Feedback of Performance: A Simple and Effective Method to Improve Training Quality and Adaptations
By Jonathon Weakley
October 10, 2018
Athletes are required to win matches and medals. To stand on podiums, improvements of less than 1% are fought for with tooth and nail. As practitioners we are tasked with improving performance, but performance improvements can be achieved in many ways. Some of the methods or interventions that we can apply include improving strength and power, altering technique, improving nutritional knowledge and dietary practices, providing an ergogenic aid (e.g. caffeine), or motivating an athlete to perform through knowledge of their performance. For me, I try and do the easy things that will have the largest effect. Therefore, having an athlete who is motivated to train is the best method and it can happen immediately. By supplying feedback to an athlete as they train, we are able to tap into their competitive nature and cause acute enhancements in performance which over time causes substantial improvements in adaptation (1, 8, 11). Such a simple concept is commonly overlooked but has been shown to be incredibly effective for the development of strength and power.
But first, let’s take a step back and look at why feedback is so effective for training quality and the strength and conditioning coach.
The Importance of Training Quality for Athlete Development
Personally, when I refer to training “quality” I am referring to the output that is occurring with regards to their maximum ability (e.g., if an athlete can push a weight with a mean concentric velocity of 0.70 m/s and I can see the bar is moving at 0.40 m/s, I wouldn’t say the repetition is of high quality). This can be affected by a range of factors but most commonly for me it often comes down to the question, “is the athlete trying their best or are they just coasting through the session?”. We’ve known for a long time that the effort an athlete puts into their training directly impacts their strength and power development (2). When an athlete uses maximal intent, their performance improves and so do the subsequent adaptations (4, 7). Consequently, repetition quality is of importance, and when aiming to develop strength and power (and I still can’t think of a sport where I don’t want a strong and powerful athlete) ensuring an athlete performs repetitions with maximal intent should be at the forefront of a coach’s mind.
Improving an athlete’s training quality can be done in a multitude of ways, but the easiest and most rewarding method appears to be by enhancing their motivation and competitiveness through supplying visual or verbal feedback (10-12). A simple method that can achieve this is through providing regular feedback of their velocity (m/s) or power output (W) (11, 12). Research shows that this works in professional and non-professional, adult and youth, male and female populations (1, 6, 11, 12). Even when athletes are asked to provide maximal effort, the addition of visual or verbal feedback provides immediate tangible benefits (Figure 1). Additionally, when athletes have feedback removed, performance immediately decreases (Figure 2) (5). Finally, when feedback is consistently provided during training, adaptations are greater (8). It is likely that the continual enhancement in acute kinematic outputs (i.e. people push the bar harder and faster when feedback is provided) provides a greater stimulus which can aid physical development.
While several mechanisms can explain why feedback of performance can enhance subsequent acute performance, two explanations are most probable in the applied setting. First, as previously mentioned, regular feedback helps improve motivation and competitiveness. When an individual sees their velocity or power output flash up on a screen or shouted out, they are challenged. Whether it is to keep performance above a certain threshold, to compete against another individual, or to compete against yourself, research suggests that the increase in competition helps drive motivation. This improvement in motivation could be attributed to athletes feeling as if there is an “active interest” in their training. When athletes sense that their training outcomes are being noted, not only by themselves but also recorded by technology that can then be reviewed by coaches, improvements in barbell velocity and power output occur (11). Second, when there is a displacement of focus from internal feelings of fatigue to external performance outcomes, performance improves (5, 13). When you are deep into a set of 12 repetitions, by removing the focus from your lungs and the pain in your legs to enhancing performance, immediate improvements in performance and perceived workloads occur (11, 12).
Applying Feedback When Coaching: The Importance Of Frequency
The use of feedback when training is multi-faceted. It can completely change the way a gym session is implemented. Personally, I run nearly all sessions off velocity-based training (VBT) methods but irrespective of your approach to programming, the use of objective augmented feedback when training can enhance a session and help a coach make better decisions. However, when implementing feedback, it appears that frequent provision (i.e. feedback after every repetition) of outcomes is one of the most important considerations. This was highlighted by Nagata et al. (6) when investigating the effects of feedback frequency and type on adaptation and retention. Furthermore, research from Keller et al. (5) also demonstrated similar findings during the drop jump exercise when feedback was supplied after every repetition compared to 50% of the repetitions. Consequently, it is suggested that when athletes are training, feedback is supplied following each repetition (5).
Athlete Pairing, Intra- & Inter-Athlete Competitiveness, And Selective Feedback Outcomes
One of the great things about working with team athletes (I work primarily with rugby union players) is that you can always count on a bit of chat being thrown around. When strategically used, feedback can be a huge boost for developing inter-athlete competitiveness or providing confidence to an athlete. To help this along, I tend to pair certain individuals for training or selectively deliver feedback outcomes.
Athletes are naturally competitive people, and as a coach we can use this in conjunction with feedback to enhance training quality and improve the “vibe” in the gym. By pairing individuals to train together who are of similar ability or playing position and then providing them feedback of their performance, we can stoke the competitive flames. We’ve recently submitted a paper looking at physical adaptation and the effects of providing instantaneous feedback to rugby players, and the sessions during the study often felt electric. Some of the highlights of the study were seeing the scrum-halves getting in each other’s ear between sets about who is going to hit the highest peak velocity in a trap bar jump squat, and watching the front rowers compete for the fastest 15 metre sprint time (Figure 3). It got the gym humming and made training into a game of how good we can be each day.
Alternatively, when athletes are still developing, lacking confidence, or maybe not pushing out the highest absolute values, I try to alter the feedback that is provided. If I have a young player come into a squad and he observes the values that some of the more established players are putting out, it can be quite daunting. This can be great as it might give the athlete a value to strive for, but it can also be disheartening. Therefore, depending on the person, I will alter the feedback variable. While I will still acknowledge the standard that we expect so that the athlete understands what is required, I can also provide an outcome that is favourable to them (e.g. relative power (W/Kg)) so that they can be encouraged by their own performance and development.
Using Feedback To Guide Coaches And Players When Working With Large Squads
Low coach to player ratios can harm your chances of maximising physical development (3, 9). When 30 athletes come in for a session and you’re the only coach on the floor, you can bet your bottom dollar you’re about to work overtime to earn your salt. It is easy for an athlete in these situations to sit back and coast, and many sessions have been lost to players feeling they can ease through a session because a coach is not breathing down their neck. However, with a bit of organisation and careful planning, sessions can still be maximised despite low coach to player ratios.
Recent research has shown that having a coach present and shouting out verbally encouraging statements can be of benefit to performance (10), but what was shown to be just as effective was feedback of their performance (i.e. verbal and visual feedback of barbell velocity). While individual personality types can alter what works best with whom, we now know that implementing verbal or visual feedback can have the same positive effect on performance as a coach being present. This means that by strategically utilising feedback methods we have given ourselves the best chance at improving performance with multiple athletes at the same time. Consequently, for individuals who just want to crack on and are intrinsically motivated, set up the feedback tools (e.g., linear position transducer, accelerometer, timing gates, tape measures etc.) and let them observe their numbers as they train. For the individual who responds well to competing with others, ask their training partner to shout out their numbers and make it a competition between teammates. Finally, for the players who demonstrate low levels of conscientiousness or require a bit more technical assistance, having the coach present may be of greatest benefit (10). This method provides a coach with a better understanding of everyone’s training, more assistance on the floor, and allows more time for working with the players who need that extra bit of support.
When there are large groups in the gym, it can be extremely difficult to keep an eye on everyone. Furthermore, if a workout has been programmed weeks earlier, the accuracy of the load and/or volume is probably quite low too. While percentage-based training is often easier for athletes to understand, blending aspects of VBT and percentage loading can help large squads train with improved accuracy. When working in this environment, I often prescribe repetition and set schemes with velocity caps to assist prescription. For example, athletes may be working in the 4-6 repetition range for the back squat, but I may also add in the caveat that if the velocity drops below 0.40 m/s you have to rack the bar. By knowing that this threshold will leave approximately 2-3 reps in the tank this method of feedback helps me to mitigate undue neuromuscular fatigue in the athletes I am coaching. This would be impossible without objective feedback during my sessions and helps me reduce the load on athletes who are fatiguing more rapidly or those who are showing signs of reduced performance. This can be done with all exercises and a range of thresholds.
Lastly, while technology will never supersede a coach’s eye and be able to interact with an athlete like another human, augmented feedback can supply greater amounts of information that can help coaches make better decisions. The occasions when I’ve seen an athlete push a certain load well down on their usual, I have asked what is going on, and then ended up having a conversation about things that are affecting them from outside of the gym is priceless. These are often the moments that have led to stronger relationships with the athletes and have assisted in providing greater individualisation and loading. This is the type of feedback that leads to the human element of coaching and helps you make better informed decisions day to day.
In Cash-Strapped Environments
While technology can be great for providing feedback (e.g., velocity), it isn’t the be all and end all (Figure 4). One of my favourite lines from one of the previously mentioned papers was “…it appears that encouraging statements promote comparable improvements in acute barbell velocity when compared to being provided kinematic feedback. This should be noted by practitioners as it demonstrates the importance of providing encouragement and feedback to athletes even in modest surroundings” (10). This summed up a lot of things for me, but of primary importance was that even when you don’t have all the technology, acute improvements in performance can still occur by a coach just being present and supportive.
It should also be noted that feedback can occur in many forms. It is not just for clubs who can afford the most expensive equipment! We can receive feedback from timing gates (e.g. acceleration drills), tape measures (e.g. horizontal jumps and throws), and stop watches (e.g. core exercises). With a little organisation, creativity, and planning, training routines can be set so that focus can be externalised on a goal (e.g. push a bar faster, jump further, accelerate quicker) and feedback can be consistently applied.
The provision of feedback when training improves psychological traits, physical performance, adaptation, and can attenuate fatigue. Additionally, it can also be exceedingly helpful for the coach when needing to make adjustments on the fly. While having feedback systems cannot replace a coach, it can provide the coach greater amounts of information to make better informed decisions. As a practitioner focussed on performance, I believe that maximising each training session should be at the forefront of each coach’s mind. While there are many ways to do this, implementing feedback throughout training is possibly the easiest, most effective way of achieving this.
- Argus, C.K., Gill, N.D., Keogh, J.W., & Hopkins, W.G. Acute effects of verbal feedback on upper-body performance in elite athletes. J Strength Cond Res. 25: 3282-7. 2011.
- Behm, D.G. & Sale, D.G. Intended rather than actual movement velocity determines velocity-specific training response. J of App Phys. 74: 359-368. 1993.
- Coutts, A.J., Murphy, A.J., & Dascombe, B.J. Effect of direct supervision of a strength coach on measures of muscular strength and power in young rugby league players. J Strength Cond Res. 18: 316-23. 2004.
- Gonzalez-Badillo, J.J., Rodriguez-Rosell, D., Sanchez-Medina, L., Gorostiaga, E.M., & Pareja-Blanco, F. Maximal intended velocity training induces greater gains in bench press performance than deliberately slower half-velocity training. Eur J Sport Sci. 14: 772-81. 2014.
- Keller, M., Lauber, B., Gehring, D., Leukel, C., & Taube, W. Jump performance and augmented feedback: Immediate benefits and long-term training effects. Human Mov Sci. 36: 177-189. 2014.
- Nagata, A., Doma, K., Yamashita, D., Hasegawa, H., & Mori, S. The Effect of Augmented Feedback Type and Frequency on Velocity-Based Training-Induced Adaptation and Retention. J Strength Cond Res. 2018.
- Pareja-Blanco, F., Rodriguez-Rosell, D., Sanchez-Medina, L., Gorostiaga, E.M., & Gonzalez-Badillo, J.J. Effect of movement velocity during resistance training on neuromuscular performance. Int J Sports Med. 35: 916-24. 2014.
- Randell, A.D., Cronin, J.B., Keogh, J.W., Gill, N.D., & Pedersen, M.C. Effect of instantaneous performance feedback during 6 weeks of velocity-based resistance training on sport-specific performance tests. J Strength Cond Res. 25: 87-93. 2011.
- Smart, D.J. & Gill, N.D. Effects of an off-season conditioning program on the physical characteristics of adolescent rugby union players. J Strength Cond Res. 27: 708-717. 2013.
- Weakley, J., Wilson, K., Till, K., Banyard, H., Dyson, J., Phibbs, P., Read, D., Jones, B. Show me, Tell me, Encourage me: The Effect of Different Forms of Feedback on Resistance Training Performance. J Strength Cond Res. Ahead of Print. 2018.
- Weakley, J.J.S., Wilson, K.M., Till, K., Read, D.B., Darrall-Jones, J., Roe, G.A., Phibbs, P.J., & Jones, B.L. Visual feedback attenuates mean concentric barbell velocity loss, and improves motivation, competitiveness, and perceived workload in male adolescent athletes. J Strength Cond Res. Ahead of press. 2017.
- Wilson, K.M., Helton, W.S., De Joux, N.R., Head, J.R., & Weakley, J.J. Real-time quantitative performance feedback during strength exercise improves motivation, competitiveness, mood, and performance. in Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting. 2017: SAGE Publications Sage CA: Los Angeles, CA.
- Wulf, G. Attentional focus and motor learning: a review of 15 years. Int Rev Sport Ex Psych. 6: 77-104. 2013.
Bio: Jonathon Weakley
Dr. Jonathon Weakley is a Research Fellow at Leeds Beckett University and is a Strength and Conditioning Coach at Yorkshire Carnegie Rugby Club. Jonathon holds a PhD in Strength and Conditioning after studying at the University of Otago, University of Wollongong, Edith Cowan University, and Leeds Beckett University. He has previously worked with international athletes that compete in athletics, hockey, netball and rugby league. Between coaching and lecturing, he is currently completing research on velocity-based training methods for elite athletes.