The following article is part of a series of articles that focus on the practical application of sport psychology skills to martial arts training. For a more in-depth look at the research upon which this article is based, please read: Feedback, Self-Efficacy, and the Development of Motor Skills.
The manner in which instructors provide feedback to athletes can have significant impact upon an athlete's self-efficacy which in turn affects the ability to learn a skill and the overall performance. Self-efficacy is the athlete's personal belief that he or she has the capability to learn and perform a specific skill or activity. The results of an interesting study by Amparo Escarti and Jose Guzman in 1999 indicated that performance feedback which focuses on providing feedback regarding technique rather than evaluating outcome was related to increased self-efficacy, a higher level of performance, and the tendency to choose more difficult tasks. Other research has shown that a higher level of self-efficacy improves performance. Thus, research shows us that how a coach provides feedback to athletes is critical in the development of the athlete.
To make this issue all the more complicated, there is research evidence that women respond differently than men to feedback from coaches. This is most likely a crucial point in the martial arts today because the majority of instructors in the martial arts are men and there are more and more women choosing to participate and compete in the martial arts. Therefore, a martial arts instructor needs to be more attuned to the methods of providing feedback to women in order to elicit their best performance as well as to keep them interested in continuing their training.
Frequently in the martial arts, it appears that the focus is about teaching women how to think like men. Some women may be able to make this switch in thinking especially if they learn how to translate the feedback from men's language to women's language; those women are the ones who are likely to achieve the higher ranks. However, many more women who could be physically competent in the martial arts are unable to discover their potential because their self-efficacy is either reduced or at least not enhanced due to the way feedback is provided. The more that instructors learn how to provide feedback more effectively to women, the more their female students will be able to reach their potential.
Generally, the research indicates that women are more sensitive than men to criticism, don't respond to social comparison as men do, and respond negatively to high levels of punishment-oriented feedback. Thus, the research tells us what doesn't work for women, but how can a martial arts instructor teach women so they can learn most effectively? The research gives us the clues to answering this question.
First, it needs to be clear that the reason women respond differently is because they think differently than men. Men tend to think in more ego-oriented competitive terms whereas women think in more cooperative relational terms. Neither of these ways is necessarily better or worse than the other, they are just different and each has their strengths and weaknesses.
The male response to criticism is likely to be the competitive thinking of "I'll show him" whereas women are more likely to have relational thinking of "He's displeased with me and doesn't think I'm capable." The male response to criticism leads to increased effort whereas the female response leads to self-doubt or a decrease in self-efficacy. Even encouragement can lead to this type of response because encouragement such as "You can do this" is typically viewed as being given to someone of low ability. Think about it. Athletes of high ability don't need encouragement because they know they can perform well. However, women do respond well to frequent praise and informational feedback.
Since women don't usually think in competitive terms, social comparison has little meaning for them. In fact, social comparison may even be detrimental because she is concerned with the other person's feelings if the comparison is in her favor, and if it is not in her favor, it is perceived as criticism. Women tend to be more task-oriented, focused on effort and self-improvement, than men who tend to be more ego-oriented, focused on outcome and winning. Even men who have the task orientation tend to respond to social comparison. Therefore, women respond better to praise that that is focused on their individual improvement and their performance rather than the outcome and how they compare to others.
The task orientation also explains why women respond to informational feedback because it tells them what to work on and how to improve. They feel more in control of their performance whereas as punishment-oriented feedback creates feelings of inadequacy.
Many martial arts instructors may ask, "Why should I have to change
my approach? Why can't the women change how they think?" Ideally,
I would advocate both. In my PsychSkills class at our martial arts
school, I teach the students how to change their thinking so that it allows
them to achieve their goals. However, as an instructor I also try
to adjust my feedback so that it fosters the best learning environment
for the student.