Mind games – sports psychology for golf coaches

GOLF RETAILING have teamed up with books publisher Human Kinetics to look at how pros can successfully use reinforcement and feedback to improve a client’s golfing performance.

Although coaches do a lot of instructing, organising, and encouraging, they also spend a great deal of time providing feedback to athletes. Successful coaches use feedback to reinforce athletes for things they have done well. A positive reinforcer is a pleasant consequence or outcome that encourages the athlete to try to repeat the desired behavior. Reinforcement has a strong influence on athletes’ behavior, and if it is not used correctly it can be detrimental. Good coaches realise the power of reinforcement and use it to their advantage by reinforcing desired behaviors in an appropriate manner.

Shaping: Reward Successful Approximations

Although many athletes find mastering a complex skill to be reinforcing, the learning process itself is not always reinforcing as it can be painstakingly slow and frustrating. Coaches can help athletes work through this process by using a principle called shaping to reinforce successive or closer approximations to the desired behavior. In using this principle, coaches reinforce small improvements rather than waiting until the athlete performs the entire skill correctly. For example, teaching a basketball player to shoot accurately might start with getting the elbow directly under the ball. Regardless of other aspects of technique, or whether the ball goes in the basket, good elbow position is rewarded. Once this aspect of technique has been mastered, step two requires good elbow position and a high release point in order to receive reinforcement – and so on, until, step by step, the player masters good shooting form. At each step in the process, the coach initially gives reinforcement immediately and every time. As the proper technique becomes ingrained, reinforcement can be delayed and intermittent.

Reward Effort and Performance, Not Just Outcomes

It is crucial to reward effort, improvement, and technique, but it is common to see coaches rewarding the outcome of a performance even if the skill is executed poorly. Alternatively, coaches may fail to recognise a good performance (such as a good swing) if the outcome is poor. Achieving a desired outcome, even if it is executed poorly, is often intrinsically rewarding to athletes, so it is important for coaches to reinforce effort and form, which are key to long-term success but may be less intrinsically reinforcing.

Reward Good Behavior and Use Punishment Sparingly

Coaches who are masterful at using reinforcement also use it to minimise undesirable behaviors. Rather than punishing athletes for misbehaving or making mistakes, they reinforce the opposite good behavior. For example, rather than punishing athletes who are late for practice, they make it a point to reinforce athletes for being punctual.

By using reinforcement, you can create a positive environment that reduces the need for punishment. This does not mean that you should never use punishment, but simply that you should rely more on reinforcement.

Strive to use punishment sparingly. Perhaps the best approach is to prevent misbehaviors from occurring in the first place. To do this, it is essential that athletes understand which behaviors are appropriate, which are inappropriate, and what is expected of them. Setting forth clear expectations – and consequences for violating them – should minimise your need to nag or threaten athletes to keep order. Athletes respond favorably to clear expectations and guidelines, but they do not respond well to being regimented.

Providing Feedback

One of the primary ways coaches reinforce athletes is through their use of feedback. Although feedback has the potential to be a powerful reinforcer, using it effectively is an art. Effective coaches have mastered that art; they provide feedback in a way that motivates and inspires athletes to reach their potential.

Responding to a Good Performance Effort

Nonreinforcement At times, coaches are so focused on helping athletes improve that they take good performance efforts for granted. Nonreinforcement means failing to acknowledge athletes’ effort, skill execution, and performance improvements. Have you ever failed to point out the positives because you were so focused on identifying what athletes needed to do to improve? It’s an easy trap to fall into. Coaches who fail to reinforce when it is warranted assume that athletes know their work is noticed and appreciated. In reality, when you fail to acknowledge strong effort and performance, this communicates a negative message to athletes, leaving them to question whether their effort and improvement are recognised and valued.


Coaches who are effective communicators create a positive culture by reinforcing athletes either verbally or nonverbally for improving, executing a difficult skill, or trying hard. They may make encouraging comments, such as, “That was a great effort,” or “You got a fast start out of the blocks.” In addition to a verbal comment, a simple smile, pat on the back, or thumbs-up can go a long way in communicating that an athlete’s effort and performance are appreciated.

General versus descriptive positive feedback:

Not all positive feedback is equally effective. In providing general feedback, coaches may say something like, “Well done,” or “Keep it up.” This type of positive feedback does not have a significant effect on athletes. It may even come across as being insincere, and it is easy for athletes to discount. A better approach is to give descriptive feedback, where you describe the performance and what exactly the athlete did well: “You made a great move to get open” or “Great job –you kept your head up and back straight throughout the lift.” This type of feedback has a positive effect on athletes; its specificity marks it as sincere and make it more likely to be internalised. When you are giving feedback, remember that specific is terrific – let athletes know exactly what they did well.

Provide Encouragement and Instructional Feedback, Not Constructive Criticism

Although it is crucial to catch athletes doing something right, it is also important to learn how to respond effectively to mistakes, poor performance, and lack of effort. Athletes will make mistakes and they will have poor performances. It’s a natural part of the learning process. Coaches are aware of this and, with good intentions, often give constructive criticism to help athletes improve, but in reality constructive criticism can backfire and make athletes feel belittled. So what is the best way to respond to an athlete who makes a mistake?

Encourage, encourage, encourage: Coaches should encourage athletes after a mistake because that is when they need it the most. If athletes know how to perform the skill, then simple encouragement may be enough. The coach might say, “Tough game out there today – keep up the effort.” If the mistake is due to the athlete’s not knowing how to perform the skill, or needing to refine it, then corrective feedback is warranted. The key to giving instructional feedback is to recognise poor performance in a positive way that is encouraging and helps athletes improve.

Make instructional feedback action oriented Action-oriented feedback does not punish; rather, it is descriptive and helps athletes focus on their future attempts. Never provide instructional feedback in a negative, demeaning, or sarcastic fashion. Punishment is not simply a matter of yelling—it can be implied by tone of voice, a look of disgust, and a variety of other nonverbal expressions. Whatever its form, punitive feedback often results in athletes becoming frustrated and developing a resentful attitude. It destroys, rather than builds, communication bridges.

Thus it is important to learn how to give instructional feedback that motivates and inspires athletes. As with positive feedback, instructional feedback works best when it is descriptive. This kind of feedback clearly and objectively describes the behaviors the coach observed. It is not criticism. Criticism might sound like this: “How many times do I have to tell you to catch the ball with two hands?” Descriptive feedback, on the other hand, does not seek to label an athlete’s performance as poor. Instead it seeks to help the athlete look more clearly at his or her behavior. The coach might say, “Remember to look the ball all the way into your hands.” This type of feedback helps athletes learn while maintaining their confidence. In the two examples of descriptive feedback listed below, circle the response that you think is most effective in each pair.

“Great effort but you are still starting your flip turn too far away from the wall.”
“Great effort. Next time start your flip turn closer to the wall.”
“You are still not bending your knees enough.”
“Next time bend your knees even more and you’ll do even better.”

What do you see as the main difference? You may have noticed that the first example in each pair of feedback statements focuses on the past and what the athlete did wrong, whereas the second is future oriented and focuses on what the athlete needs to do to improve. Instructional feedback focuses on the future and is action oriented; it addresses what athletes need to accomplish, not what they should avoid. Rather than saying, “Don’t take your eye off the ball,” effective feedback directs athletes’ attention to what they need to do to succeed: “Swing through the ball.” Focusing athletes’ attention on what they should avoid can actually program them to do the very thing you are trying to prevent. To illustrate: Whatever you do right now, do not think of a pink elephant. Just block out any thought of a pink elephant. How successful were you? You probably immediately thought of a pink elephant. Be sure to give feedback that encourages athletes to focus on what you want them to do, not on what you want them to avoid. And remember to provide visual demonstrations to illustrate your positive verbal instruction.

Enhancing Athletes’ Receptiveness to Feedback

How can you determine whether an athlete received the feedback as you intended? The answer is easy – the athlete will respond in the way you hoped. You can facilitate such responses by taking deliberate steps to help athletes be receptive to your feedback. First, try not to become so focused on message content that you forget the emotional impact of the message on the athlete. You can increase athletes’ receptiveness by starting with something positive. For example, in describing how he provides instructional feedback, former NBA coach Rudy Tomjanovich says, “Correcting mistakes is one of the most important parts of coaching. . . . The majority of things a coach says to a player involve correcting him, and the manner in which you do so is vitally important. I feel a good way to change a negative is to add a positive to the formula” (Janssen 1999, p. 117).

An effective strategy for casting corrective feedback in a positive tone is to sandwich it between positive comments. This approach works well because it builds athletes’ confidence while also providing information about what they can do to improve. It takes the sting out of corrective feedback. One caveat: Avoid using the word but. Everything you say before this word gets discounted, and everything you say after it gets magnified: “You had a great setup for the doubleleg takedown, but you did not lead with your hip.” All the athlete will hear is “you did not lead with your hip.” With the sandwich approach, you’d say, “You had a great setup on the double-leg takedown. Next time lead with your hip. Keep working hard and it’ll come.” In the heat of the action, when time is limited, phrase your abbreviated feedback positively.

We marvel at the steely nerves, acute concentration, and flawless execution exhibited on the 18th green, at the free-throw line, in the starting blocks, and on the balance beam. While state-of-the-art training regimens have extended athletes’ physical boundaries, more and more coaches are realising the importance of sport psychology in taking athletic performance to new levels. Tomorrow’s record-breaking accomplishments will not be the result of athletes’ training harder physically, but of athletes’ training smarter mentally. www.humankinetics.com