How Positive and Negative Feedback Effect Motivation

Feedback is the backbone of coaching; it is essential for goal pursuit.  Feedback is necessary on successful and failed actions.  Feedback gives the student-athlete information on a number of levels.  It lets the athlete know where he or she is at in the development of the ability to perform a task.  It also lets the athlete know how the coach perceives the athlete is developing from a skill perspective.  Simply, feedback is used to correct athlete behavior. 

Feedback comes in two flavors—positive and negative.  Positive feedback motivates the athlete in goal pursuit when it signals an increase in goal attainment and thereby increases commitment to the goal.  Negative feedback, on the other hand, motivates goal pursuit when it signals to the athlete an unsatisfactory level of performance. 

The key question is what are the effects of these two fundamentally different forms of feedback?  Ayelet Fishbach, Tal Eyal, and Stacey R. Finkelstein have researched and written about how positive and negative feedback motivate goal pursuit.  In one study they examined student choice of instructors for French classes.  They found that beginner students preferred instructors who offered positive feedback.  Advanced students preferred instructors who offered more negative feedback.  

What’s the take-away here?  If a student-athlete is just starting out on a challenging new task, they may want and need encouragement.  They could use more positive reinforcement than negative feedback.  However, as they begin to move toward mastery of that task, they need more negative feedback so that they can continue to improve.  Positive feedback increases confidence, while negative feedback can either encourage—such as ignite a fire of commitment to master a task—or if used incorrectly it can undermine the athlete’s confidence.  Because both can be effective, I urge you to evaluate how you and your coaching staff utilize positive and negative feedback in all aspects of your coach-player relations.


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