8 Ways To Critique Without Crushing Your Team’s Spirit

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It happens to all of us.  We say one thing and our team hears another thing altogether.  Here’s an example:

Me: Susie, if you take one more step and face your target, your pass will be right on the money.
Susie hears: You’re a horrible volleyball player.

Me: Betsy, you’re on the right track, just be sure to communicate with your teammates so that they know what you’re going to do.
Betsy hears: Not only do I think you’re a horrible volleyball player, your teammates hate you too.

If either of those scenarios sound a little too familiar, take heart.  According to an article in Psychology Today titled, A Chic Critique (April 2011), “people react strongly to criticism no matter how it’s delivered.”  That being said, I’m sure none of us is out to squish our team’s spirit like a proverbial bug.  Let’s look at how we can critique without being critical.

8 Rules To Effectively Deliver Negative Feedback

  1. Always lead with questions. I may not lead with a question, but somewhere in my feedback, I usually ask if they understand what I’m asking of them.  The article says that the hard part about criticism is that it threatens that person’s membership in the group.  So asking questions shows them that they are part of a group effort.  Something as simple as, “Do this.  Does that make sense?”, is a typical exchange in our gym.
  2. Never give criticism unless it’s been invited. In my mind, by virtue of being on a team, they’re inviting criticism.  Turns out that I’m onto something!  “When a teacher grades a student, a coach gives a pep talk, or a parent guides a young child’s efforts, there’s a tacit agreement that praise and correction will be part of the exchange.”
  3. Make sure you are seen as having the authority to give corrective feedback. Have you ever had a freshman give a senior some advice on how to perform a skill better?  Even if their advice is great, the senior probably won’t receive it because the freshman has no authority yet.  If you’ve got one of those “helpful” freshmen, you should probably pull them aside and have a little chat with them.
  4. Distinguish whether a demand reflects your needs or is a valid critique of what they’re doing wrong. I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes I want my team to do something because it’s my preferred method of operation.  My general statement is, “there are a million ways to skin a cat…either way you end up with a cat without skin, so let’s try it my way.”  Sure, that sounds gross, but it gets the point across.  I’m not saying that the student-athlete is doing something wrong per se, just not the way I’d like them to do it.
  5. Never give feedback when you’re angry. Easier said than done, right?  If there’s someone on your team that drives you crazy, let them become your assistant’s pet project.  I’ve even been known to tell my assistant to listen to my corrective statements during practice.  Like, “Katie is working my last nerve today, please make sure that I’m not picking on her at practice.”  Hopefully this keeps Katie from being a puddle of tears in the locker room.
  6. Know who you’re talking to. As the article says, “Narcissists take any criticism as a personal attack; the insecure lose all self-esteem.”  I’m constantly beating the personality test drum, and that’s because I think it’s a great way to find out how your team is motivated.
  7. Know yourself. Personally, I’m less outwardly sensitive to criticism.  Of course it still stings and of course I’d rather receive a steady stream of praise, but I like to receive my criticism without all of the frills.  But everyone isn’t like me and some people really need to hear the frills before they can process the criticism.  Knowing that others aren’t like me will keep me from completely crushing the more sensitive folks on my team.
  8. Expect defensiveness. The article says that we tend to “simplify the world by making it bipolar”.  So when you don’t tell Susie she’s the most amazing player in the whole, wide world…well, of course you are saying that she’s terrible.  The good news is that this is just the initial reaction and you can expect a change in behavior to follow.  You can also train your team about the proper response to your feedback.  Do you want them to look you in the eye while you’re talking?  Do you want them to respond with a “yes, Coach.”  Be sure to let them know!


I enjoy Psychology Today, they’ve got great articles.  A lot of our jobs as coaches is to figure out how to motivate our teams and I always find a gem in each magazine.  I hope this one reminded us all about anticipating how our criticism will be received by our teams.

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