Coaching Feedback: Brain Food for Athletes

The following article was originally published through the International Youth Conditioning Association to thousands of strength trainers, Youth Fitness Professionals and coaches worldwide. It is reprinted here by permission.

Coaching Feedback: Brain Food for Athletes!
Phil Hueston, NASM-PES: IYCA-YFS

Your feedback and communication is brain food to an athlete. To develop correctly and effectively, young athlete's brains need a steady flow of quality nutrients and stimuli. Neural development and conditioning is a process that never really ceases, at least not until brain function does. Since none of us train zombies, let's focus on how we effect brain development, especially synaptic development, through communication, feedback and the impact of both on proprioception with our living clients.

While synaptic structural growth is activity-independent, that is it's spontaneous, part of the normal physical development of the neuro-muscular system, synaptic performance and modification, delivery efficiency and transient synapse termination require neural activity. By extension, then, all synaptic impulses are affected by previous proprioception. Spatial and kinesthetic differentiation, spatial awareness, force development, stabilization, deceleration and force application are all impacted by the billions of proprioceptive signals processed by synapses.

It's reasonable to state, then, that the development and performance of synapses is affected by the quality (and quantity) of feedback and communication received by the sensory organs. Emotional response to sensory organ proprioception creates new "sub-signals," if you will, that affect the processing of and response to proprioceptive input.  That's because part of the neural response to stimulus is conditioned by perception, memory and emotional proprioception.

Emotional proprioception is how an athlete feels about his/her performance and results and the physical/neuro-muscular effect of those perceptions, memories and emotions on emotional state, desire for or avoidance of performance, posture, movement and stability. This feedback loop contributes as much to training success as quality of movement and the quality and variety of exercises chosen.

Creating positive training, sports and exercise experiences, memories and emotions can contribute greatly to the environmental enrichment of a youth athlete. This factor is important for synaptic development and modification and improvement of the proprioceptive system.

In fact, according to 2 studies (Diamond MC, Krech D, Rosenzweig MR [August 1964] and Diamond MC, Law F, Rhodes H, et al. [September 1966]) rats raised in an enriched environment developed 25% more synapses than their "less enriched" counterparts. Studies on humans have shown that stimulus deprivation and lack of cognitive and other challenges in children results in significant reductions in the numbers and quality of available synapses.

Your verbal and non-verbal communication can greatly improve or severely inhibit the "proprioception-voluntary motor control loop." The quality of your feedback and communication can even affect your athletes motor unit recruitment patterns, motor unit synchronization and rate coding, all as a result of how you communicate during training.

Don't believe me? Have you ever "fired up" an athlete (or yourself) to get "one more" or to do a drill perfectly (or better) just once more? On the other hand, have you ever known an athlete or child who has repeatedly or consistently "withdrawn" from interaction with others, cognitive challenges and the mental challenges and stimulation of sports because of the criticism, discouragement or ridicule of a parent or coach? That child has serious negative emotional memories around anything that involves a challenge or a new skill. Postural and activity changes almost inevitably follow! These are examples of emotional proprioception at work.

Memory of success or failure affects the perception an athlete has of whether they can or can't perform an exercise or sports activity. Henry Ford said "If you believe you can or you believe you can't, you're right." A glib view of this feedback loop, but he was on to something. How do we positively impact the athlete's current and future perceptions and expectations regarding movements that remain imperfect or which they are just beginning to learn? Positive, forward leading and goal-directed communication may be the key.

Failure can become part of a self-reinforcing chain of propioceptive input that can lead an athlete to a pattern of inability, increasing the degree of difficulty in learning any new training, sports, classroom or even social skill. So how do we positively affect synaptic development and positive proprioceptive response? It's not just what we say, but how we say it.

Positive and leading communication, particularly surrounding potentially perceived risk or fear of failure, supports the athlete's positive view of potential outcomes. This, in turn, allows the athlete to maintain a positive self-image, confidence and a belief in his/her own potential for success. All of this will result in an athlete who is engaged, interested and motivated.  These conditions are all a part of the enriched environment for an athlete and will support positive modification of the synapses and improvement of the proprioceptive system as a whole. Better information in to the CNS will result in a better performance of voluntary motor movements by the athlete.

The reason is simple. Neurotransmitters are affected by emotions, which are affected (especially in kids!) by self-image, self-awareness and perceptions of failure. For example, feelings of loss, sadness, fear, anger and frustration are accompanied by concurrent reductions in brain serotonin. Studies have shown that lowered serotonin levels can lead to depression and even suicidal tendencies, while brain chemicals stimulated by positive experiences and communication will lead the athlete to higher levels of self-esteem, confidence and happiness.

As Trainers and Youth Fitness Pros, we can create positive experiences and enriched environments in several ways:

1.Choose communications/feedback wisely. Match your communication style to that of the athlete(s) in front of you, remembering that they are different people on different days. Frame successes in ways that lead the athlete to want to try more. Frame "failures" in ways that encourage the athlete to appreciate the lesson to be learned or to try again, if appropriate. In our facility, we ask all our athletes to be "willing to screw up once in a while." Expectations of perfection can be deadly to the long term athletic development model.

2. Communicate everything that happens in your session as part of the process of long term athletic development or the "journey" of the athlete. Every athlete has a destiny to fulfill. They were placed here to be a part of a magnificent canvas of struggle, learning and achievement. Remind them of that, regardless of the circumstance confronting them in the here and now.

3. Comfort them if they need it, inspire them whenever possible and correct them only as much as absolutely necessary. When correction is necessary, use the "Sandwich Technique." Place your correction or constructive criticism between two hearty slices of love, praise and affirmation!

4. Subtly and indirectly remind them that they are already more than enough!, Remind them that everything new they achieve, learn and complete simply expands their universe and gives them more ability to help others achieve as well. We expect our experienced athletes to lead by example, make newcomers feel welcome and "teach" them about our pre-hab, mobility and flexibility techniques. The "teacher" gets a sense of accomplishment and the "newbie" loses that fear of the unknown more quickly.

5. Have fun and be willing to laugh at your own foibles. A few years ago, I was playing a game of tag with some athletes and took a complete header, nearly taking out a table in the process. I was fine, but we were done for a good 5-10 minutes. Why? As soon as it happened, the athletes in the group realized I was laughing and it became contagious. Once they realized I could laugh at myself, it became okay for them to laugh at my circus act, too.

I encourage you to improve your communication and feedback skills. Hone these skills until you become a source of "brain food" for your athletes! You might just be able to influence the structural and functional development of your athletes brains! And to think, for my whole life, I thought fish was brain food...who knew?!?

About Phil Hueston

Phil Hueston is the co-owner of All-Star Sports Academy and Co-Head Coach at Athletic Revolution - Toms River, NJ. He has been, and continues to be, a sought after Sports Performance Trainer and Consultant to teams and athletes at the Youth Sports, high school, collegiate and professional levels.

Since his entrance into the fitness industry in 1998, he has questioned the status quo, challenged the conventional wisdom of the fitness industry and used the answers to make his clients better, bigger, faster and stronger.

Not just another pretty trainer, Phil has been called a "master motivator and trainer of high school athletes" and a "key player in the Youth Fitness industry." He works with athletes, "math-letes" and "non-letes" from 6 to 18 and beyond, helping them all reach their performance potential and maximize their "fun quotient."

Recognizing early on that the ONLY task of Sports Fitness Professionals is the improvement of their clients' sports performance and their enjoyment of the process, Phil has worked with 1000's of athletes, assisting them on their journeys to collegiate sports, Division 1 scholarships, pro and semi-pro sports careers and even the 1st round of the NHL Draft.

He is available for speaking, writing and consulting work with individuals, teams, sports organizations, parents groups and charitable organizations. He can be reached through his website www.allstarsportsacademynj.com

General References

John A. Kiernan (2005). Barr's the Human Nervous System: An Anatomical Viewpoint (8th edition ed.). Hagerstown, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. ISBN 0-7817-5154-3.

Duane E. Haines (2004). Neuroanatomy: An Atlas of Structures, Sections, and Systems (6th edition ed.). Hagerstown, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. ISBN 0-7817-4677-9.