task-intrinsic feedback we talked about? That source of information is always there and it has been proven that experts exploit it more than novices. So our duty as coaches is to point our clients to task-intrinsic feedback vs. our often meaningless augmented feedback.
“Augmented feedback can become an essential part of the task and prevent learners from processing critical sources of task-intrinsic of from the essential planning process” – Skill Acquisition in Sport (2012)
So when does our feedback create an over reliance on our words? When our verbal statements are provided too quickly after a practice attempt, when they are given during the task performance and when that information is provided too frequently. Furthermore there are a number of ways coaches can reduce their athlete’s reliance on supplemented feedback. We can spread our feedback over trials, delay our verbal guidance until all sets are complete, allow the learners to self-select sets to receive coaching, and lastly by encouraging our athletes to estimate errors before we give our own advice.
|How we should deliver Feedback||How we should AVOID giving Feedback|
|Spread coaching over trails||Allow time to pass after a set to give feedback|
|Don’t give corrections until athlete completes all sets||Don’t provide guidance while athlete is actually performing set or rep|
|Ask your athletes which sets or reps they want your thoughts on||Don’t give coaching too frequently|
|Allow clients to discuss or guess their errors before we give our input|
Let’s summarize what all this research means for us practical world coaches. I like to put it into one phrase: “we need to create problem solvers, not robots”. So how do we create movement detectives? We give our clients sometime to think for themselves. After a set, ask an athlete: what did they feel? What was good about that, what was bad? What reps were the best, why? Let the individual figure out for themselves what they should be feeling when, what is good and what is bad. We can do this by spreading our feedback out, not giving too much feedback and allowing learners to select feedback only when they are stuck.
Psychological Needs Framework
What about the sensations our words create? Research on motor learning is emerging that shows that the emotions that words instill in our clients can have an affect on retention rates and transfer of movement patterns. The academia behind this effort mostly stems from Ryan and Deci’s Fundamental Psychological needs framework. To summarize Ryan and Deci claim: “psychological well-being and optimal functioning and learning in a broad range of domains appear to depend on support for the basic needs of competence, autonomy, and social relatedness.” Let’s explore how our words have the power to create competence and autonomy.
We will start with competence. One can’t look into the idea of competence and motor learning without searching through Gabriel Wulf’s work. In one study, Wulf found that feedback after “good” trials, compared with “poor” trials resulted in more effective retention and transfer in tasks. Additionally Wulf and colleagues found that participants show enhanced intrinsic motivation with feedback after good trials. Specifically, verbal language that displays errors may heighten concerns about self, which hamper learning. The classic technique of telling your athlete how poorly they performed to “motivate” them may not be the most effective tool to create learning. It appears that complementing our athletes “good” reps and reshaping how we point out errors probably will do a lot more for athlete’s motor learning in the long run.
Additionally, associating the strength and conditioning environment with positive compliments over negative punishments will impact an athlete’s psychological well-being in the facility. An individual who associates the gym with negative punishments, being negatively compared to their peers, and a constant exploitation of mistakes will develop destructive feelings towards fitness in general. I have seen athletes who head drops as soon as they walk through the weight room door. They have damaging thoughts surrounding what happens here. Not only will this hurt motivation, but it could leave a person with repercussions about fitness for the rest of their lives. It is constantly overlooked that an individual also develops a personal relationship with the gym. Choosing to point out progress and gains could cultivate this bond, while punishment could help ruin it.
A key idea behind competence is that individuals are always comparing themselves to their peers. We live a in society that is founded on competition. Athletes and clients determine whether or not they are “successful” at their sport based upon how they compare to others. Therefore, it is crucial that as coaches we are mindful about how our words encourage or discourage self-comparison. A study showed that “False – Positive normative feedback against peers causes better outcomes and automaticity in movement control.
To summarize, when a person believes they are better at a certain movement task than their colleagues, they tend to perform better in that specific skill. Recently being involved in a team setting I can recall countless experiences where I noticed an athlete was “embarrassed” by how they were performing against their peers in the weight room. It was obvious to me that these specific individuals had a poor relationship with strength training and did not enjoy their time in the gym. Consequently, I think this research does a really good job of revealing a situation a coach should ALWAYS avoid. We should NEVER use feedback that causes a client to feel as if they are “worse” than others at a specific movement. This negative comparison will undoubtedly cause feelings of irritation around the weight facility. Again, we clearly see how a coaches word could entice an athlete to have a negative relationship with fitness in general. This poor connotation around the facility will undoubtedly affect an individual’s motivation when working out with the team.
The cliché “Growth Mindset” has flooded our culture in pretty much all areas of human development. Countless literature from business and economics to psychological well-being praise its importance. But, could creating a growth mindset with our words actually help our athletes learn skills in the gym? Yes, a study showed that participants that were told a task represented a learnable (dynamic) skill showed greater self-efficacy, more positive affective self-reactions, expressed greater interest in the task, and greater improvement across trials vs. an inherent aptitude group. Additionally it was found that “instructions portraying the task as an acquirable skill resulted in more effective learning (retention) and automaticity of control vs. inherent capacity instructions.”
So how does this transfer to the weight room? People who believe abilities are fixed view negative feedback as a threat because it reveals less than optimal ability. On the flip side, athletes who believe skills are dynamic are more motivated, show greater performance and automaticity in movement, and learn more effectively. So yes, framing task success as changeable helps your athletes learn skills faster!
Athlete’s autonomy has become a very hot topic recently, and for good reason. It appears that SOME-level of autonomy can be affective tool to enhance motivation. Research shows that giving the learner some control over the situation enhances motor control retention and transfer. Additionally, a self-controlled feedback group outperformed a control group when asked to transfer a task to a new situation. That being said, not everyone wants autonomy. We all know those clients who want to be told exactly what to do the whole hour they are in your facility. In other words, they come to lift, not to think. However, I would argue that for our type A high level athlete’s autonomy could prove useful. Allowing those high achieving and knowledgeable athletes some input could do wonders to enhance incentive.
Lastly, let’s talk about how essential our word choice is when an athlete is returning from injury. In my opinion, sending the proper verbal cues with an injured athlete is the most underappreciated aspect of feedback. Rob Gray, a motor control researcher at Arizona State conducted a fascinating study on baseball players and post injury focus. Gray found that injured baseball players demonstrated an increase ability to make judgments about their injured body part. Furthermore, this internal focus correlated with 27% less hits and %15 less strikes. To summarize, that natural tendency to think about your injured knee makes you a lot worse at your sport. So what do we do? To return that athlete to a high level of performance it’s critical that we break from the typical rehab model. In rehab we are constantly asking our athletes or clients how that injured area feels. This practice feeds into this negative cascade by shining extra attention on that injured body-part.
So what happens when we finally return to sport? All one can think about is that area since that’s all they have been asked about for the past 6 months. Therefore, as coaches it is crucial that in the ladder stages of rehab we are very careful with our words. Research consistently shows that experts of sport have an innate external focus when compared to novices who portray an internal focus. Therefore, it’s important that we are being safe but we must also encourage an external focus of attention to return to high performance. For example, ask the baseball pitcher where the location of their pitch was vs. how their elbow feels. Next time you have an injured athlete emphasize the external consequences of their movement rather than asking how their knee feels!
|Words to Use||Words to Avoid|
|What was good about that? (specifics)||Those last two reps needs work.|
|What did you feel during those reps? (specifics)||You felt your legs right?|
|What reps were good and why?||Number 1 and 2 were good, 3 not so much.|
|Do you want feedback on that set?||Let me tell you everything I just saw.|
|Let’s work on one thing that we can do a little better.||There’s a lot we need to fix.|
|Do you see the difference when we do that?||How’s your knee, how’s your knee, how’s your knee?|
|What was the difference between that and the last set?||Yea that was better.|
|That last set was really good, do you notice the progress you have made?||Not bad, still needs a bit of work though.|
|Don’t worry about it, you will get better at it, everybody improves!||Yikes, not sure if that’s going to get better.|
|The … and … were really good! Let’s just work on one thing.||Let’s just work on the mistakes.|
|What did you like about today, didn’t like. Maybe we can add more of the stuff you liked.||This, this and this is what we are going to do next time.|
|Wow you’re a natural at that; most people don’t get it too quickly.||Most people learn that a lot faster.|
It’s time that the strength coach moves past his/her obsession with barbells. Weights are an essential part of the gym, but still just a component in a complex environment. Past the sets and reps there is an underlying relationship that an athlete cultivates with the weight room. A multifaceted relationship that we as coaches have a large affect on. I would argue this bond matters for more for performance than how in depth your periodization model is. There is no more potent way to enhance or destroy this connection than with your word choice. What you say matters, how you say it matters, when you say it matters. They may not be measured in kilograms, but they still have huge affects on performance.
About the Author
Jonah Rosner is the owner and founder of JAR Performance Science, located in Fairfield, Connecticut. Jonah graduated form Boston University in 2018 with coursework in physiology and finance. He plans to pursue a PhD is sports science. He has completed internships with Ranfone Training Systems (CT), Cressey Sports Performance (MA), and Northeastern University (MA). Jonah’s personal interest lay in all aspects of performance but specifically data science and statistics of sport, motor control and decision-making in sport and physics of exercise.
His website is JARperformancescience.com. He can contacted at email@example.com and found on Instagram at @JARperformancescience
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