Making Critical Feedback Positive and Motivating (with Chris Hayden)

(Doug Lemov, the author of best-selling school teaching books "Teach Like a Champion" and “Practice Perfect," works with the U.S. Soccer Federation to improve coaching through better teaching and has been researching soccer coaching techniques.)

By Doug Lemov

As his practice wound down and the FC Dallas U-13 boys sat in a circle stretching under the afternoon Texas sun, Chris Hayden took a minute to help his players put what they’d worked on that day in context. “You guys understand the difference between possession and penetration, now, yes?” he asked as the boys nodded. Then he paused for emphasis and asked, “Can you do both? Can you possess the ball and penetrate?” Now he paused again, going on slowly and deliberately. “A great team can. And that’s the team we’re going to become.” Pause again. “So thank you for your work today. We’ll keep working at it this week in anticipation of our game this weekend.”

With that the boys rose, and one by one shook Hayden’s hand before helping to gather equipment and calling it a day.

Small moments often make great teachers and the careful choice of words and actions at the end of his practice is typical of what makes Hayden, who is vice president of FC Dallas’ youth programs, remarkable. Consider the vision created by his closing words. He offered not just a reminder about the importance of both possession and penetration, but a reminder that the goal of all that work was to become great, not just as individuals but as a team. Further, he framed the reminder as both a motivating challenge -- “Can you do both? Can you possess the ball and penetrate?” -- and an inspiring tie-in to their own aspirations -- to be great. His words helped the boys make their hard work feel purposeful and motivating even though he was essentially telling them they had not achieved mastery. And he readied them to come back in a few days ready to work more.

The process of getting better requires a lot of critical feedback, a lot of messages to do it differently, do it better, give a little more, especially when standards are high and a coach is tasked with making players as good as they can be. Managing the process of giving critical feedback isn’t just one of the biggest challenges for coaches, either. Management and teaching literature abounds with discussion about how to balance positive and constructive. Some experts will tell you to give five times as much praise and criticism, for example. But how do you do that when there’s a lot of fixing involved in the endeavor? And what about other management research that suggests that people get frustrated when there isn’t enough constructive feedback to make them better?

These challenges suggest that we often think about the terms positive and critical (or positive and constructive) simplistically. In fact what the best teachers tend to do is to find ways to give constructive feedback in a way that motivating and energizing and positive feedback in a way that’s honest and real and disciplined so as not to over use it. In the classroom, the idea that you can give critical feedback in a manner that makes it motivating and even inspiring is called Positive Framing and there are a variety of ways that great coaches use it. Chris Hayden seemed to know all of them.

MAKE USE OF CHALLENGES. For example, a young player’s reaction to the message, “Stop using your right foot every time” is likely to be more positive and productive if it sounds like a challenge, as in: “Now show me you can do it with your left foot.” During his practice, Hayden made constant use of challenges to his players and the cycled through a passing drill:

• “See if you can be even quicker, Julian.”
• “Good. Now see if you can have yourself half turned [when you receive] and playing quickly.”
• “How quickly can you get rid of it? 1-2! 1-2! Can you be that quick?”
• “David, see if you can sharpen up your movement. Quicker!”

One of the benefits of phrasing correction as a challenge is that it causes the player to self-assess. David, for example, has been asked to see if he can sharpen up, which implies that he’ll make a determination as to whether he’s met his goal. And young people love to show they can do something, so a challenge like “see if you can” tends to be highly motivating.

FOCUS ON TECHNICAL ASPECTS. Another positive framing tool Hayden used in his practice was plausible anonymity. Sometimes it’s helpful to call a player out in public and say “Jason, your runs are lazy,” but being called out in front of a group of peers can also distract Jason from the message -- his self-consciousness focusing him on questions like “Why did he say that?” and “Does he criticize me more than my teammates” rather than the crispness of his runs.

Working in some plausible anonymity would mean saying, as Hayden did in his practice, “I see some of us doing a great job of really accelerating to try to get to a spot, and others of us are fairly casual in trying to get to a spot. Check yourself to make sure you’re cutting decisively.” One of the benefits of plausible anonymity is that it too socializes players to self-monitor and to ask themselves whether they are casual or decisive in their movements.

Another is that it focuses them more on the technical aspects of play and less on their emotions about being criticized, so certainly plausible anonymity can be an effective tool for giving critical feedback, especially when players are learning something new and you want to make it safe for them to get it wrong by providing a little privacy. That said, the argument here is not that plausible anonymity is always the right move -- some players will be slow to recognize that the lazy cutter was them for example and need more accountability -- but it’s important to recognize the value of being critical in a way the lets players struggle in private.

A third aspect of positive framing Hayden used is assume the best, which is giving credit for the right parts of a decision or the intentions of players while pointing out what didn’t work. This might involve changing “You can’t play that ball backward” to “I see why you wanted to go backward there but it’s too dangerous.” Merely acknowledging the intent of a player can help him to focus on the content, the teaching part, of the feedback.

The word “forgot” is perhaps the classic assume-the-best word, as in, some of us seem to have “forgotten that we need to be wide in this situation,” or even “Carlos, I think you forgot about creating width.” This approach gives young players credit for knowing something but sets the bar higher. Hayden used this with players again and again in his practice saying in one case, “Even quicker, David” (implying that David was pretty quick but had to take things up a notch) or “Ben, in your supporting run, make sure to orient yourself so you face the next pass. It’ll be easy for you” (with the implication that it’ll be easy because you’re a strong player).

A final element of positive framing that Hayden relied on was to talk aspirations. He constantly framed his comments, and especially his criticism in terms of what the boys aspired to -- to become great soccer players. His feedback reminded them that the things they had to change were part of the path to being great and were normal and typical of that process. For example, when a difficult pass went awry he said, “Accurate, boys, accurate. We’re asking you to find a window … be that good” his comments combining talk aspirations with challenge and plausible anonymity (he didn’t identify the culprit by name though surely everyone knew who it was).

DESCRIBE THE SOLUTION. Finally, Hayden was meticulous about a last aspect of positive framing, something called live in the now which simply means to describe the solution, not the problem, and to describe it in simple concrete specific terms that tell a player exactly what the next step should be, as in : “Separate, David,” “Face him, Andy.” “Tell him he can turn, Javi.” Throughout his practice, Hayden described for his players what they should be doing in a given moment rather than what they were doing wrong. This not only allowed them to focus on the important thing, but it allowed him to earn their trust and faith by solving their problems.

The result of all this positive framing was an incredibly upbeat and energetic practice with players motivated, striving and giving their best even while getting a high quantity of constructive feedback that made them better players.

So while it would be nice to say, as some management literature does, that we should maximize motivation by praising five times as often as we criticize, Hayden’s practice demonstrates a “third way” -- to teach constantly but frame constructive feedback in a way that honors and respects players, socializes them to self-monitor and encourages them to focus on the technical content of the feedback rather than the emotional response to being corrected.

This last part may sound trivial. Part of sports is supposed to be about learning to take honest feedback -- but honest feedback can also reflect the notion that over thousands of iterations, feedback can work better if it makes it slightly easier for players to embrace it openly, as something that feels like it’s supposed to make them better.

(Doug Lemov is the author of “Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College,” a study of teachers who get exceptional results in high-poverty schools. He’s also co-author with Erica Woolway and Katie Yezzi of “Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better,” a study of the art of practicing. His books have been translated into nine languages and he works with the U.S. Soccer Federation to improve coaching through better teaching. He blogs at Twitter: @Doug_Lemov)

Further Reading:
The Power of Planning a Practice (with Tony Lepore)

Earlier this year the Youth Soccer Insider featured a three-part interview with Doug Lemov:
1. “What Teachers can Teach Coaches”
2. "Say it carefully, quickly, clearly"
3. “Don't get mad at kids for struggling”
3 comments about "Making Critical Feedback Positive and Motivating (with Chris Hayden)".
  1. Kent James, March 5, 2014 at 11:43 a.m.

    This column provides some excellent examples of the important subtleties of teaching. Often it's not what you say, but how you say it. Great teachers connect with their students (players) where they are, and inspire them to focus on improvement. The column also emphasizes the importance of getting players motivated to educate themselves, which is possibly the most important trait a player who wants to improve can have. Although some might argue with providing solutions to players (when players come up with their own solutions, they retain a better understanding of the issue), I think under the time pressures of practice, a coach can't always allow players to come up with their own solutions, so this is an acceptable efficiency (as long as it's not the only way problems are addressed). Great column.

  2. Brad Partridge, March 5, 2014 at 12:56 p.m.

    Great article. Doug is correct, in that framing the feedback can make all the difference in the world. Feedback framed properly is positive and insightful, framed improperly it becomes negative and counter productive.
    Immediate feedback both subjective and objective is crucial to motivating players. Using both I have found that players not only accept the feedback they demand it. We use the SSGSocerPro app on Thurday nights for small sided games and give them the results immediately. They look forward to Thursdays every week.

  3. Doug Lemov, March 5, 2014 at 1:11 p.m.

    Thanks for the comments. (and for reading the profile). in case you want to see actual video of Chris doing the things i describe you can watch it at my blog, here:

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