Last week I posted some video of Virginia ODP soccer coach Kelvin Jones’ training session with players at his home club in Williamsburg, Va. The video showed some of what made his models so successful and was pretty popular so I thought I’d share a bit more from Kelvin’s session– this time on a different topic.
One thing that struck me as I watched Kelvin coach was the way he talked to his players. He socialized his players to relish challenge and to not be afraid of mistakes. He used feedback to teach his students how to execute more effectively and to encourage them, but he didn’t overdo it—an excess of praise can often make a coach seem disingenuous. Sometimes teachers are told give five times as much praise as criticism but Kelvin was more like 50/50. He was supportive and empathetic but honest with players about what the needed to do to be better—which is what they wanted, too, and this was part of how he appeared to earn their trust.
The clip starts with his intro to practice. Great framing about not expecting perfection but expecting full effort. Kelvin sets the expectation that they’ll work hard and learn and that those things will be fun. Love the arm around the shoulder. But maybe what I like best is the overview. Here’s what we are trying to accomplish. Notice that all the exercises are connected. Intentional learners are faster more successful learners and that has a direct link to positivity.
Next you’ll hear a montage of examples of the feedback Kelvin gave to players during training. I transcribed some his phrases because his choice of words was so critical to the culture he built. To make the connection between his language and the culture he was building a little clearer, I included some discussion in italics.
“Clean that up there, McKnight!” Love the phrase, ‘clean that up’—it implies that McKnight has the concept right and just needs to hone things a little. Kelvin is subtly reminding him that he’s on the way to success even as he’s pushing him to do better. You could even argue that the phrase suggests that Kelvin thinks his player knows how to do it better and therefore expresses faith in him.
“Good, Chestnut. I want it quicker though Chestnut.” This phrase again subtly gives the player credit while pushing him to improve. Quicker implies that Chestnut was quick; he just needs to do more of what he’s doing. Plus it was good already, which implies that what Kelvin wants is better than good- great. Someone telling you how to be great… that they think you can be great is an inspiring thing.
“Drive that thing, McGeegan!” This phrase includes good technical guidance about what to do better, which is really critical since making players better is a big part of how you earn their trust, but the casualness—drive that thing—again makes it seem like Kelvin assumes that McGeegan is good enough to execute better.
“Make sure you’re going both directions.” The phrase “make sure you…” before a correction encourages self-reflection and presumes the player knows how to execute correctly and merely needs to focus on the next execution.
“Drive it Elias…. Argh! It’s gotta be the inside of the foot, yeah? Kelvin’s use of “Argh!” is really nice. My team and I discussed why. Some of us thought it sounded like what Kelvin would say himself if he made a mistake, therefore normalizing it. Others said that it showed empathy- ‘Oh, darn, I was really hoping you’d get that’—while also telling Elias what to do to solve the problem.
“Good, Fricke. Take the bounce out of that. Drive through the middle of the ball.” No substitute for good, clear technical feedback delivered calmly and positively.
“Good, Tristan. If you have to take an extra touch, it’s ok but make that touch quicker.” Reminds Tristan that mistakes aren’t the end of the world and you keep playing after a missed touch and think about how to make it better.
“Quickly, Horton. Turn! Argh… Gotta be a better ball, yeah? “ Asking, ’yeah?’ rhetorically seems to imply that Horton already understands his mistake. This is just a reminder.
‘Now, Greg, can we do it quicker though? Can we turn quicker?’ A question that starts, ‘Can we… Or ‘Can you…’ turns the technical feedback into a challenge. Consider the difference between, “I need to see you use your left, Jason.” And “Now can you use your left, Jason?” Plus –er ending on quicker implies that Greg was at least a little bit quick the first time around.
‘That’s fine, Jack. Just fix it.’ Fix it is like clean it up… it implies that Jack knows how to do it better. It comes with a reassurance that the mistake is ok during training. Kelvin says at the outset, I don’t expect you to be perfect. He proves that with his feedback.
‘Argh… Just take something off that.’ Argh again.
‘Can we check, can we check?’ A challenge again
“That’s fine. Fix the next one.” More fix-it language.
“That’s fine. Fix that touch.”
“Can we be moving as that ball’s coming to you Jack?” More questions that make the feedback a challenge
“Argh. In front of him, right?” Rhetorical question implies: you knew that. Argh for empathy.
“Good, Chestnut. That’s better.” Implication: “Chestnut, you are improving!”
“Jordan, it’s still a sprint, Buddy.” ‘Still’ a sprint just maybe implies Jordan was sprinting earlier.
“Good, McGeegan. Good strike. Now get to the cone.” The word ‘now’ implies: You got part one right, McGeegan; now let’s move on to part two.
Some general themes and macro thoughts:
Building culture through phrases like this is like seasoning a meal. One shake won’t make the difference. It’s about the effect over time of a sprinkle here and a sprinkle there- the aggregated influence of a hundred iterations over time.
Variation is also key. Kelvin doesn’t over use any one phrase. If he did he’d sound canned. Again the mix and match pastiche of a variety of phrases wins the day.
His tone is even and measured. You can’t really tell from his tone of voice alone whether any single piece of feedback is positive or constructive. Since there’s no way to learn—and little point to practice—if you don’t get some wrong, his tone normalizes error and takes any emotion out of it for players. This lets them focus on technique.
Finally, Kelvin is great with names. He manages to tag his feedback to a specific player on the great majority of comments. “Drive that thing, McGeegan” let’s the player know the feedback is intended for him. If all he says is, “Drive that thing,” McGeegan doesn’t know Kelvin is talking to him. The feedback seems general and a culture of general (therefore ignorable) feedback could develop. So Kelvin’s attentiveness to names with feedback really matters!