One of the critical duties of effective strength and conditioning coaching is teaching new exercises to athletes (19). These exercises could include weight-training exercises, plyometric exercises, or movement patterns. Teaching proper technique reduces the risk of injury, increases the effectiveness of the exercise, and allows for athletes to learn the exercises in the shortest amount of time. However, coaches tend to make mistakes when teaching exercises to athletes. The most common mistakes include using too many cues and providing too much feedback (11). A solution proposed by Janz (11) is to vary instruction based on athletes' learning styles, to limit coaching cues when giving feedback, and to give less feedback as athletes advance closer to the desired exercise. These 3 solutions will be addressed in detail, with the focus of this article on exploring the reasoning behind reducing feedback over time.
Reducing feedback over time should allow athletes to develop their own methods of self-correction (11). Thus, effective strength and conditioning coaches should be promoting self-regulatory behaviors with their athletes. Self-regulation is a process whereby people guide their goal-directed behaviors in the relative absence of outside influences (13). Kirschenbaum's theory of self-regulation for sport (13) provides a framework for coaches to educate athletes on self-regulatory behaviors. This model was designed for sport, but this article is exploring its potential in the strength and conditioning setting. Finally, this article will provide a practical application example of how the model can be used to aid in athletes' acquisition of a weight-training lift, but the information in this article can be applied to athletes' learning any exercise or movement pattern.
SELF-REGULATION MODEL OF SPORT
Athletes' journey toward executing a lift can be expedited through establishing goals, working toward those goals, reevaluating, and attending to task components during action (13). In essence, athletes need to set appropriate goals, track their general progress, and monitor how they are executing lifts when lifting. It is clear that self-regulation requires effective goal setting, but Kirschenbaum's model does not offer an explicit explanation of goals. Thus, the goal setting theory of Locke and Latham (16) will be explained in combination with Kirschenbaum's model.
Below is a description of the stages, along with an example to illustrate how each stage (outside of stage 4) could be practically applied to the strength and conditioning setting. There are 5 stages total, and they include problem identification, commitment, execution, environmental management, and generalization.
Stage 1: Problem Identification
Feedback is important in influencing athletes' learning of skills, but mastering a lift can be hindered by athletes who are completely dependent on coaches for instruction (11). This dependency makes it more difficult to permanently master a skill after it is first learned, whereas activating athletes' cognitive systems can enhance retention of the learned lift (6–8). Coaches should promote athletes' self-awareness by communicating that change is within their control and that it can help in learning new exercises. This should occur during a preprogram meeting that is at least 1 day before the first workout session. This meeting shows athletes that coaches respect them by listening to their input, by being prepared, and by showing athletes that coaches make them and their training a top priority (18). Finally, it will be beneficial to understand how athletes learn best from either verbal or visual feedback (12). It is recommended to ask athletes how they best learn and to tailor that mode of feedback to them.
Practical application: working with Mike
You are working with Mike, a high school ice hockey player. Before Mike begins your summer training program, the 2 of you engage in a 10-minute meeting. The first half of the meeting is focused on telling Mike that he can self-regulate and on discovering how Mike best learns. “Mike, it is important that you are able to recognize how you are squatting when you're squatting. This will help you correct yourself. Also, how do you best learn? Do you like to ‘see’ it, or ‘hear’ it?” Mike comments that he is a visual learner.
Stage 2: Commitment
Athletes commit to change. One of the most important factors that affects athletes' commitment to change is constructing effective goals. Kirschenbaum continually refers to athletes' actions as “goal-directed behavior,” which means actions taken to reach a predetermined goal. Locke and Latham state that goals are a critical variable in self-regulation (16), mostly because of the conscious and unconscious benefits. Consciously, goals direct focus and positively affect motivation and persistence. Unconsciously, goals remain in the periphery of consciousness that focus athletes on necessary components for skill execution (16,17). These benefits would help athletes learn new lifts, but Locke and Latham used subjects in the industrial setting to construct their theory. However, there have been many studies that illustrate the effectiveness of goal setting in sport and physical activity (3,4,9,14). Kyllo and Landers (14) reviewed 36 studies as part of the only meta-analytic review of goal setting in sport and physical activity. Findings revealed that goal setting demonstrated an effect size of 0.34 compared with “do your best” or no goal. This indicates a considerable positive effect of goal setting in the sport and physical activity domain.
Goal setting theory
Tested for decades with over 40,000 subjects, Locke and Latham's goal setting theory focuses on the relationship between “conscious performance goals and level of task performance” (16). There are 2 general findings that are relevant to the strength and conditioning setting. First, it is imperative to set specific, difficult goals. This leads to an increased level of effort and performance compared with easy or “do your best” goals. Second, there are critical moderators of goal setting that can affect the success of the goal setting process. They include task complexity, commitment to the goal, and feedback (16,17).
Task complexity is a critical moderator of goal setting because it influences the type of goal that is set. Learning goals (process-focused) have been shown to be more effective than performance goals (outcome-focused) on complex tasks (16). It is more beneficial to focus on the small gains that lead to an outcome rather than focusing on the outcome itself.
Commitment to goals is the second moderator of goal setting because it is necessary for enacting a goal plan. Commitment is strongest when athletes place importance on outcomes expected and exhibit a strong belief in their ability to achieve the outcomes. Expected outcomes can be enhanced by communicating the rationale behind the goal. Strength and conditioning coaches should connect how proficiency in a lift will help in athletes' sport of choice (16). This conversation should take place during the preprogram meeting. Athletes' beliefs are termed self-efficacy, and coaches can influence a high level of athletes' self-efficacy by conducting a preprogram meeting and by giving effective feedback during workout sessions.
Feedback is the last moderator of goal setting because it influences learning, motivation, and self-efficacy, among others (1,13,16). The type of feedback has been studied extensively over the past decade. A recent series of research studies by Wulf et al. indicated that internally-focused feedback (process-focused) impedes the learning process and that externally focused feedback (outcome focus) is optimal for learning. However, Beilock et al. conducted multiple studies over the same time frame and differentiated the type of instruction on level of expertise. They posited that internally-focused feedback is detrimental for experts only, whereas internally-focused feedback had better outcomes than distracting conditions for novices (22). The implication here is that feedback seems to work best when considering the skill level of athletes; internal feedback seems to fit better than external feedback when working with novices. Coaches should also administer feedback that reflects process goals, which focuses on small improvements that will lead to proper execution of the desired lift.
Practical application: working with Mike
You and Mike have decided that the goal is to create self-awareness regarding improvement on the squat. Before setting the goal, you explain the importance of the squat to enhance Mike's commitment. You emphasize that the squat improves skating speed and balance; it promotes a low center of gravity that makes it easier to knock others off the puck and harder for Mike to get knocked off the puck. Mike understands this explanation, so the two of you form a process goal; “When performing the squat, I will direct my focus to dropping my hips back and keeping my chest up.” Notice that the goal promotes self-awareness, and it breaks down the larger goal of mastering the squat. The goal also creates relevant cues for Mike and his coach to focus on in the weight room.
Stage 3: Execution
The execution phase begins when athletes attempt to self-regulate behavior. Athletes need to monitor how certain parts of their body move in space, so they can compare that with the desired performance. This is termed self-evaluation. Favorable self-evaluation leads to positive self-consequation (congratulating the self for success); negative self-evaluation leads to negative self-consequation (telling oneself it was not good enough, that something needs to change). Self-consequation serves to connect thoughts regarding previous performance with the next performance. Sets in the weight room serve as their own “performance,” so athletes experience this stage multiple times per workout session.
Athletes who are continually focusing on a part of the lift executed incorrectly strengthen a negative feedback loop that has implications for future performance. This model suggests that athletes can benefit from focusing on repetitions that were done correctly by envisioning how they “looked” and “felt.” The focus is on duplicating the good repetitions because positive affect and self-efficacy occur when athletes perceive their performance as satisfactory. This facilitates a willingness to commit to new tasks (15,16). Athletes are always focused, and drawing their focus to the good repetitions creates positive memories that can fuel effort and motivation.
It is suggested to administer feedback only when performance falls outside a bandwidth of expected behavior. The coaching technique is termed bandwidth feedback, and it has shown to be effective in promoting long-term mastery of skills learned (10,20,21). Coaches are responsible for deciding what behaviors would fall inside and outside an approximation of a desired behavior. It is suggested to set a bandwidth that is small so that athletes are not receiving feedback only when they are very close to execution of a skill. However, withholding feedback will take longer for athletes to master the skill because they must activate their cognitive system and increase mental effort. Assuming athletes are using their cognition is just that, an assumption, and athletes may interpret the lack of feedback as neglect. Solving these issues means that coaches should question athletes (6). Questioning will inform coaches whether athletes are self-regulating and are focusing on the good or bad repetitions, and can concurrently eliminate athletes' perception of neglect. Questioning is suggested when athletes are performing outside their bandwidth zone as well.
Practical application: working with Mike
When Mike finishes a set of squats, ask him how that set felt. This directs Mike's focus to the goal and promotes self-regulatory behaviors. If Mike is emphasizing the negative aspects of the squat with such statements as, “I really didn't keep my hips back at all”, or “My chest dipped down too much”, you can redirect his focus to the good repetitions by saying, “How about the reps that felt good, the ones where your hips were back and chest was up?” (the coach should concurrently show a good squat while emphasizing the chest and hips). “See it in your head. Notice how they felt. Tell yourself, chest up, hips back before every set.” Mike's coach has given him the cues of chest up and hips back that Mike can say to himself before every set of squats. Reminding Mike of the critical parts of the movement and promoting self-talk while learning a new skill can enhance skill acquisition (23).
Focusing attention on positive aspects of performance is critical because positive expectancies are essentials in improving performance of poorly mastered tasks. An emphasis on the aversive aspects of performance is a major factor that contributes to a failure to properly self-regulate, and the source of this can come from either the individual (personality) and/or situational determinants (coach) (13). Thus, it is imperative that coaches focus on the positive repetitions.
If Mike is having difficulty in correctly executing any aspect of the lift, a popular method that provides a quick framework for administering positive feedback is the sandwich approach (2,5). Its simple framework is effective in promoting a motivational and reinforcement piece that is sandwiched in between feedback (7). It includes a positive statement about athletes' performances (first slice of bread), corrective feedback on the behavior that is to change (meat and cheese), and finally a supportive remark (second slice of bread). Most coaches can remember situations where athletes performed so poorly on a task that one says, “Where do I even start?” Athletes probably have an idea of how poor their execution is, so it is paramount to point out something positive because it can stimulate their attention and allow them to internalize feedback better. Typical positives include athletes' effort, intensity, persistence, or commitment. The second part of the sandwich approach consists of the corrective feedback, which has been covered above. The last part of the sandwich is an encouraging remark. This is a general positive statement designed to energize athletes for performance. Examples include, “You can do this” or, “Go get em.” A quick motivational statement consistently ends interactions on a positive note.
The sandwich approach is nothing new, but its philosophy can help when athletes are immensely struggling. It can be adapted to fit within Kirschenbaum's model by (a) telling athletes something they are doing correctly, (b) asking what is going on, (c) making sure they can identify the 1 or 2 mini-skills to focus on, and (d) ending by asking them what they are going to focus on.
Stage 4: Environmental Management
Social support from people in the environment has an effect on self-regulation. One of the main social support systems in the weight room is strength and conditioning coaches. They can give athletes social support by setting up a preprogram meeting to discuss goals, self-regulation, and learning styles. Coaches can show support through effective feedback during workout sessions.
Stage 5: Generalization
Athletes have just begun to successfully self-regulate a behavior. It is difficult to maintain self-regulation, so Kirschenbaum suggests that athletes develop an “obsessive-compulsive style of self-regulating” (13, p. 163). This can be accomplished through engaging in ritualistic behaviors. The model is somewhat vague with defining “ritualistic behaviors”, but it emphasizes that athletes should find a ritual that works for them. Using self-talk and preparatory imagery can be excellent tools that enhance control of a newly learned skill (20,24).
Practical application: working with Mike
When Mike has initially mastered the squat, the focus shifts to adopting a ritual to sustain self-regulation of the squat. Mike's coach emphasized hip movement and chest placement when setting the goal (stage 2). He administered feedback by drawing Mike's attention to envisioning “good reps” of hips back and chest up (stage 3). It is natural that Mike's coach should use the previous teaching points as the content of the ritual.
Using self-talk before a set of squats focuses athletes on necessary cues for skill execution (9), and imagery has been shown to influence the performance-related thoughts of athletes. Furthermore, the psychoneuromuscular theory suggests that imagery influences athletes' muscle memory. “Seeing” oneself correctly executing a skill enhances the neural pathways that are responsible for the physical execution of the skill (20). Coaches with no training or background in these skills can teach them, it takes relatively little time for athletes to internalize, and they are brief enough to fit into the time constraints of the weight room. Mike's coach can say, “In order to keep performing the squat well, take twenty seconds before every set to do two things together: Visualize yourself doing the squat correctly while repeating ‘hips back, chest up’.” Mike's coach continually used that phrase when giving feedback during the learning phase. This phrase provides personal meaning to Mike and will facilitate a better “picture” when he envisions the squat. Once Mike becomes proficient in the squat for a few weeks, the focus of self-talk should shift from mechanics to expected feelings during skill execution. For example, Mike's coach could tell him, “You are doing really well with the squat now. Before each set, tell yourself how you expect to feel when squatting. Use words that have meaning to you, such as ‘smooth, fluid’, etc” (24) (Table).
The concepts outlined above may be different than your approach to coaching. If so, a critical self-reflection of how the concepts in this article could be incorporated into your everyday practice can have the benefit of improving the rate at which athletes learn in the weight room. This would create more time in a strength and conditioning program to allow the exercises to positively affect strength, speed, and power. Engaging in an honest self-assessment of where you are today will shed light onto where you could be tomorrow.
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