A Note to Coaches – How to Give CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM Effectively – Part 2


Now for the other side of the coin…

Coaches and parents must consider the best ways to offer feedback.  What do we say, when do we say it, and how should it be said?

We have already determined that no one really enjoys being criticized. Young forensic speakers are facing fears that many of us adults have never overcome ourselves. Nevertheless, we have been communicating longer than any adolescent and have had considerably more time to develop our sensibilities about the communication process. What a privilege to help them do the same.

Here are a few tips to help guide any critique session. Before offering advice or criticism, we must ask…

Is it warranted? Do we really need to say anything? I recommend beginning with questions like, “What did you do well? What are the strengths of this speech? What still needs work?” Have the students begin with their own evaluations. This is the best way to guarantee that they are developing their personal instincts about communication. In addition, you will be able to discern what they are ready and able to hear during this particular evaluation. It may be that no additional comments are warranted from the coach at all, especially if the students are able to discover, assess, and correct themselves.

Is it timely? Consider the timeliness of your feedback. Are the students already too fatigued to hear you? Has a session run long? Have they been forced to listen exclusively and not been able to offer their own insights about their performance? Are too many corrections being offered? (I recommend only 1-3 suggestions during any given critique.)

Is it solicited? Does the student WANT your feedback? If not, then do not offer it. The trick will be to avoid acting hurt or wounded if your input is not welcome at the time. Caution – do not take this personally! There are so many thoughts and feelings occurring in the young speaker. Wait. Pray. Let the students “own” their decision to defer and receive criticism from someone else at another time. Move on.

Is it specific?  Aim to hit a definite target, not dispense insights like the wild spray of pellets from a shotgun. A single, clearly articulated perception is far better than lots of sweeping generalizations and dissatisfied observations.

Is it helpful? Have you actually proposed a solution? If you notice that the speaker needs to change course or make specific corrections, be sure to provide suggestions. Nothing is more frustrating than for a student to hear, “Something is wrong, but I just can’t put my finger on it.” As coaches, we must point the speaker to new resources or provide a fresh resolution.  With this is mind, we will keep our own observations in check and be less likely to casually express dissatisfaction. We hold ourselves accountable when we are sure to provide remedies as well as render criticisms.

Is it balanced? Finally, it is best to verbalize things that we like as well as what we think needs improvement. Without both kinds of insight, the evaluation will be lopsided and carries the potential of feeling painful to the student. Many personal development experts recommend inserting critical comments between opening and closing positive observations. Some call it the “Oreo cookie” approach. The critical “filling” will be more digestible when surrounded by the sweet, sincere praise of things the evaluator identifies that are already being done “tastefully.” (Yes, I risk overdoing this metaphor!)

There you have it. Critical feedback should be warranted, timely, solicited, specific, helpful, and balanced. When it is, students will communicate all the better, all the more quickly.

Thousands of years ago, Paul of Tarsus and two young comrades, Silvanus and Timothy, penned an epistle to a church in Thessalonica where they included helpful guidelines that can still easily be applied to those of us who coach budding orators today. They wrote,

“And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone.” (1 Thessalonians 5:14)

As the New Year launches and tournaments continue in full force, I hope that we will labor to be patient with the timid and meek among us – even those who outwardly seem to exhibit confidence and bravado. Seth Godin says, “Deciding to lead, not manage, is the critical choice.” (Tribes, 44) If we are able to forego managing students and instead lead and guide them by providing sincere, inspirational insights, there is no limit to the powerful influence that their “voices” will have in the coming generation.

COACHES & MENTORS, Part 2 – A Word to Students

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We have already looked at the need for coaches to find their own coaches during the competitive season. Yes. Coaches coach even better when they are coached too.

Now a word to students in training…

Don’t go it alone. None of us are ever too skilled or too experienced to have outgrown the need of a mentor. The mark of a superior competitor is his or her ability to remain teachable.  Some of the most highly decorated competitive speakers and debaters that I have ever coached tend to interrupt critique sessions and blurt, “Don’t tell me what you like, coach; tell me how to get better.” They do not just want validation; they want to be trained and coached. They are like sponges who long to drink up the counsel and insights of others. Good for them.

I personally look for mentors everywhere. Success Magazine happens to be a place where I have found several.  Each month it provides on-going training with interviews, articles and CDs from world renowned experts. I always learn something when I plug-in with an open mind and open heart. This month, an interview with Jack Daly was especially enlightening. Here’s what this 20-year veteran sales expert and trainer himself has to say about coaching…

“If at any stage in life you don’t have a coach or coaches then you are missing out… someone that can weigh-in with an objective eye and give you course direction; someone that you can lean in on and tap their previous experiences that quite frankly might have been going down the wrong path or into the pothole – that person that can fast forward you along in your career because of the experiences that they have had; someone that holds you honest; holds you accountable so that you do the things you say you will do. On the personal side of my life I have 5 coaches or ‘board of directors of my life’ who meet with me 4-6 times a year, one-on-one, and painstakingly go through my goals line-by-line to make sure that I am doing what I said I was going to do. There isn’t a month that goes by when one of these coaches/mentors is not holding my feet accountable. Then when I know that I have these individuals vested in my success then I see myself get up every morning and say, ’I’m going to be held accountable. I want to do this anyway, but now I’ve got an extra raising of the bar. As a result, I need to bring my game!’”

Now it’s your turn, competitors. Bring your game. Choose someone to learn from this year. Be accountable to a coach and work together to take your skills to the next level.  ‘Breathe in’ in the inspiration that your coach offers and soak up his or her guidance. Your relationship with a coach who cares about your success and improvement will make this season of competition a good one and this season of life… great!


COACHES – Everyone needs a mentor!

cheer_pom_pom_sticker__22023It’s about to begin. The onset of the 2014 – 2015 year of competitive speech and debate is now upon us.

So here’s a word to all parents and coaches – find a mentor.

Perhaps you will be responsible for coaching, instructing and mentoring others this year in forensics.  Be sure then to keep your own tanks full. Take time throughout the year to learn from someone who holds a similar role as you. Talk to that person; pray with that person. Learn while you are helping others learn. If you admire trainers from history who are no longer with us, read their books, memoires or diaries. Stay on the hunt for nuggets of inspiration that will keep you motivated. If not, your own tank will run dry and your resources, which could otherwise benefit others, will be depleted. Fill up and hold tight to your own mentors.

And then know this…

As coaches and instructors we will never have all the answers. There will be many times that we need to throw away our play books and metaphorically set down our “megaphones.”  Sometimes our students will not be able to hear us and we may even be uncertain about what to say. Relax. Refocus. Instead, pick up your pom-poms and be the cheerleader.  Great coaches have nothing to prove; they have everything to share.

Here’s how William Arthur Ward, an educator and motivator himself, once put it (this is a precious quotation that was written on the inside of a card I received this summer from one of my students):

“The mediocre teacher tells

The good teacher explains.

The superior teacher demonstrates.

The great teacher inspires.” 

“Inspire” comes from the Latin, inspirare, meaning ‘to breathe in.’  As we ‘breathe in’ and stay inspired ourselves, we will be able to do much more than tell, explain, and demonstrate. We will actually give ‘air’ to others while they tackle challenges in the coming year. Good coaches have chosen their own coaches so that maximum growth can occur while everyone learns together.

Let’s all choose well and breathe in!  I’m rooting for you (and shaking my pom-poms!)