Just tell me what I'm doing wrong...

As a ski instructor this is one of the most common type of phrases I have heard learners say and it is such a 'negative' way to begin a lesson. But why do learners think that if their instructor or coach tells them what they are doing wrong all will be well and they will make fantastic improvements in their performance? Indeed, why do many instructors spend a large proportion of time focusing on technical faults and weaknesses in their learner's performance? It is a complex issue and perhaps more prevalent in recreational sports like skiing where the general public are taking ski school lessons, but I believe the issues discussed, in this article, will have relevance to many sports and all levels of performance. What follows is my attempt to unpack this issue from both the learner's point of view and the instructor/coach perspective based on my experience as a ski instructor, performance coach, psychologist and learner!


Negative conditioning (learners)

Human beings are conditioned to focus on the negative not just in learning but in many areas of life. This relates back to the origin of our species where in order to survive we had to continually deal with threats to our life. So, we are hardwired to more heavily weight the negative, meaning unpleasant thoughts, emotions and social interactions have greater impact on our psychological state than pleasant ones. This perhaps explains why we end up focusing on our faults and weaknesses and why we think that doing so is more important than focusing on what we do well. Research by Barbara Fredrickson has shown that to remain positive and motivated we need to have a ratio of 3:1 i.e., 3 positive emotions/experiences for every 1 negative. Consequently, learners may think they just need to know what they are doing wrong but if all they get is 'negative' feedback then their positivity and mental state will be adversely affected.


Perception of what we think our learners want

From speaking to ski and snowboard instructors about learner's expectations of a lesson it is not uncommon for them to say that "learners expect lots of direct feedback that is based on identifying faults, correcting them and giving them specific drills to improve their skills. Otherwise they (the learner) will feel the instructor is not doing their job properly"! This is probably true of many other sports as well and often results in lessons that are packed full of drills and content with great risk of information overload and a very busy brain. But, as is so often the case, less is more and instructors and coaches need to feel confident that they can match their teaching input to their learners level of skill acquisition.


Learners need to understand learning

What learners themselves think they want is often not what they need hence the title of this article. If their previous experience of being coached has centred around technique and fault finding then it follows that this is what they will expect from future sessions. The solution to this is to help the learner better understand how to learn and this requires education. This is more difficult in a one-off lesson where the learner arrives with certain expectations but the goal of any instructor is to create repeat business and if a good relationship is developed, with the learner, then over time it is possible to help them better understand how to learn more effectively. This means a gradual shift in responsibility with the learner taking ownership of their development and becoming increasingly aware of the process and trusting their own feedback channels. This, in turn, allows the teacher to use different teaching styles, moving away from 'direct' and the limited one-way communication style of 'telling'.


Systemic issues with how instructors and coaches are trained

I'm going to put my neck on the line here and say that I believe there is a systemic problem with how instructors and coaches are trained that runs through many sports and training/certification organisations. The training that you receive, and the people you are trained by, will have a massive impact on how you, as an instructor/coach, teach others. Therefore, if that training focuses on one aspect of performance development more than others then that will carry through to how the general public and athletes are taught/coached.


In many sports 'technical development' is traditionally the area that receives the most attention through analysis of performance, fault finding and solutions via corrective drills. In skiing there is also a big emphasis on persoanl performance with instructors needing to demonstrate technical manoeuvres which are often closed skill by nature and of fixed form. This reinforces the technical focus and impacts the instructor's mindset.


Now don't misunderstand me as I am NOT saying that 'technical' is not important or that sound movement patterns are not required but it is all about dealing with the individual learner's needs and, as instructors/coaches, having the skill set to do so. In addition to technique these needs will include emotional management, confidence building, motivation, enjoyment, tactics, social interaction, sense of achievement etc. Of course, some organisations are better than others when it comes to developing 'non-technical skills' (a term I prefer to 'soft skills' which I believe is unhelpful because it implies that they are somehow less important than 'strong skills' like technique). And snowsports is no different in that some countries' national training systems pay far more attention than others to developing the instructors' teaching, communication and customer care skills as has been evident at the World Interski Congresses I have attended in recent years. And while in snowsports there is a definite move to embrace the development of non-technical skills I believe there is still more to be done. Hopefully, this will show through at Interski 2023 in Levi, Finland.


So, why do many sports training organisations still focus so heavily on technique, faults, weaknesses etc.? In part the answer lies in the fact that it is much easier to focus on what you (as a coach) can see e.g., technical performance and this is also easier to assess than non-technical skills. But, even if the focus is on technical this does not mean it has to be primarliy on weaknesses (see last part of this article) as this often leads to candidate instructors/coaches having very negative experiences on their journey through the certification process and, as eluded to earlier, carries over to how they then teach others. Surely this is not what the sports industry needs or wants? Rather a holistic approach needs to be taken to the development of sporting performance... But there may be some people reading this article that disagree and feel that strongly focusing on technical faults and weaknesses is exactly what is needed in order to improve performance?


TTPPEE - helpful or a hinderance?

TTPPEE stands for Technical, Tactical, Psychological, Physical, Equipment and Environment and collectively they are known as the 'Performance Threads'. ALL of these threads are important when looking to develop someones performance but is there a 'correct' order and does trying to prioritise them in an order of importance really help?


While training ski instructors and during trainer's training I recall having such discussions with compelling arguments being made for the order being something like EEPPTT - Equipment, Environment, Psychological, Physical, Tactical and Technical - with the idea being that to be able to effectively teach someone new technical skills all of the other areas need to be in place e.g., suitable well fitting equipment, good choice of terrain and comfortable environment, a positive mental state, within physical capabilities and knowing how to apply the technique (tactics).


From what I have already covered in this article there is no doubt that 'technical' is generally given the lion's share of attention. But such discussions, as noted above, are perhaps completely missing the point in that delivering great sessions is all about being learner centred hence the focus should be on those areas which are most relevant to the individual and their needs at that time. Perhaps the real challenge is that some instructors/coaches are less comfortable, or knowledgeable, in some of the skills related to these threads and therefore default to what they feel most comfortable doing e.g., technical which relates back to the previous section on how they have been trained.


Why not build on people's strengths?

No matter which area or thread of development becomes the focus of attention e.g., tactics, technical, mental skills etc. why not focus on people's strengths - what they are already doing well - and build on those? This does not mean ignoring weaknesses but suggests that redressing the balance of strengths vs. weaknesses may be helpful.


Strengths are simply what we are good at, be they skills or character traits, but crucially they are also the things we enjoy most. When we get to do the things we enjoy we are more motivated and engaged. This then increases the chances of being 'in the zone' and achieving the mental state of flow. And it is worth remembering that 'time flies when you are in the zone and having FUN'.

Location: Grands Montets, Chamonix Mont Blanc. Photo credit: Derek Tate. Skier: Dan Gillespie

However, for coaches to feel confident focusing on their learners' strengths is not necessarily that easy, and will take a mental shift, especially if the training they have received is, as suggested earlier, based more around technical fault finding and solutions through drills! And it will require some buy in from the learner. All that said, my view is, it is a goal well worth pursuing because the results will be better in the long run both in terms of the learners' performance and their overall enjoyment.


In summary

This article has potentially opened up a very large can of worms, but the message is that a holistic approach to performance development in sport needs to be adopted. An approach that attends to both technical and non-technical skills. And the onus is on instructors and coaches to have the necessary skill set to deal with all the different threads of development. This also requires training organisations to look closely at their systems to see if the product of their training is helping to avoid phrases like, "just tell me what I am doing wrong".



For those learners, and their coaches, interested in developing their mental skills and mental fitness (which in the context of this article are classed as non-technical skills) stay tuned for Derek's forthcoming book. The best way to keep in the loop is to sign up to his author list.



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