If you had to guess the single most frequently used word in a typical practice, what word would it be? [I’m thinking about soccer here but it really could be any form of practice.]
My guess is that it would be: “good.”
Coaches say “good” to players constantly and with a variety of meanings. This post is a reflection on that commonly uttered word.
Listen to the coach in this ten-second mini-video for example. He is, by the way, a very strong coach:
This coach is saying ‘good’ not to give feedback on specific behaviors by specific players but for two other reasons. One is what you might call “pace setting.” He’s using ‘good’ to set the work rate he wants from his players. The rhythm of his use of the word matters as much as the content. The other reason is what you might call general positive reinforcement– meaning he is talking to the group in general, trying to keep the tone and energy positive and upbeat.
These two things–pace setting and general positive reinforcement–have value. Pete Carroll, reflecting on how Seattle Seahawks practice, says that he asks all of his coaches to “critique effort first.” You can hear him talk about that at 3:25 in the video in this post. And then you can hear Pete himself at 3:42. He doesn’t say ‘good’ but he’s basically using his verbal positive reinforcement to set the pace and the tone—to critique and reinforce effort first, and that is also what the coach in the mini video is doing. It’s something coaches often do with the word “good.’
“Good work! Keep it up! Good! Good!”
But coaches also use the word good for specific positive reinforcement. That is they use it to tell a specific player that he or she did well in a specific action—“Good, David!” being short for “Yes that is how I want you to receive the ball,” or “That’s a smart pass.” Unlike general positive it’s a targeted message to a specific player, or group of players: “I saw you do that and I want you to replicate it.”
The tricky part is that players don’t always know which way we are using the word. In fact I’d argue that our use of it is such a habit that we as coaches are not always aware of which way we are using the word. So, for example, I watched a really good coach a few days ago. He was working with a group of players and he was trying to use “good” in the pace setting/general positive reinforcement sense, I think. During the activity he was using the word repeatedly as players received and turned. He was trying to reinforce the level of effort and keep energy high.
But the players were not consistently executing correctly- some right; some wrong. And the danger is that they perceived him to be using ‘good’ for specific positive reinforcement. That is, he was saying “work hard; keep up the energy” and they were hearing—or might have been hearing—“Yes. That’s how you should receive and turn.”
And this of course is the danger- not just with good but with any word that we over use. We can render it meaningless—players stop hearing it altogether—or we introduce enough lack of precision to cause unintended consequences.
Consider for a moment the story that David Eagleman tells in his book Incognito, The Secret Lives of the Brain, about something that I will call “binary feedback”- a thing that is strangely powerful.
During WWII, England had a very small number of incredibly valuable plane spotters, people who could listen as planes approached across the English Channel and, based strictly on the sounds of their engines, could tell whether the planes were British or German. Crucially, they could make this determination well before the planes could be seen. Obviously the value of this early information was immense. And so the RAF wanted more such people. The problem of how to train people to differentiate the sounds of engines was made more complex by the fact that the spotters themselves were unable to describe what it was they were hearing. They couldn’t explain it, they could just do it.
How do you replicate something like that?
Binary feedback, it turns out. A spotter would stand next to a trainee on the coast and as the sound of an engine emerged from the clouds—it was England after all—the trainee would guess- British or German. The spotter would merely say “yes” or “no” in response to whether the guess was correct.
[Then presumably they ran into a bunker]
Anyway, in due time the trainees became very accurate and the vital skill was replicated.
Imagine the power of this to a coach. We often ask players to do complex things that require more explanation than is viable. Or that we can’t fully explain. But if we merely stood next to the player and uttered—as they received the ball and redirected their touch, say—“yes” for perfect execution and “no” for flawed, they might learn complex things quickly and efficiently without many interruptions and stoppages.
In fact to some degree some low lever version of this is always operating within our practices. Players are learning from explicit teaching and simple reinforcement
The danger of course is that if we are inexact with our simple reinforcement–yesses and nos, and mostly our “good”—we risk subvert this form of learning. The danger with ‘good’ in particular is that players hearing what they think is specific positive reinforcement are attempting to learn from it when it is instead pace setting or general reinforcement so what they think is signal is in fact noise.
One more example of how in teaching and coaching the things we do that are beneath the threshold of intentionality are often immensely powerful.