Take the Challenge of Refining Feedback

usgtf-thumbWhatever you do, don’t touch the roof of your mouth with your tongue!

Hmm. Chances are you just did touch your tongue to the roof of your mouth and might continue to do so for some time as you read this article. This plays into the theory, as outlined by Horst Abraham in Skiing Right (Johnson Books, 1983), which says if you ask some-one to avoid a behavior, that behavior often becomes magnified.

The same logic can be applied to feedback presented in the context of a lesson. If you frame the feedback in terms of what the student should not be doing, he or she just might do the very thing you’re trying to prevent. Need proof? How many times have you warned your students not to peek while putting, only to find them looking up almost at contact? When you put a positive spin on the directive and say something like, “You’ve almost got it, now try to listen to the ball drop before peeking,” don’t you find it more likely to perform the task as intended?

Have you ever heard the saying, “When you have a new hammer everything looks like a nail”? From our first days as golf pros, we learn what things should look like and how to recognize some of the common errors people make while learning. We then take these notions into the class and apply them to everything. It isn’t until farther down the road that we learn some of those errors may be the result of physical or equipment limitations or even misinterpretation of what we said or did. However, by this time we have often fallen into the trap of being judgmental. That’s not to say, of course, that instructors shouldn’t evaluate student form and lend advice. That’s what being an instructor is all about. The key to generating a positive influence is to offer constructive feedback rather than make hollow decrees or cast judgment. Feedback is hands down the best source of motivation that teachers can offer.

Through helpful feedback we can encourage individuals and groups, promote group dynamics and mutual respect, and bolster self-esteem. It gives us as educators the opportunity to improve performance and effectively say, “Job well done.”

Feedback can be either intrinsic (internal) or extrinsic (external). Intrinsic feedback consists of inner perceptions that tell us we have made progress (e.g., a feeling of being in control) or suffered a setback (e.g., a sense of unease or discomfort). Extrinsic feedback has to do with those cues from outside sources that trigger internal cues (e.g., the extrinsic feedback of good grades triggers an internal sense of accomplishment). We as teachers have control of both types of feedback as we strive to set our guests up for success (see table 1).

When it comes to dispensing feedback, it’s important to remember “you get more bees with honey than vinegar.” You’ll want to keep the lesson positive and build a comfortable group atmosphere. Recent studies have shown that doing so will help facilitate a greater learning commitment, higher self-worth, personal satisfaction, and greater bonding within the group (Dubois et al. 1998; Manion and Alexander 1997).

When assessing student performance, we compare a mental image of the ideal (the latest standards) to the performance of the guest and then determine the attainable level of success for that guest. The difference between a good instructor and a great one is the ability of the great instructor to see the glass as half full instead of half empty. That is, great instructors use the ideal not to emphasize what the guest is doing wrong, but rather to enhance deficient skills to meet or complement the proficient ones. It’s the difference between focusing on what the guest does wrong and fine tuning what he or she is doing right.

• POSITIVE FEEDBACK – Comments that support a positive action, i.e., “Your address posture is just right.” Positive feedback can also take the form of a confident feeling the student gets when they strike a ball well.
• INDIVIDUAL FEEDBACK – Comments or actions, positive or negative, given directly to the individual to address their performance.
• NEGATIVE FEEDBACK – Comments that discourage a negative action, i.e., “Don’t swing so fast.” Negative feedback can also entail a negative physical consequence, such as a lack of  balance from over swinging
• GROUP FEEDBACK – Comments or actions, positive or negative, that help a group bond, i.e., “This is the most talented group of mid-handicappers I’ve had an opportunity to work with.”

Tapping into movements the guest already “owns” will activate prior knowledge and help promote learning and self-esteem. If your approach to introducing skills is to enhance or refine performance, you’ll tend to be less judgmental. That is, if you start all of your observations with “What I saw was __________” or “That was good, how about trying this and see if it feels better?”, chances are you’ll avoid being judgmental and the student will be more willing to listen and learn.

Would you want to be with someone who continually criticized you? Just as positive commentary will enhance a student’s “ownership” of a particular skill, adverse remarks have proven to have the opposite effect (Eiser et al. 1995). A teacher who only offers negative or judgmental feedback is unlikely to provide a quality experience for the guest. Remember that it is not what you say but how you say it. A teacher who offers positive feedback but lacks sincerity may cause more damage than if the feedback was negative or withheld altogether (Eiser et al. 1995).

As you prepare for the coming season, take the challenge to make it one of your goals to be positive in all that you do and all that you say. Offer a little supportive feedback each time you deal with a person on or off the links. As long as you keep the feedback positive and sincere, people will take you more seriously and you will find that your teachings are more fun, the guests will learn more, feel better, and, likely return for more lessons.

And that’s when positive feedback comes around full circle. (By the way, you can stop touching the roof of your mouth with your tongue now!)

Carl Swanback is a Level III certified instructor with more than 20 years of international teaching experience. He is a former director of training and has twice been nominated to a leading industry management magazine’s list of future industry leaders. Swanback will complete his Masters in Golf Course Operations  Management, is currently the Vice-President of Operations in Connecticut and free lance consultant with Links Consulting Group. Carl can be contacted at golfbetter@hotmail.com.


Dubois, D.L. et a!. 1998. Self-esteem and adjustment in early adolescence: A social-contextual perspective. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 27, 557-581.

Eiser, C., R.J. Eiser, and T. Havermans. 1995. The measurement of self-esteem: Practical and theoretical considerations. Journal of Personality and Individual Differences, 1 8, 429-432.

Manion, V., and J.M. Alexander. 1997. The benefits of peer collaboration on strategy use, metacognitive causal attribution and recall. ’Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 67, 268-289.

Atkinson, R.L. et al. 1981. Hildgards Introduction to Psychology Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt College Publishers.

Abraham, H. 1983. Skiing Right. Boulder, Colorado: Johnson Books.

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