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Part I

An ageless question in coaching: Do we praise the good (positive feedback) or highlight the bad (negative feedback)? Balancing positive and negative feedback is a delicate balance for all coaches, myself included. We’ll commonly tell swimmers “don’t cross over” or “don’t drop the elbow” or “stop lollygagging your turns.” Many coaches rule the deck with an aura of negativity, believing that negative feedback builds toughness and positive feedback breeds softness. Some negativity is necessary for group discipline, but does negative feedback actually impair motor learning?

Studies on “learner-requested feedback” are instructive in this area. When given a choice of when to receive feedback, how to subjects respond? Chiviakowsky (2012) performed a timing experiment in which two experimental groups received different standards of what qualified as “good” performance (one of which was restrictive, the other a permissive standard). The control group did not receive any standards, but could still ask for the result.

The group with the more permissive standard of “good” performance and the control group both outperformed the “restrictive” group. Authors concluded, “The typical learning benefits of self-controlled practice can be thwarted by depriving learners of the opportunity of experiencing competence through good performance.” Indeed, knowing of your success is good and how we frame the definition of “good” can have a significant impact on learning.

Some related studies compare knowledge of good results versus knowledge of bad results, where results are provided to all subjects. The literature has consistently shown that feedback of good results improves retention. (Wulf 2007, Saemi 2012). That said, feedback need not come only from the coach but may come from other sources like the pace clock, training aids, or the swimmer’s inherent feel for mechanics

Results are consistent when subjects are provided their standing in relation to peers. Lewthwaite (2010) conducted balance test in which groups were told of a fictitious standing relative to others. The group that was given positive feedback outperformed the negative feedback group in learning.

Wulf (2010) found a similar result in a timing task involving ten trials. Subjects were told they performed better or worse than average (again, these comparison results were fictitious). The group that was told they were better than average had better retention in a follow up trial.

The obvious limitation is that lab tests like beanbag tosses and timing tests in the lab aren’t perfect analogs to the highly complex swim stroke. Nonetheless, clearly the evidence suggests that positive feedback enhances learning more than negative feedback. This information is not to suggest we lower standards and pat everyone on the back for participating, though it’s clear that positive reinforcement in general can improve skill retention. It simply means that the brain craves reinforcement after success.


  1. Chiviacowsky S, Wulf G. Feedback after good trials enhances learning. Res Q Exerc Sport. 2007 Mar;78(2):40-7.
  2. Saemi, E., Porter, J.M., Varzaneh, A.G., Zarghami, M., & Maleki, F. (in press). Knowledge of results after relative good trials enhances self-efficacy and motor learning. Psychology of Sport and Exercise. Volume 13, Issue 4, July 2012, Pages 378–382
  3. Lewthwaite R., Wulf G. (2010). Social-comparative feedback affects motor skill learning. Q. J. Exp. Psychol. 63, 738–749. doi: 10.1080/17470210903111839
  4. Wulf G, Chiviacowsky S, Lewthwaite R. Normative feedback effects on learning a timing task. Res Q Exerc Sport. 2010 Dec;81(4):425-31.
  5. Chiviacowsky S, Wulf G, Lewthwaite R. Self-controlled learning: the importance of protecting perceptions of competence. Front Psychol. 2012;3:458. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00458. Epub 2012 Nov 2.

By Allan Phillips. Allan and his wife Katherine are heavily involved in the strength and conditioning community, for more information refer to Pike Athletics.

Dr. John Mullen, DPT, CSCS world-renowned physical therapist and strength coach.
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