The Criticism Trap (Part 2) - Coaches

In this 2 part series, I’m examining a phenomenon that I call The Criticism Trap. In Part 1, I examined how The Criticism Trap affects players. In part 2, I’ll examine how it impacts coaches. Alright, let’s get to it. 

When coaches think of feedback, they often think about what type of feedback they give to their players. But coaches also receive feedback from their actions and decisions.

When a coach makes a substitution and the team immediately plays better, he gets positive feedback on the decision.

When a coach changes the structure of their practice plan and the team has a sluggish practice, he gets negative feedback on the decision.

The Criticism Trap occurs when coaches come to incorrect conclusions when analyzing the feedback.

Let’s take 2 scenarios:

1) Player A is playing poorly in the first half (turnovers, missed free throws, missed assignments). At halftime, coach is angry and gives negative feedback, criticizing his performance.

2) Player B is playing well in the first half (made shots, good passes, solid defense). At halftime, coach is pleased and gives positive feedback, praising his performance. 

This is how the vast majority of coaches operate and there doesn’t seem to be anything inherently wrong with this.

Let’s continue with the scenarios:

1) In the second half, Player A plays better.

2) In the second half, Player B plays worse.

Given what we know about regression to the mean, this makes sense. (quick refresher if you missed Part 1; Regression to the Mean says that if your first measurement is extreme, the next measurement will tend to be closer to the average).

Player A was playing below his average in the first half and as a result, his performance naturally improved. Player B was playing above his average in the first half and as a result, his performance naturally fell off. 

Coach is trying to figure out why Player A played better in the second half and Player B played worse. It’s his job to figure these things out so he's thinking hard to come up with a reason for the change. 

The coach comes to the following conclusions:

Player A played better in the second half because coach got angry and criticized his performance at halftime. It lit a fire under the player’s butt and got him to concentrate harder, and play better. 

Player B played worse because coach was soft on him at halftime. By praising his performance and giving positive feedback, the player must’ve got complacent.

The Criticism Trap for coaches gives a double boost to angry criticism. It both encourages coaches to give critical, negative feedback and discourages coaches from giving positive, praising feedback. 

I’m not saying that coaches should always be happy-go-lucky, pat you on the back and tell everything’s going to be all right. But The Criticism Trap encourages coaches to skew toward being overcritical and negative.  

How Do You Avoid The Criticism Trap?

The solution for coaches is to be cautious when making judgments about the effectiveness of your feedback technique. Don't be too eager to jump to a causal conclusion. 

This is difficult because coaches are always trying to answer the question "why?" It’s their job to figure out what is causing the team to play well or poorly.

As a result, coaches are always searching for causal relationships. I switched to a 2-3 zone, then we went on a 6-0 run. Thus, the zone caused us to go on a 6-0 run. 

In reality, it could be a host of other factors: their best player happened to sub out at the same time, a few fortuitous foul calls (or no-calls), missed open shots by the other team etc.

I think most coaches understand that the game is incredibly complex and that’s what makes coaching so hard. It’s rarely as simple as X caused Y.

But coaches often view feedback styles (angry/critical vs praise/positive) in that simplistic frame. They believe feedback to be the direct cause of a player’s performance. Often times, however, the dominant factor is simply regression to the mean. 

Note: I am not (yet) a coach so my insight into the coaching mind is purely observational and speculative.