Long ago, I was taught a very simple formula for delivering critical feedback to a swimmer. For the purposes of this blog I'm calling it the poop sandwich, although it is usually described more colorfully. Here's how it goes:
Positive feedback: "Hey great job having a pulse!"
Negative feedback: "However a heart rate of 85 is sub-optimal for swimming improvement. Let's get it up"
Positive feedback: "You chose a wonderful pair of goggles today."
The idea of the poop sandwich is simple. People do not like getting criticism, so you sandwich it in two slices of delicious praise. Somehow or other, the poop sandwich has had some legs as a coaching technique.
Unfortunately, no matter how well you dress it up, it's still just shit.
The Bigger Picture
There is a kernel of truth to the sandwich. Nobody likes to be nagged. Excepting people who are stuck in abusive relationship patterns, individuals do not seek out overwhelmingly negative feedback.
Getting people to listen to tough feedback as a coach is more than anything dependent on the quality of relationship with that person. Research suggests that close relationships need at least a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions to be successful.
What does that look like in a coaching relationship? Well the first part is that you will need a lot more positive feedback than the sandwich provides. Here are some ways I like to get that ratio up:
1. Express gratitude: Tell swimmers on an individual level what you are grateful for about them. Speak to their character and do not take them for granted things they do day to day
2. Acknowledge progress: In coaching, you can get really far on your ratio by recognizing progress. Sometimes a coach can focus on "not there yet" instead of "one step closer". Acknowledge one step closer, however big or small.
3. Call them out when they help a teammate. Make it explicit!
4. Empathize. Even if it may not seem "positive", letting your athletes know you see them when they are struggling is something that they will carry with them in their relationship with you.
The poop sandwich also doesn't work because people can smell it coming from a mile away. It often feels inauthentic and forced. You know instinctively when someone else is dressing up criticism with some compliments, and often forget the compliments.
Focusing on finding authentic moments outside of when you have to deliver tough criticisms will go a long way to making your critical feedback far more effective.
Want to learn more about how to incorporate Positive Psychology into your coaching? Write me.