The Four C's of Giving Feedback

Originally posted Jan 2015

Giving constructive feedback is an art form and a skill that can always be refined. I think coaches should be taught how to give feedback before allowing them to coach. While they may have good intentions, if coaches are not taught how to deliver feedback they might do so in ways that do the very opposite of helping a skater grow and improve.

I've heard good coaches give AWFUL feedback. I don't mean it's awful because the skater reacted in a negative way. I mean feedback that did not come from a place meant to challenge AND inspire a skater. Feedback that came from frustration. Feedback that came from anger. Feedback that came from a heartfelt place, but was worded in a way that came off as insulting or condescending. Or maybe it was condescending on purpose. If your goal, as a coach, is for your feedback to challenge and inspire, please consider what you communicate before you do so.     

I hope we can all agree that telling a skater something like "that's not how to do it" or "that's not right" is never going to encourage or help a skater. That kind of feedback is lazy and does no good for anyone. Feedback can delivered in a constructive, compassionate, and consistent manner, which will most likely lead to a skater feeling encouraged and supported and challenged. 


Not everyone is ready or willing to accept feedback when you want to give it. It's important to remember that timing is everything. Ask a skater if they are open to feedback and be okay with them saying "no, not right now." Ask them when is a good time to provide feedback. Maybe they want to talk right after practice or maybe they need time to work through their frustration before they are open to hearing you. If the goal is to communicate, you've got to find the right time when they are ready. Otherwise, what you want to share could be lost.  

Constructive Feedback

Constructive feedback is specific. It communicates what, exactly, needs to be improved in concise detail. Even if you think you have been specific, assume you have not and find a more detailed way to communicate. For example, let's say you have a skater who struggles with staying in their defensive tripod. You offer the following feedback: "You need to improve teamwork skills" or "You need to stay with your teammates." That feedback specifies the problem, but it does not address the skills hindering the skater or the skills needed to improve. Here's where your observation and research skills are needed. You watch the skater and try to figure out why they aren’t successful with a tripod. You discover that they struggle to make a seam because they get pushed forward or down easily. This tells you they are not stable enough to manage contact to the back and/or they struggle with quick lateral movements. Instead of giving feedback to stay with their teammates, you deliver this specific feedback: "I would like you to work on building core strength, so you are able to take forceful contact to the back without falling, and I would like you to work on your quick lateral movements, so you can move across the track with urgency to create solid seams with jammer contact." 

This process is not quick, but the more you do it - observing, thinking, researching, thinking, observing, thinking - the faster you are able to hone in on the problem and how to fix it. Once you take this approach to delivering feedback, you will find that you sharpen your observation skills and begin to see the problems and solutions much quicker. 

Constructive feedback must also include suggestions for how to improve. You can tell a skater to improve core strength and lateral movement, but if they don't know how to do that, they will get frustrated and struggle to improve. Offer specific drills and exercises, and do so in writing. Work with the skater to develop a goal plan, so they can access the information they need. 

I know, you're thinking "Punchy, that's a lot of work. What if I do all that work and the skater doesn't even follow up?" Yes, it is a lot of work, but the more you do it, you'll find that you build up a collection of feedback that you can recycle. There will always be a skater who needs to improve core strength and lateral movement. I have a google doc full of links to workouts, so as soon as I've determined a skater needs to work on a specific skill, I hit up that document and copy/paste links for the skater. I also have compiled goal plans for improving stops, improving lateral movement, and so on, so I can reuse those at any time. (I am also mega-mondo-organized, so it's easy to find this stuff. And, I sell goal plans if you are interested in purchasing them.) After you build up a system of information, delivering feedback on how to improve is just a few clicks away. Seriously.    

Compassionate Feedback

Compassionate feedback comes from a genuine place of wanting to help a skater succeed. Compassionate feedback recognizes the good qualities of a skater and seeks to build on that. Find a way to compliment a skater - say something positive. Don't lie to a skater, but find something to compliment, even if that means complimenting the fact that they are trying or taking initiative or having a great attitude. This encouragement can mean the world to people who struggle with confidence. Additionally, it helps to establish a conversation that doesn't lead to a skater feeling defeated or defensive. A skater who feels this way won't hear you or won't believe you. 

Compassionate feedback also communicates unwanted behavior in a positive light. Instead of referring to what a skater did wrong, draw attention to how to execute a skill. It's all about the words you choose. Avoid words like no, not, don't, can't, shouldn't, etc. For example, instead of saying "when you work with a partner, you are not working with them or communicating with them," you should say: "I can see you are trying to work with your tripod. The next step is to listen to your brace about direction and quickly move into that space." You'll be amazed at how positively framing your words will result in positive results.

Additionally, be sure to offer positive reinforcement when skaters accomplish their goals. Let them know when they are succeeding. Ask them to demonstrate a skill they do well (if they are comfortable with that). Offer them praise in front of everyone, so all skaters can share in someone's success. Try to offer everyone praise and not just the top-peforming skaters. Create an encouraging environment, so skaters are excited to learn and look forward to receiving feedback from you.

More feedback examples: 

Not constructive and/or compassionateYou are high-blocking everyone, and you're going to hurt someone. 

Constructive and compassionateI love how aggressive you are in the pack. This is an excellent and necessary skill to be a successful player! Be careful with your sternum blocks, though. Aim lower to avoid hitting someone in the face. If you aim for their navel - even though it seems impossibly low - your margin of error decreases. That way, if you make contact a little above the intended target area, you will still be legal.

Not constructive and/or compassionateYou look totally lost, like you have no idea what's happening in the pack. 

Constructive and compassionateYou do a great job of adjusting speed and staying in the pack. The next step is to focus on awareness. At all times you need to know where the jammers are, where your opponents are, and where your teammates are. Knowing what's happening in the pack puts you in a position to make smart decisions.

Consistent Feedback

Coaches must be consistent with the amount of feedback given and when it's given. I think all skaters should receive written feedback at least once a year. It can be given to skaters after an assessment and/or tryout. Coaches should compile the feedback in easily accessible, digital form, so the skater can view it at any time. The feedback serves as a record of achievement and communication of what to work on. As often as possible, give feedback in the moment during drills. Offer in-the-moment feedback (with consent), as needed. 

Consistency is crucial when more than one coach gives feedback to a skater. A skater can become confused and disenchanted when coaches offer contradictory feedback. All coaches must be on the same page about how skills are executed. For example, there are several ways to execute a plow stop. At the beginner level, choose one way to teach skaters so they are learning the same way together. 

Coaches must also be on the same page about how skills are assessed. They should know exactly what to look for and how to objectively assess the execution of a skill. Early in my derby career assessment crews were all given a skater to assess and forms to fill out for that skater. After assessing one skill, we switched forms with another assessor, as to avoid bias or one skater getting assessed from a "tough" or a "friendly" assessor for every skill. Our head of training compiled all the feedback and grades into a document for the skater to read. When reading through the feedback, I noticed some skaters received conflicting feedback. One assessor wrote "doesn't stay with partner" and another assessor wrote "works great with partner!" If I were the skater receiving that feedback I'd be A) pissed B) confused and C) untrusting of the training staff. If more than one coach writes feedback for a skater, that feedback should be reviewed for consistency before sharing it with the skater. When all coaches are on the same page about how to execute and assess skills, their combined feedback is more consistent for an individual skater.

Additionally, when offering feedback in written assessment forms, it's good practice to include a summary that emphasizes at least one positive skill or quality and addresses one or two that the skater could work on. For example: “Suzy Skater, you executed your stops with the urgency needed for game play, you demonstrated focus and control, and your blocks were well-timed and executed legally. Moving into your next phase of training, we would like to see you continue improving those skills and to work on adding more power to your blocks and being more aware in the pack. Below is a list of exercises and drills you could complete every week in order to improve these skills."

Following Up Feedback

Always, always, always, check in with skaters after delivering feedback. Make sure they understand and are implementing your feedback. Most skaters need a reminder. Yes, this is more work, but these little things are what makes a great coach. Honestly, I struggle with this because I want skaters to trust me. I want them to put in the same hard work I did when I thought about and fretted over delivering the feedback, and when I spent hours creating a goal plan for them. I want them to feel inspired and work hard. When they don't, I sometimes get discouraged. The challenge, though, is not to allow that to impact my coaching. I still need to check in with these skaters. I still need to encourage them.  

How Skaters Receive Feedback

People are complex. They receive feedback in different ways, and it helps to know your skaters, so you are aware of how best to deliver feedback. While you may do your absolute best to offer consistent, constructive, compassionate feedback, some skaters are not ready to hear anything about themselves that doesn’t reek of awesomeness. Ego sometimes gets in the way of hearing, understanding, and retaining feedback. You can talk to them about this, too, and hope they are open to changing their approach to feedback.

Ideally, skaters would be grateful for feedback, grateful that someone cares and wants to see them succeed. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case. A lot of skaters do not have a background with sports or a feedback-heavy job and may have never been in situations in which they had to receive feedback or criticism. Also, not everyone is mentally and emotionally healthy, but you, however, must be professional regardless of the reaction. This is not always easy to do, but when a skater responds negatively, I try to focus less on feelings of anger and more on feelings of empathy. Maybe they are struggling with things in their life and it makes it hard to hear anything but praise. Asking for consent prior to giving feedback can help you to avoid these situations. Not always, but sometimes. 

In summary: ask for consent before giving feedback, make sure your feedback is constructive (specific and offers suggestion for improvement), compassionate, and consistent,  make sure you're in a good place when you deliver feedback, and make sure you remain professional if skaters act a fool when they receive (or refuse to receive) feedback. If you mess it up, apologize and do it better the next time. You can do this! 

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On Being a Team Player
Originally published Aug 2014