It's been said that feedback is the breakfast of champions. Feedback, both positive and negative, can fill Emotional Tanks if it is understood as helping a player improve. But criticism, even the constructive kind, can drain "E-Tanks". And too much criticism over a period of time can destroy an athlete's love of playing the game. Filling E-Tanks, as discussed in recent months, is a way for coaches, parents and players to create a portable home-field advantage. As we approach mid-season, let's look at ways to keep our players E-Tanks Filled, while accelerating their learning capacity!

We all need criticism to improve. Without hearing what we're doing wrong, we're never going to make the kind of improvement that is possible. We need to be able to give criticism to our players for the simple reason that they don't know as much about the game as we do (in most cases!).

Bill Sweetenham, the Australian swim coach, explains why athletes and coaches need each other: "The swimmer feels the water. The coach sees the stroke." The coach has a different perspective than the athlete and is able to give her some information that she doesn't have.

So if we need to criticize players, but criticism drains emotional tanks, what are we to do? The answer is Kid-Friendly Criticism.

The challenge for a Double-Goal Coach is to give criticism that does its job - leads to improvement. Players often become defensive when someone criticizes them. They automatically begin to lay out in their heads why the criticism isn't fair rather than trying to figure out how to use the criticism to get better.

So how can a Coach give Kid-Friendly Criticism? 

A first step to mastering the art of Kid-Friendly Criticism is to consider criticism a gift. Let's say you get the ugliest pair of socks you've ever seen from a friend for your birthday. You might be disappointed because you really wanted something else. You also can't believe how clueless your friend is to give you such an awful gift. You might bristle when you open the present and make some less than grateful comment. If so, this will probably be the last gift you receive from this particular friend.

A better way to deal with gifts that we don't like is to simply accept them graciously, thank the giver and then later put them in the attic and never, ever wear them. This makes it much more likely that we will remain friends with the gift-giver. And, maybe, just maybe we will find at some later time that we need a pair of outrageously ugly socks as the perfect complement to a Halloween costume.

If we are able to see criticism as we would a gift of socks, then we can simply thank the giver, metaphorically put the criticism in our pocket and take it out later to consider whether it might be worth thinking about.

When we are trying really hard on the soccer field it can be very challenging to do this. But we can take the corrosiveness out of criticism by saying, no matter what we are thinking inside, "Thank you for that suggestion. I will think about it." And then, later, away from the hustle and bustle of daily struggles, we can consider the criticism to see if we think it's valid, if it might benefit us to accept it. We can even ask someone whose judgment we trust, "What do you think of this criticism? Do you think it fits?" just as we might ask a friend "Do you think these socks look good on me?"

If we can see criticism as a gift, we can teach our players to see it the same way. We can say to them early in the season:

"I want us to be the best team we can be. That means that I will offer suggestions on how you can become a better soccer player and help the team. Sometimes this may seem like I am criticizing you, but I encourage you to think about criticism as a gift. Don't reject it right away. Think about what is said, and remember your goal to become the best player and person you can be. And then, if you think it will help you improve, use the criticism."

San Jose Earthquakes' Goalkeeper Coach Tim Hanley has this advice to share. "With my youth teams I keep everything simple. The players usually know when they have made a mistake, so my job is to give them information to allow for their next play to be the right one. 'Molly please take a touch there, no more one touch!' 'Mike that's a blind pass! Let's take a look next time.' I never just leave the criticism hanging there. Sometimes their mistake is the same one they made last game! I look at this as my fault, and a teachable moment for me. (I should have done more during our training.) I still correct the mistake in the same fashion as I mentioned earlier," says Coach Hanley.

And it works the other way. As coaches, we will learn things that can help our teams perform better if we are open to receiving gifts of criticism from our players:

"And I want to be open to receiving criticism from you. If you have ideas for how we can do things better as a team, or how I can do a better job of coaching, I want you to talk with me about your thoughts. I will try to take your criticism as a gift, just as I want you to take my criticism of you. If you take the time to offer a criticism, it means that you care about the person you are giving it to."

If we can learn to offer and receive criticism in the spirit of a gift, players are going to be much more likely to seriously think about it and consider it. And that means they are more likely to apply the criticism to becoming a better athlete and person.

Praise in Public, Correct in Private

Setting expectations and walking the talk is critical. "'Praise in public, correct in private,' is a core coaching philosophy with me," says Hanley. "In the matter of taking instruction from me, at a routine practice or in the heat of a championship game, my youth players know they are to give me the benefit of the doubt. They also know that if they do not agree, we take it up privately, later, and not in front of the team. Likewise, I keep their trust by NEVER singling a player out in front of the group for their less-than- stellar play."

With the San Jose Earthquake goalkeepers Hanley's approach is a little different. Each keeper understands the game very well but views and reacts to criticism differently. He has to package his statements in a way that allows them to learn but still feel like they know it all! He might approach Pat Onstad in this manner, "Pat in looking at the goal LA scored, I wasn't sure about your starting position." Hanley does not tell him he made a mistake, rather he lets his goalkeeper go figure it out. With one of the Earthquakes other guys Hanley might have to wait until the next day, when the goalkeeper will be more receptive to learning.

Every athlete reacts differently to criticism. As coaches or parents our timing and approach to constructive criticism is just as important as our choice of words. "It's the coach's job to know when it is or is not a teachable moment," says Hanley.

Resource: by Positive Coaching Alliance
with an assist from San Jose Earthquakes' Coach Tim Hanley