Criticism during the video review – what’s the best way?

We had a really challenging question in yesterday’s class, which was posed to our guest Larry Lauer, a sport psychology consultant and one of my colleagues at the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports.  The question was about the video review session for a football team.  The typical procedure is to run through the tape, and for the coach to point out mistakes that have been made.  Occasionally, the coach may also point out what players have done well.  The coach might use emotion to illustrate a point.  For instance, a player might not be hitting hard enough, and the coach might show the clip with the sub-standard hit, then emphasize to the player – with emotion – “HIT HIM HARDER THAN THAT!”

The question that arose was this… if we know that too much criticism is a bad thing, is there a better way to run the video session?

We made several observations — some of which might suggest a re-think of how to do the video-review.

  1. The Pixar argument.  Great things are achieved through mind-numbing critique.  Pixar animators get together in a group, and critique their work, frame by frame — they call this the “shredding meeting”  — with the idea that there must be some failures along the way to success, and that brutal honesty is crucial, in order to move the product forward.  This was documented in Jonah Lehrer’s book, Imagine.  The argument goes that sharp, honest criticism leads to perfection.  The argument that a coach would make is that players just need to cope with criticism more effectively if they want to improve.  Seems logical.
  2. But how much criticism can one player take?  Too much criticism generally leads a player to think, “maybe I’m not as good as I thought I was.”  What is the coach really supposed to do with high performing players in a one-hour video meeting?  Hand out “sandwich criticism” on every video clip?  You know sandwich criticism… one piece of bread in the sandwich is a compliment, something that the player has done well.  The meat of the sandwich is a future-focused criticism (next time, do this differently).  The other piece of bread is a second compliment.  Problem: if your video review already takes one hour, by using only sandwich criticisms (or happy hamburgers), you have now tripled the time of your meeting.  Good luck with that one.
  3. Maybe we shouldn’t even focus on players’ abilities to deal with criticism.  Maybe the issue comes down to working memory.  Much research has shown that a person cannot hold more than seven things in working memory at any given time, and many cognitive scientists have suggested that this number is probably closer to four.  If a player is critiqued more than four times in a video session, what is the take-home message?  Is the take-home message the last four critiques he heard?  And are those four items the most relevant aspects of his game that he must improve in the next four days of practice before this weekend’s game?  Ideally, each player should emerge from the video session with a very concrete idea of the 3-4 things he needs to do to improve his game.  Does a Pixar-style critique accomplish this level of clarity?

When I coached swimming, we used underwater video frequently to assess stroke technique.  What I found was that picking apart the stroke in front of the swimmer was often detrimental.  It was more useful to employ a “triage” process: a prioritized list of three factors that the swimmer should focus on changing during the next week of practice.  Sometimes, that list would be cut down to one factor, if the error was very significant.

Coaches have very observant and critical eyes, and it’s hard not to point out all of the errors that we see.  And yet, too much information overloads the athlete.  To make criticism effective, it’s not simply a question of using “happy hamburgers” every time you have to deliver criticism.  Perhaps it is a question of prioritizing the criticism, and understanding what the player needs to hear right now to improve his game.

Let’s imagine the video session now.  Can we prioritize the things we need to focus on improving in the next week?  Can we make this list more like  a pyramid, rather than a long laundry-list of critiques that are not prioritized?  Would a “pyramid style” list of priorities get the point across more effectively?  Video gives us lots of data, which is very useful for coach and player.  But the problem might be in that players can only process so much “data” at any given time.  Coaches need to impose some order on the data — and get it into a form that players can easily digest.

In the end, this question illustrated the value of having a sport psychology consultant work with a coach.  By collaborating, it helps to make a time-honored process — such as the video review — a more efficient learning tool.