Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Moving Electricity - Negative to Positive is a Current Theme

One of the simplest choices a coach has to make is how to approach feedback. One major choice is how to tone feedback - positive or negative. Many of us are familiar with the Bobby Knight (Highly Negative) approach, and I'm sure some of you have had that type of coach and your team has had success. I'm from a the camp that is for positive reinforcement. In this article I'll make some arguments to either approach.

I'll defend my choice for the positive camp by using a thought experiment with an individual. Think of yourself learning something in the presence of a coach. First, you want to learn this skill, and this is due to an expected enjoyment from learning the skill, and possibly, the challenge of developing the skill. As you learn the skill, your coach provides positive and negative feedback.

When this feedback is negative it is usually in correspondence to a poor performance. In this case, bad emotions are associated with the learning process and they add additional pressure and stress. In general, negative emotions make you feel bad and can bring on frustration. When feedback is positive encouragement in correspondence to a poor performance then not as many negative emotions are introduced and next time the skill is executed there is still elements of fun, challenge, and hope.

There is a place for negative feedback. This is needed at points when the positive doesn't seem to work. This can be in cases when individuals have no internal motivation to achieve something.

Pictured Above: Cam Malcolm (GT) at Nationals 2004 in Vancouver. Two teams in the background are having a group huddle (Picture from ?).

Leaving the thought experiment behind, I, recently, saw a demonstration of some internal human response to positive and negative feedback while directing ultimate camp at Camp Olympia. The director, Dave Grace, runs a two hour session for campers in which he discusses aspects of setting goals, taking on new challenges, and improving athletic performance (topics I'll hit upon later). This year he introduced a concept called the "heart centered zone" which means your heart rate stays at a constant rate. There was some software that he showed that plotted someone's heart rate. By saying positive and negative comments, we could observe how a person moved in and out of the zone.

I'm not sure if this is convincing evidence that the positive approach is the only approach, but it was interesting to see. In general, as a coach 5 to 10 positive statements for every negative statement (can't remember where I heard this) is a good approach for feedback for most people.



honeyhands said...

I actually work in an emotions and neuropsychology lab, so here's some relevant research:

Negative mood decreases heart rate compared to positive mood, but most of this research is for sadness relative to anger.

More interestingly is some work by a guy named Blascovich. He found that there are two types of physiological responses to obstacles, which he distinguishes as "challenge" and "threat" responses.

In both conditions, a person's heart rate increases- you get ramped up to deal with the obstacle. However, in challenge state, one experiences vasodilation, the opening up of one's circulatory system (veins and arteries), resulting in lower blood pressure. In threat, the opposite effect occurs (vasoconstriction) in which there is less room for blood to flow, leading to higher blood pressure. There is literally a physical stress on the body to take on a negative mood in overcoming an obstacle.

In ultimate, there are two ways to play intense- one is when you are totally psyched up, cheering for your teammates, jumping up and down on the sidelines, and gunning it on the field. The other is when you start getting down on yourself and others, making disparaging comments, feeling rage at your situation (rather than your opponents), clenching your fists and kicking the grass.

The parallels between 'challenge' and 'threat' in the above example are evident.

The effects of these two states on catching, throwing and cutting have not been demonstrated, although other research has shown that negative states improve vigilence (good on D) but limit broadness of experience and perceptual field (bad for field vision). Positive mood on the other hand fosters creativity and increases persistance.

There are definitely times when vigilence is what is needed, as in D line in a close game. But playing loose and creative might be a necessary component of beating a good team...

Wartank said...

Would love to start a discussion on this topic. I've coached a fair bit of ultimate, in condensed periods like clinics, and in longer periods like over multiple seasons with a league team.

In a clinic session, it's much easier to provide positive reinforcement because there is one focal point in a drill, and it's easy as a coach to see those things.

Over the course of a season, though, I find it very hard to give positive reinforcement. (maybe this has to do with the type of person i am). You go to a game, and there is so much going on, and you're also trying to focus on your own game, or the team's game as a collective.

For individuals, it's much easier to spot problems in someone's game, rather than to reinforce everything that's done correctly. There are so many little things - thinking, positioning, skills, timing, etc. - that happen simultaneously in ultimate (and probably in every sport) that make it difficult to consciously pick up on the many things a player does correctly.

so i guess the lesson is that -- mistakes stand out. noteworthy plays (positive) are rare, maybe mostly unattainable for some players. the little things that need and should get reinforcement take perception and conscientiousness to pick up.

That "5-10 positives per negative" idea does seem very interesting, and i'll try to aim for it...

Also, as a comment for honeyhands -- many people have described the difference in attitude and temperment for O line players vs D line players. It would be interesting to examine whether it's truly a difference in personality, or learned through what type of motivation/stimulation the player is used to receiving to get 'pumped up' for games.

Anonymous said...

For motiviation, it really depends on the person. Regardless of the situation (ie. work or ultimate), I find that my best performance comes when I have something to channel my anger at, be it boss or coach/captain.

As for positive vs. negative feedback, I whole-heartedly agree with Warren, in that during league circustances, positive feedback is not always possible. I've found that the suggesting vs. telling approach is generally accepted a bit better.

Jeters said...

In league or game situations the suggestion option works. I would suggest that feedback depends on the situation.

First, there are adjustments. An adjustment is a requirement that a team needs to make. Better forces, better cuts, etc.

Second, there are obvious errors. Errors rarely need to be discussed since the error maker has a good idea of what went wrong, and negative elements will just make them feel worse.

Finally, there are individual adjustments. These can be approached with a discussion of what is working and what is not.