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Self-assess and try again

Theresa McKeon explains an approach to providing critical feedback to an athlete

In a process called TAGteaching, (Teaching with Acoustical Guidance) feedback from the coach is transmitted audibly with a simple device that produces a sharp click sound. This sound, called a 'tag', marks a single response, action or position called a tag point, and says, "Yes, that's correct". No click means, "Self-assess and try again". The feedback is positive, and students do not have to interpret verbal instructions or corrections while trying to interpret their own intrinsic feedback.

For example, a gymnast must learn the basic skill of keeping good form while performing a handstand. Instead of repetitive requests that bear a considerable resemblance to nagging, such as "get your feet together", the coach can establish a 'tag point'. A tag point is something the coach wants, phrased in a way that can be answered yes or no, such as "the tag point is…feet together in the handstand". If the athlete puts her feet together in the handstand, the coach marks the exact moment her feet come together with a 'tag'. If she hears the tag, she hears success. If the athlete does not hear a tag, she must self-assess. She thinks, "The tag point was… feet together. Mine must still be apart." The athlete decides on a corrective action, pulls her feet together and receives the tag. Changes are considered and made by the athlete through self-assessment before further feedback from the coach is given. Now the athlete is in charge of her progress with minimal intervention from the coach. This fosters accountability and reduces the need for immediate and constant verbal corrections.

Break it down

The coach can also decrease nagging and boost the athlete's chance for success by increasing criteria in manageable increments and limiting unsuccessful attempts. The athlete can only truly focus on improving one aspect of a skill at a time, particularly if it is a new skill. When they receive multiple corrective actions, it is a coin toss. Legs straight, back straight, legs together, toes pointed. Which correction is the most important to the coach? Even if they do make a correction, there seems to be a "better, but" that lands them in the "you are not concentrating" hole again. With TAGteach, the coach chooses and tags for the point that is sequentially most important to the make-up of the skill. If the athlete does not receive a tag within three tries, it is the coach's responsibility to create a tag point that is within the skill level of the athlete. In all cases, tag points are addressed one at a time and the student does not receive commentary on other errors. These errors will be addressed in future tag points. Because the criterion for success is the attainment of the single tag point and not the completed, perfected skill, the athlete and coach can learn to appreciate incremental successes on that never-ending road to perfection.

The TAG Point Is… There are several direct benefits of using the phrase "The tag point is…" First, a tag point is always phrased in the positive. This helps both the coach and the athlete to focus on what should happen. "Your toes are not pointed", becomes, "The tag point is…pointed toes." "Stop bumping the volleyball with straight legs, there is no power in that" becomes "The tag point is…bent knees when you bump the ball". Now both parties are focused on what should happen instead of what should not happen.

Secondly, the unique construction of the phrase sets the stage for a balanced relationship between coach and athlete. Jim Mernin works with athletes of all ages and cognitive abilities in the art of horsemanship for the Festina Lente equestrian facility in Wicklow, Ireland. He found his students felt less intimidated when objectives were phrased "The tag point is…" instead of the standard "I want you to …." The absence of the words "I want" allows the coach to become more of a facilitator and less of a dictator. This levelling of the playing field is not lost on the learner. Jim says the phraseology helps create a relationship with his students based on assistance instead of dominance, opening the door for better communication and respect.

Finally, because tag points are broken down into easily recognizable bits with simple yes or no answers, athletes can become the 'coach' and tag each other. We call this 'peer tagging'. Athletes instantly fill with a sense of responsibility and pride as they are handed a tagger and put in charge of deciding if the tag point was performed or not. They learn to look for correct actions in their partner, while mentally reinforcing the same points within themselves. The student who teaches-learns twice.

For instance, a baseball coach breaks his team members into groups of two. The tag point is… step into the swing. One player is the 'coach' and will click if the tag point is achieved. The second in the pair is the 'athlete' who will perform the skill. Each group of two is now completely focused on their individual assignment and after a set number of tag clicks, they can swap the coach-athlete role. Each athlete is now getting a mental workout even if he/she is not the one currently performing the skill. Bonus - with the athletes tagging each other, the coach is now free to give an individual attention, without halting the rest of the group.

Positive Reinforcement

Historically coaches are not given many tools to focus on the good. We acknowledge something performed correctly, only as long as it takes to consider what still needs to be improved. The key to TAGteach is to increase the correct response, action, or position by pinpointing and reinforcing it. Although studies show that especially in adults, feedback and accomplishment are in themselves reinforcing, the definable and measurable successes of the audible tag can be counted and used in a token economy. As an athlete collects a pre-defined number of "tags," she may choose to turn them in to "buy" stickers, trinkets, come in late on a Saturday practice, choose the next skill, or even choose next tag point. Groups of athletes can combine their earned tags and turn them in for open gym time, compete in skill contests, or team sleepovers.

Working with special needs athletes Although TAGteach is being utilized by nationally ranked athletes, the methodology of marking a predefined response, action, or position (the tag point), utilizing non-threatening language and positive reinforcement also make it perfect for work with the special needs community. "We saw an almost immediate improvement in skill execution and confidence in our Special Olympics rhythmic gymnasts", said Debbie Boycott, head coach of the Oakville Butterflies from Oakville, ON Canada. "The athletes were very quick to understand and appreciate this way of teaching and were even able to teach each other using the TAGteach methods". Jennifer Golynsky, Special Olympics coach in aquatics and tennis relates, "I have been coaching Special Olympics for 11 years and feel that TAGteach is aligned with the Special Olympics philosophy in that it emphasizes positive reinforcement, athlete confidence and breaking down skills into manageable tasks.

Students with Autism: "Applied Behavior Consultants, Inc., founded in 1986, by Dr. Joseph Morrow and Brenda Terzich, M.A., has provided behavioural services for over 3000 clients worldwide. TAGteach™ allows us to be "language-free" with our reinforcement. This is a tremendous benefit since many of our students have communicative deficits. Once paired with a reinforcer, the "click" is universal. Preliminary research at ABC, Inc. has shown positive results using TAGteach and positive behaviour change. TAGteach™ is not just for competitive athletes and gymnasts; it can be proven functional and invaluable for children with Autism, as shown here at ABC, Inc."

The Proof

TAGteach methods stand on well-established scientific principles that underlie learning and reinforcement-based teaching. The results of a scientific study performed with TAGteach and gymnasts were presented at the annual conference of the Association for Behavior Analysis in May 2004. This study showed a dramatic increase in skill acquisition for skills taught with TAGteach principles compared to those taught with conventional coaching. Studies have also been done with TAGteach and teaching dance (The Effect of Teaching with Acoustical Guidance (TAG) on the Mastery of Grand Rond de Jambe (en dehors) and Ballotte, Heidi D. Schneider, Sandra E. Short, Martin W. Short, University of North Dakota, Date Submitted: January 29th, 2006) and TAGteach with students with autism. (TAG Training with Children Diagnosed with Autism, Victoria Fogel, B.S., B.C.A.B.A., Applied Behaviour Consultants, Inc).


Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • McKEON, T. (2007) Self-assess and try again. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 39/ February), p. 8-9

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • McKEON, T. (2007) Self-assess and try again [WWW] Available from: https://www.brianmac.co.uk/articles/scni39a4.htm [Accessed

About the Author

Theresa McKeon is the co-founder of TAGteach International, a company that promotes an organized, all positive approach that facilitates accelerated learning while minimizing frustration on the part of the coach.

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