Ultimate Guide to Effective Feedback & Evaluations

Guide; Coaching, Business Management

9 tips and best practices on getting the best from your athletes on and off the field.

Sports Fitness Workplace Trends

Performance evaluations are found in all aspects of life. In school, students are graded on homework and exams. In the workplace, there are continuous performance reviews. But with sports, there aren’t any standards or metrics to be graded on, which has created a grey area on best practices and techniques on how to effectively provide constructive feedback to develop athletic skills.

Since the age of four, sports have played a tremendous role in my life. I’ll always remember those coaches that were able to effectively communicate feedback that resonated with me, whether it was at training, in a match, or a written evaluation. It’s a skillset that they practiced over and over to get the best out of me and my teammates both on and off the field.

After college soccer ended and I began coaching, one of the first things I did was define my own communication and feedback methods using techniques that helped me become a better athlete and person. This guide includes those tips in addition to an abundance of best practices from legendary coaches like John Wooden.

If you find this guide useful, have feedback (ha!), or have suggestions for resources that you would find helpful, I invite you to email me at tim@getupperhand.com.


Tim Wylie
Head of Marketing; Upper Hand

9 Powerful Feedback and Evaluation Tips

Coaching is much more than understanding X’s and O’s or crafting the perfect game plan. Without effective communication skills, nothing else matters.

This guide is a great resource for understanding how to get the best out of individuals – not just in sports – but in life as well.

1. Goals of feedback and evaluations (and why they're important).

It’s important to understand the goals of providing feedback and athlete evaluations. Dr. Denise Wood, a sports scientist and educator, notes that successful evaluations should motivate and encourage athletes, reinforce their positive skills and point out their areas for refinement, and speed up improvement.

Remember, this isn’t about you – it’s about the athlete. Your job as a coach is to let each athlete know where they need improvements and how they can get there, all while boosting their confidence and keeping them engaged in the sport.

The evaluations and feedback athletes receive from coaches help them grow personally, academically and athletically. As a coach, your athletes look up to you as a role model to teach them and provide them with the necessary feedback to be successful in sports and life.

Sports are full of stories of successes and failures; that is how athletes progress. Their failures lead them to future successes, and this is where feedback comes into play.

At Upper Hand, we have multiple product feedback channels that our customers use, and it’s how we prioritize what to build next. 

Feedback is essential in all aspects of life, and anyone who has been involved with sports understands the important lessons that come along with trainings, practices and games, which is why giving helpful evaluations is so powerful.

2. Four areas to focus development.

It is important to look at more than just technical skills on the field or court. A good athlete evaluation should also include characteristics such as leadership, sportsmanship and determination.

Coaches know it takes more than just skill to make a great athlete, so make sure you communicate that. Your athletes need and crave your feedback to develop stronger character.

Each piece of feedback you provide your athletes with, whether it be positive or negative, will give them a sense of belonging and purpose. This is important for team and individual training, it helps develop your athlete into the person they will be on and off the field.

While there are many areas of each sport you can focus on, they all boil down to four categories, and you should tailor specifics based on your sport:

  1. Technical
    • Relates to the basic and most practical motions, like throwing motions, passing technique, hand-eye coordination, ball control, etc.
  2. Tactical
    • Relates to the thought process of the game, like anticipation, reading the play, and knowing when to perform certain actions
  3. Physical
    • Relates to stamina, quickness, power, strength, etc.
  4. Character
    • Relates to leadership, determination, attitude, coachability, etc.

3. The differences between Descriptive and Prescriptive feedback.

As Craig Wrisberg, a Professor of Sport Psychology, states, you can either tell athletes what you saw (descriptive) or tell them what they need to do based on what you saw (prescriptive).

There isn’t a right or wrong, and both forms of feedback need to be provided to have a balanced barometer. However, it’s important to understand the age group of your athletes and the training situation in order to provide feedback in the most positive light possible.

For example, younger and less experienced athletes can take descriptive feedback more personally, and your goal is to motivate. An example of these differences would be, “that was a poor shot, it went over the net” (descriptive), versus “keep your chest over the ball and keep your ankle locked” (prescriptive).

“To provide helpful prescriptive feedback, you must be able to both detect errors in athletes’ performance (e.g., see an incomplete follow-through at the end of a jump shot) and offer possible solutions for the problem (e.g., ex the wrist more forcefully at the point of release).” -Craig Wrisberg

The coach/athlete dynamic is the most important relationship in the athletic arena. Clear and consistent communication is key to this relationship, which is why taking the time to give a formal athlete evaluation is critical.

Coaches are in an important position where they are not only able to provide feedback, but to also create a plan for the athlete to take action based on the feedback to improve and grow.

Give athletes constructive criticism to build on skills, technique and game tactics.

4. Why timing is everything.

As they say, there is a time and place for everything. That includes when to dig into your athletes and when to uplift.

During the fourth quarter in a tight game, it’s not a good idea to dig into the negatives of their play but rather stay positive until after the game is over.

If it’s important, try to provide feedback sooner rather than later, before that example fades in their mind.

If they can’t remember it, they can’t learn from it.

5. Using a good positive to negative ratio.

John Wooden, one of the most successful coaches in all of sports, coached with a 3 to 1 ratio. For every one piece of criticism he gave, he provided three pieces of positive instruction.

As you coach, are you balancing the two? What’s your ratio? At your next practice or game, reflect on what you’re saying to your team as well as the non-verbal messages you are sending your players.

Ken Blanchard, a renowned leadership consultant and motivational speaker, says, “it’s better to catch people doing something right than it is to only notice when they are doing something wrong.”

One of the most popular philosophies of feedback is “sandwiching” the negatives in between the positives.

When providing constructive criticism, let them know what they’re doing well, what they need to improve on, and one positive area to conclude the dialogue and soften the blow.

“Don’t try to be some coaching genius or guru. Don’t give your players too much information. Remember there are only five variables or players on the court. Always practice simplicity with constant repetition.”  -John Wooden

6. Athlete Feedback vs. Athlete Evaluation - what's the difference?

While the goals of the two are the same, feedback and athlete evaluations have separate elements and things to consider.

Providing feedback is expressing different components of an evaluation, and is done all of the time at practice, in games and in the locker room.

Providing a more formal, detailed evaluation is usually done after an event or when the season ends. You will “grade” an athlete on a scale and provide a full list of criteria all at once.

Now, let’s talk about some best practices by breaking the two up individually.

7. Using a consistent grading scale.

Whether you’re evaluating the athlete’s ability out of 5, 10, or 100, choose a number that has a middle point that they can relate to. The middle point is usually defined as “satisfactory” or “average”. Choosing a scale without a middle point will make you have to choose below or above average for each topic point.

Additionally, make sure the athletes know what you’re comparing their performance to.

Are they being graded against their peers or competition at that event, their teammates, age group, or professional athletes? Is a “1” good or bad? Does a “10” mean I’m going pro?

Also, keep in mind that in larger settings (i.e. after a camp), the first thing kids do is take out that sheet and read through it with their peers. Find a way to balance out their evaluations – don’t give a kid all high or low marks. Make sure to have a solid balance of strong and weak areas. You shouldn’t have trouble scoring less technically talented kids… that’s where the personality related sections are most valuable!

8. Keeping yourself accountable.

After you hand off the evaluation, understand you’re the one who is accountable for any questions or follow up.

Make sure to include your email address and be prepared to offer additional details as to why an athlete received the scoring he/she did.

Again, you’re doing this to help them improve their abilities, not to discourage them.

9. Provide a meaningful conclusion.

Your evaluation should include a section to write additional thoughts. Sandwich critique between positive comments. Mention what they did well, some areas of improvement and then suggested actions they should take to reach the next level.

Ultimately, the role of a coach or instructor is much larger than teaching the X’s and O’s or wins and losses. You’re a leader in the community, a role model and a motivator.

When giving feedback to athletes, keep these tips in mind and remember to relate it all back to the objectives; motivate, reinforce good and bad behaviors, and develop their skills. Having the ability to provide athlete evaluations and to clearly communicate this feedback is important to create a positive environment of growth.

Make sure you have a system in place to send and document feedback to your clients. With Upper Hand, customers are able to utilize an all-in-one software system to provide direct feedback to their athletes and clients after every lesson or training.

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