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  • Brianna Welch

Committing to Ongoing Learning: Opening ourselves up to feedback despite what we may receive

A few weeks back our Atlantic Coast Conference Winter cohort wrapped up and I shared some feedback and thoughts from our participating coaches. If you take a look, the feedback is all positive. It reflects all of the things we did well as a program and how we were able to support these coaches in their development over the last 8 weeks. While all of these things are true, it doesn't necessarily provide the whole picture. Full disclosure in some of our questions asking about what we can improve or what could have been different we also received these types of responses:

  • I wish there was less post work, although I know it is beneficial. I struggled to keep up..

  • Not entirely sure how to address but I don't know how I would do this in season. The last week of the class we had a match and I felt consumed by what was needed for the class + preparing my team.

  • The time in each session, I actually think shorter sessions over a longer period of time would have been better for my style of learning.

Without this input there would be gaps in the coach experience, missing pieces that could help us to not only reflect on what we are offering but consider what needs to be re-assessed and tweaked. If we were to continue along offering the program, and turned a blind eye to what our coaches needed from us to improve their experience, we would be stagnant in our development as facilitators, and a program as a whole. No matter what stage we are at personally or professionally there is never a point when we should stop looking internally and externally to learn how we can be more effective in our approach.

I often come across coaches, teachers, instructors etc. sharing the positive and reaffirming feedback they receive. While it's important to reflect on and highlight our strengths and showcase the value we bring to individuals as well as the organizations/communities that we influence, I always wonder, what happens when the feedback is not highlighting good things but rather identifying areas we need to work on. Do coaches, instructors, managers etc. choose not to share this side OR do they not even venture into the realm of asking what they can do better for fear of what they might hear or what might be identified as an area that requires more time, attention and growth. If we don’t seek out this information, how else can we evolve as people, as coaches, as mentors, as instructors if we are look for the things that are going to reflect back only what we are doing well but never take the leap into the unknown -- if we never seek out responses to the questions:

  • “How can I adjust my my actions, behaviors, communication to better support you?”

  • “What can I improve on?

  • “What about my approach could be adjusted?”

To honor and practice what I preach regarding vulnerability, seeking out feedback and showing my true self I want to use this post to 1. Highlight the importance of being open to taking a hard look at our own practices and seeking out input from other coaches, mentors, administrators and most importantly OUR ATHLETES and 2. Share my own example of feedback that I received while coaching on the D1 level (both regarding things I was doing well and areas I could improve upon).

Recent research on coach learning highlights that ongoing professional learning is in fact the job of coaching (Armour, 2010).

Reflective practice allows coaches to engage in a continual process of turning experience into knowledge and turning new knowledge into action and evolution. It is an opportunity for introspective problem solving and contemplation of questions such as “what occurred during this session?”, “why did it occur?” and “how did I behave/engage?”. Setting aside time for reflection post practice and games helps coaches to develop self-awareness and social awareness, examining what went well with their athletes and understanding what they could do to improve their behavior, language and engagements with individuals. Without reflection, coaches are unable to make improvements in their coaching style and unlikely to identify their own practices that have an empowering and positive impact on their athletes. Finally, engaging in reflective practice is linked to improvement in the quality of care, stimulating personal and professional growth and closing the gap between theory and practice.

While personal and peer reflection is extremely valuable and can take many forms (journaling, videoing, coaching pods etc.) I often find that coaches shy away from seeking out feedback, especially when it comes to asking their athletes. Whether it is our ego, a lack of self-confidence, pride or maybe we are just tired and don't have the energy when we do not seek out feedback from our athletes we are doing ourselves and our athletes a disservice.

It takes a strong sense of self and a commitment to growth to hear others out, but as coaches if we are able to develop this skill we will only be better for it. In “Reflective Practice and Ongoing Learning: A Coach’s 10-year Journey” the authors consider Hank (a real life coach who documents his journey of reflective coaching) an outlier. He is described as a coach “willing to take a hard look at his coaching", who soberly concluded he needed to make major changes, and lay himself open to criticism by seeking feedback and guidance from multiple sources. Perhaps he is one of those with a personal mastery orientation (Senge, 2006), and a passion to succeed, willing to do whatever it takes no matter how personally uncomfortable” and having an unrelenting commitment to self monitoring.

But this should not be the exception. Anyone who wants to make the sports community better, build a more positive and healthy culture and support our leaders (coaches/administrators) in engaging in a continual process of growth would agree that Hank should be the standard. And that in order for our athletes to receive the best of the best, we will need to work on letting down our guard, opening our ears and valuing their voice.

In my own personal experience, when coaching at the DI level, I had many positive experiences where I felt that I made a difference in my athletes lives, that they felt supported and cared for and that I was positive and encouraging presence. BUT the story doesn't end there. While I believe that I do many things well as a coach and now in my role as a coach developer, I also have had feedback that identifies areas that I may have missed and areas I could do better in. See below for real feedback from my athletes:

While it is difficult to share this and it's always hard to read feedback that may indicate where you fell short, as a coach my role is to serve my athletes and address their needs in order to support them in thriving. In order to engage in a reflective coaching process I have to first identify behaviors, attitudes and actions that I can re-examine. The first time I read "some people need less than others" I reacted with a bit of defensiveness. I thought I did that pretty well? After taking a step back and reminding myself that I should not take it personally, I was able to think about how I typically reach out and engage with my athletes and took the time to make note of my communication with different individuals. I realized that I may have a certain approach to working with athletes, and that I might think I am tailoring my style to different individuals needs, but that I still need to do some work on reading the women and understanding what approach is right for each of them.

I am not saying that when you hear 30 athletes' feedback that you should change all of those things about yourself. I also know that what 1 athlete says, may not be aligned with what the majority is thinking, but that doesn't mean we should disregard them. There needs to be a balance. We should continually look for ways to obtain our athletes feedback and hear their input. We then need to devote time and energy (and a certain level of openness) to the hard personal work of taking a deeper look at our relationships and engagements with our athletes, noting how we are showing up and making the necessary adjustments. Note: This process can also be supported and improved by introducing an assistant coach or connecting with other coaches in your community to learn from them and gain perspective on how you can make changes to your practice.

Not only does this provide insight into our athletes perspectives and shed light on our personal approach, but it helps to develop a collaborative relationship in which we are saying “I value you” “I hear you” and “I want you to be a part of this process of learning and growing with me”. The more we are able to engage in this two way street and demonstrate this type of receiving, the more our athletes will be able to model this behavior and more effectively respond when we provide them with our own constructive feedback. Being a role model for this type of behavior helps to foster a culture in which teammates can support teammates by giving constructive feedback/suggestions and all individuals will start to see input as valuable to helping them get better.

*Cited Source: Ronald Gallimore, Wade Gilbert & Swen Nater , Reflective Practice (2013):

Reflective practice and ongoing learning: a coach’s 10-year journey, Reflective Practice:

International and Multidisciplinary Perspectives, DOI: 10.1080/14623943.2013.868790

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