The race is over, the games done. You have a moment to collect your thoughts before you have a chance to make one instantaneous impression. Do you drop a word of wisdom, try to get in a quick correction, say nothing, or give a simple pat on the back and a “good job.”

Fast-forward fifteen minutes, after the adrenaline has worn off, and what’s the plan of attack? Do we go into a full discourse, breaking down the mistakes made, or do we simply let the athlete be, allowing them to process the information?

When we look at the post race/game debrief, as coaches, we are trying to decide what’s the message we are trying to convey. It seems like a straightforward process. Some ‘good jobs’, a few critiques, and move on to the next. Yet, what we say, and more importantly, how the athlete processes that information, has profound effects.

The Point of the Debrief

When we look at a debrief, we are attempting to accomplish a few goals:

  1. Learn from the experience for future purposes
  2. Ensure the athlete has the correct framing of what just took place
  3. Set the athlete up for their next race/game

We often consider #1, the learning from the race as the most important factor. It’s why most of us try to jam pack as much information as possible into the debrief. Whether that’s a football coach immediately breaking down what went right/wrong on that last drive, or a coach telling an athlete you “should have kicked sooner, held the athlete off on the curve, got out faster, and so on.” As coaches, conveying information is on the forefront of our mind. Deep down, we are teachers, so when we see a problem or an incorrect “answer” our inclination is to correct it.
Loaded with information, having observed the race from afar, we approach the athlete with guns blazing, firing out information to our athletes or team. It feels good for us to convey our knowledge. We’re teachers after all. What we often fail to consider is whether that information reaches its target, our athletes. Yes, they might hear it, but does it result in a positive change?

The answer is often that it doesn’t. And the reason is the athlete the guns blazing approach can result in the athlete entering what I like to call, defensive mode. We’ve all experienced defensive mode, both in ourselves and in observing others. It’s what happens when someone starts critiquing us. Whether it’s our significant other, a colleague, or a friend, we’ve all been in that place where our shoulders tense up, we cross our arms, and regardless of the validity of what the person sitting across from us is saying, we don’t let it in. We create stories and justifications for why this person must be wrong. We ask why they are attacking us. We’re in full defensive mode and nothing is getting through.

After bad races, athletes are often automatically in this mood. They are upset, angry, and emotional. But even after good races, some athletes can be in defensive mode. Their internal dialogue might be “I just ran a massive PR, why are they trying to drag me down! Can’t I just be happy!”

As a coach, before any information is conveyed, we need to make sure that our athlete is receptive to receive that information. Or, in other words, that they are out of defensive mode. If we find that they are, we need to focus on allowing them to have space to process and calm down, or find a way to disarm them and bring their emotional reactivity back down to neutral.

To Critique or Not

In team sports, film review and critique is a right of passage. It’s the time when athletes and coaches get to reflect on what went right or wrong. In a study by Crewther and Cook, they took a Rugby Union team, and manipulated how the coaches gave feedback in their post-match review. Did the coaches offer positive, encouraging feedback, where they watched the successful plays, or did the players have to sit through negative feedback, where they were shown all of their in-game mistakes, with coaches offering commentary.

Did watching their success or failures improve the player’s subsequent performance?  The researchers tracked the athlete’s performance in the next game, but also looked at their testosterone and cortisol levels. This way they could see if their underlying biology played a role. The players who received positive feedback, watching their success, not only played better the next game, but they also had a bump in pre-game Testosterone levels. Their psychology and biology were intertwined, and dependent on how they “debriefed.”

The process, and how, we debrief influences our future performance. It would be too simple to say that all that matters is a positive or negative commentary. Instead, the reason success or failure influences us so much, is related to how we internalize it.

(from Crewther and Cook, 2012- PCF= Positive Feedback, NCF- negative Feedback. Game rating- the lower the rank, the better the game.)
The Trouble With Timing

When trying to cure a phobia- such as a fear of heights, researchers and psychologists have found that one of the best ways is to use what’s called stress inoculation. The idea is simple, expose yourself to a tiny bit of your phobia, then immediately learn how to deal and process it. If you are afraid of heights, for example, perhaps we’d take you up on the balcony of the 10th floor of a hotel. Quickly afterward, a psychologist might help you to process and frame what just occurred.

From a physiological and psychological point of view, it makes sense. We can instantly connect our feelings of fear, the physiology of increased stress hormones, and the total experience to our debrief. We can work on changing our framing, right then and there. By reframing the experience as a positive, or as something that we can cope with, we’re wiring our brain to adopt that psychological framework the next time we experience the same fear.
As the neuroscience phrase goes, what fires together wires together. What were doing is trying to subtly shift our brain’s default firing of fear with that particular activity. But if the gap between the experience and the framing intervention is too great, the tactic doesn’t work. The person (and their brain) can’t connect the experience with the new outcome as well.

What this tells us that there are sensitive periods for correcting ingrained reactions. While this doesn’t mean that we need to instantly correct everything we see, it does mean that certain feelings and experiences should be addressed quickly.

That’s part of the art of coaching, knowing what needs to be addressed quickly to change, versus what can be allowed to sit for a while, so that they can process it.

When researchers Chris Meyers and Francisco Gino gave people a problem that was almost impossible (79% of participants failed) to solve, they noticed people tend to internalize why they failed in two different ways, by blaming (1) themselves or (2) external factors. When given a very similar, and difficult to solve, problem a week later, what the participants blamed had drastic consequences.

On the follow-up problem, if an individual had blamed themselves, they had a 40% chance of getting the next problem right. If they had, instead, blamed external factors, they had only a 15% chance of getting this new problem right. In other words, how and to whom they attributed failure impacted their future results. But that wasn’t all, of the initial 21% of people who correctly solved the problem, those who took credit for their success, performed much worse on the second, follow up, problem.

How we frame success and failure matter. And that should be the message from both Meyers and Gino’s work and the results of stress inoculation therapy. As coaches, we can push our athletes towards adapting a certain framing. During our debrief, we can help guide them towards adopting a mindset that allows for future improvement, versus one that limits their future performance.

Processing and Cementing What Has Occured

In his book The World Beyond Our Head, academic and deep thinker Matthew Crawford posits that critique plays an instrumental part in helping us, as people understand our world. To Crawford, experiencing a skill is only the partial story. It’s not until we process it, letting it sink and become a part of our entire self, that it moves beyond a simple partial experience. Or as Crawford states, “For experiences to become part of the secure, sedimented foundation of a skill, they must be criticized.”

To Crawford, criticism is a way of making sense of the world, a necessary ingredient of moving beyond a partial experience. But unlike the harsh treatment of the word, criticism isn’t a coach berating an athlete, or even mildly suggesting what an athlete did wrong. Instead, it’s getting the person to be critical. To take what they experienced, use the lost art of reflection, and process their experience at a deep level. To cement and internalize experiences, rather than having them become a fleeting moment.

One of the easiest and best ways to do this may be a simple conversation. Crawford feels that conversation can be a powerful tool for this realization phase:

“The fruit of this conversation enters into your ongoing rehearsal of the experience. If this rehearsed version bears up and jibes with further experience, it becomes internalized, available to the subconscious mind in coping with future situations…Other people (and the resources of language) are indispensable. Without them, your experiences are partial and may sediment as idiosyncratic bad habits.”

Which might explain why social interaction with teammates post-game leads to the same positive Testosterone increases that we saw with having positive feedback post game. It’s likely that the social interaction wasn’t all positive but instead allowed for the athletes to have a debrief in a non-defensive mode.

So What?

How do we make sense of Crawford’s suggestion that criticism is a requirement with the research that suggests we don’t focus on mistakes?

By understanding the importance of framing, timing, and processing. It’s not so much if we are positive or negative, but about when we do it. Are the athletes receptive and open to critique? Are they in a position to process and figure out things on their own, or are we, as coaches, trying to force it?

Perhaps the message is a simple one, forcing doesn’t work. The athletes have to come to terms with their ‘mistakes’ for themselves. They have to be allowed to cement the story and translate things from a partial experience to a whole one.

Innovation expert Gary Klein, might have summed it up best : “I think helping people to arrive at insights isn’t a question of pushing the insights on the people, or trying to explain it in words as much as helping people to gain the experience so they can see the inconsistency for themselves, Put them in a place to discover it…”

As coaches, our debrief may simply be about setting them up to tackle the next task and “put them in a place to discover.” The debrief isn’t about us, and our emotional and psychological need to vent or correct, instead, it’s about them. What do they need in that moment to put them in a place to discover?

Get My New Guide on: The Science of Creating Workouts


    1. Dror Hadadi on March 15, 2017 at 6:18 am

      I loved this post. Especially what you wrote about the timing of feedback and that “coaches are teachers”. In many ways, we should think of ourselves as instructors who help the athletes understand themselves. We are there for guiding them on how to improve, but when they do it on their own, it is much more powerful than when we do it for them.

    2. […] Great write up about the (un)importance of what message a coach conveys to an athlete immediately af….  I’ve been struggling with what to say to my daughter after hers and this gives me a good framework. […]

    Leave a Reply