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Responsible Coaches Provide Responsible Feedback

Girl Soccer BallNobody likes being criticized. But to truly grow and learn, we have to learn to be open to constructive criticism.

But what if we didn’t even look at it as criticism? What if we viewed everything through the more positive, productive lens of feedback, or at the very least, "kid-friendly criticism"?

Then we’re acting more like Responsible Sports Coaches, and we’re paving the way for more motivated, smart, successful young athletes under our instruction. Not to mention a better, closer, smarter and more successful team.

This month at Liberty Mutual Responsible Sports, we’re going to take a closer look at how coaches always do their best to provide responsible feedback and instruction to their kids.


Responsible Coaches Are Not "Soft"

Contrary to what some might think or say, being a Responsible Sports Coach does not mean being soft on the athletes entrusted to your care. Yes, coaching methods such as giving players a "Magic Ratio" of five specific, truthful praises for each specific, constructive correction exist in stark contrast to the stereotypical, screaming, demanding, my-way-or-the-highway, win-at-all-costs coach.

Still, Responsible Sports Coaching is not soft. It’s every coach’s job to help athletes improve – especially Responsible Sports Coaches, who also strive to teach athletes life lessons through sports, and therefore must carry extra credibility in the athletic arena. After all, young athletes who don’t think their coaches can help them improve their games may very likely also tune out and miss their coaches’ life lessons.

To be effective, Responsible Sports Coaches must know when and how to correct players. In fact, the "Magic Ratio" works not only because it helps young athletes feel good about themselves, but because that good feeling keeps athletes open and receptive to the necessary corrections.


When to Correct Athletes

It’s been said that there is a time and a place for everything, and providing feedback and correction for young athletes is no exception.

Almost all correction and feedback should occur in practice. In the heated, competitive and organized chaos of a game, technical skill correction rarely works well.

Especially in flow sports, a player in the game must focus on continuous action and stay aware and ready for the next play. Yet too often, coaches yell or try to physically demonstrate corrections in technique, which only distracts players – who already are fighting distraction due to whatever mistake prompted the coach’s urge to correct.

If a coach feels absolutely compelled to correct an athlete’s technique during a game, it should occur during a break in the action, and should be no more than a minor adjustment that the coach has previously addressed with the player in practice. It also helps if this correction can be communicated or reinforced with trigger words, a hand signal or other gesture that just serves as a reminder.

Other opportunities for brief, simple corrections occur during timeouts, when players check out of a game and between periods. Of course, each of those scenarios has its own challenges and balances to be struck.

For example, during a timeout and even between periods, you won’t want to correct players at the expense of their understanding any discussion of strategy to be used when play resumes. You might just deliver the trigger words a certain player needs to hear and then keep the player included in the strategy discussion. And players coming out of the game likely are not open to correction at all, especially if they sense they are coming out because of mistakes or poor play.

In all of the above circumstances, it’s best to correct privately unless there are several players who will benefit from hearing the same correction at the same time. In summary, the more removed from action a player is, especially the action that requires correction, the more open to correction the player is.


How to Correct Athletes

Depending on athletes’ ages, skill proficiency and your team’s level of competitiveness, it often helps to ask athletes if they are open to correction. If you do so, and the athlete says "no", then it’s best to respect his or her wishes and say something along the lines of, "OK, when you’re ready to talk about it, please let me know."

A "Criticism Sandwich" can also be helpful (watch this video to see our lacrosse coach using this technique). Try to "sandwich" the "meat" of your message between two pieces of praise – and make it calm, quiet, specific, constructive instruction. For example, "It was a great effort to get to the ball. If you peek over your shoulder to find your defender, you’ll be even more ready to do something great with the ball once you control possession. That little peek over your shoulder will really help you take advantage of the quickness you’ve worked so hard to develop."

In that Criticism Sandwich, notice the "if-then" statement. Rather than just telling the athlete what to do, the if-then structure gives power to the player. In the struggles of a mistake and a correction, athletes regaining a sense of control can be critical to their absorbing the correction and implementing it as soon as possible.

Determining when and how to effectively correct young athletes is part art, part science. The suggestions here may make the correction more palatable for the athlete, and thus more accepted. However, note that you, as a Responsible Coach, must provide the occasional hard-to-deliver, hard-to-hear truth that will improve your athletes’ performance and help them learn the life lesson of how to benefit from coaching on the field and beyond.


Kid-Friendly Criticism

As parents, we have to sometimes correct our children to help them improve, but how best to do so as a Responsible Sports Parent?

Easy – by delivering our feedback with useable information, we help empower our children. For example, "You need to focus!" contains virtually no useable information at all. But, "Remember that coach wants you to keep both feet on the ground on throw-ins" contains highly useable information.


The following are a few more handy tips on imparting kid-friendly criticism:

1.     Avoid Non-Teachable Moments: The ride home from a game that ended on a costly mistake, for example, is not the ideal time to offer instruction.

2.     Wait For Privacy: People listen to criticism better in private than in front of a crowd. Wait for the right one-on-one moment.

3.     Ask Permission: If you ask, and your child prefers not to hear your criticism, honor that, and ask again later. Do not, however, use this technique in areas where your child needs an immediate and firm lesson, such as poor sportsmanship or dangerous behavior.

4.     Use "If-Then" Statements: To help your kid feel in control even while you are criticizing him or her, phrase your feedback in the form of an "If-Then" statement. For example: "If you call your teammate off the ball, you’ll be more comfortable settling under that pop-up."

5.     Make A Criticism Sandwich: "Sandwich" the criticism you provide between a truthful, specific compliment on each side. In other words, the criticism is the meat, while the compliments are the bread. For example, say something like, "You’ve been exploding off the line great. You seem to get under the lineman’s pads almost every time now. Just make sure you keep your hands inside. If you combine keeping your hands inside with that explosiveness, you’ll be hard for anyone to beat."


Learn More About Giving Feedback.

For more information on how you can provide feedback, criticism and instruction in a Responsible Sports way, visit our Responsible Sports website at

You can learn even more by subscribing to the Weekly Coach Tip. You’ll get a helpful coaching tip delivered right to your inbox each and every week.  

Parents and coaches alike can also sign up for Fundamentals: The Responsible Sports eNewsletter at Each month, we’ll deliver the latest news from Responsible Sports right to your email inbox. You’ll receive relevant and informative feature articles, news from our partners, updates on the Community Grants and Responsible Coaching Awards, key dates and much more.

Focus on kid-friendly criticism and quality feedback and you’ll be well on your way to a truly winning season.  Your friends at Liberty Mutual Insurance and Responsible Sports are here to celebrate your success! 


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