Coach Feedback Is Proprioception And Brain Food For Athletes

The job of a coach is to help others develop talent, skills and abilities in the pursuit of goals and objectives that will better the life of the person being coached. It is also to help the person being coached to avoid pitfalls and take advantage of every tool, resource and opportunity available in that pursuit.

That might mean better preparing an athlete for the rigors of their chosen sport and to succeed in competition. It might mean helping someone to correct inefficient or non-supportive health and fitness habits in pursuit of weight loss, physique change or other related outcome. There are other coaching relationships, but for our purposes, we’ll work with the athlete example.

One of the often misunderstood and ineffectively applied aspects of coaching is feedback. As a coach, my feedback and communication with my athletes is not just important to the relationship I have with them and their success in training. My coaching communication and feedback is literally brain food for my athletes.

In order to properly and effectively grow and develop, the brains of young athletes need a steady flow of quality nutrients and stimuli. Modern science tells us that neural development and conditioning never really ends until brain function ceases.

I’ve never trained a zombie and I’m sure I can speak for virtually every other strength & fitness coach out there.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at how we, as coaches, impact brain development, particularly synaptic development, in living clients, via communication, feedback and how both affect proprioception, among other things.

We know that synaptic structural growth is activity-independent and spontaneous. It’s part of the normal physical development of the neuro-muscular system. Synaptic modification and performance, delivery efficiency and transient synapse termination (pruning,) on the other hand, are related to activity-dependent plasticity. In other words, the brain can grow the basics of a network by itself. If we want that network to learn new and do new stuff, it needs input.

Synaptic impulses and brain function beyond basic survival of the body unit, then, have all been impacted by previous inputs and proprioception. Spatial and kinesthetic differentiation, spatial awareness, force development, stabilization, deceleration and force application have all impacted, and been impacted by, the billions of proprioceptive signals processed by synapses.

So it makes sense that the development and performance of synapses and their connections is affected by the quality and quantity of feedback and communication received by the sensory organs. Emotional response to sensory organ proprioception creates new “sub-signals,” if you will, that affect the processing of and response to proprioceptive input.  That’s because part of the neural response to stimulus is conditioned by perception, memory and emotional proprioception.

I’ve just boiled down millions of years of evolution and billions of brain connections and interactions to a few paragraphs. Stay with me, though. We’re going somewhere with this.

Emotional proprioception includes how an athlete feels about his/her performance and results. It also includes the physical/neuro-muscular effect of those perceptions, memories and emotions on emotional state, desire for or avoidance of performance, posture, movement and stability. This feedback loop contributes as much to training success as quality of movement and the quality and variety of exercises chosen.

Creating positive training, sports and exercise experiences, memories and emotions can contribute greatly to the environmental enrichment of a youth athlete. This factor is important for synaptic development and modification and improvement of brain function.

In fact, according to 2 studies (Diamond MC, Krech D, Rosenzweig MR [August 1964] and Diamond MC, Law F, Rhodes H, et al. [September 1966]) rats raised in an enriched environment developed 25% more synapses than their “less enriched” counterparts. Studies on humans have shown that stimulus deprivation and lack of cognitive and other challenges in children results in significant reductions in the numbers and quality of available synapses.

My verbal and non-verbal communication can greatly improve or severely inhibit the “proprioception-voluntary motor control loop.” The quality of my feedback and communication can even affect my athletes motor unit recruitment patterns, motor unit synchronization and rate coding, all as a result of how I communicate during training. What all that means is that my feedback and communication may have a positive (or negative) affect on muscle performance during activity.

Don’t believe me? Have you ever “fired up” an athlete (or yourself) to get “one more” or to do a drill perfectly (or better) just once more? On the other hand, have you ever known an athlete or child who has repeatedly or consistently “withdrawn” from interaction with others, cognitive challenges and the mental challenges and stimulation of sports because of the criticism, discouragement or ridicule of a parent or coach? That child has serious negative emotional memories around anything that involves a challenge or a new skill. Postural and activity changes almost inevitably follow! These are examples of emotional proprioception at work.


Memory of success or failure affects the perception an athlete has of whether they can or can’t perform an exercise or sports activity. Henry Ford said “If you believe you can or you believe you can’t, you’re right.” A glib view of this feedback loop, but he was on to something. How do we positively impact the athlete’s current and future perceptions and expectations regarding movements that remain imperfect or which they are just beginning to learn? Positive, forward leading and goal-directed communication may be the key.

Failure can become part of a self-reinforcing chain of propioceptive input that can lead an athlete to a pattern of inability and associated lack of belief. This will increase the degree of difficulty in learning any new training, sports, classroom or even social skill. So how do we positively affect synaptic development and positive proprioceptive response? It’s not just what we say, but how we say it.

Positive and leading communication, particularly surrounding potentially perceived risk or fear of failure, supports the athlete’s positive view of potential outcomes. This, in turn, allows the athlete to maintain a positive self-image, confidence and a belief in his/her own potential for success. All of this will result in an athlete who is engaged, interested and motivated.  

These conditions are all a part of the enriched environment for an athlete and will support positive modification of synapses and brain structures and improve the proprioceptive system as a whole. Better information in to the CNS will result in better performance of voluntary motor movements by the athlete.

The reason is simple. Neurotransmitters are affected by emotions, which are affected (especially in kids!) by self-image, self-awareness and perceptions of failure. For example, feelings of loss, sadness, fear, anger and frustration are accompanied by concurrent reductions in brain serotonin. Studies have shown that lowered serotonin levels can lead to depression and even suicidal tendencies, while brain chemicals stimulated by positive experiences and communication will lead the athlete to higher levels of self-esteem, confidence and happiness.

Youth Fitness Pros, trainers, sport coaches and even parents can create positive experiences and enriched environments in several ways:

1. Choose communications/feedback wisely.  Match your communication style to that of the athlete(s) in front of you, remembering that they are different people on different days. Frame successes in ways that lead the athlete to want to try more. Frame “failures” in ways that encourage the athlete to appreciate the lesson to be learned or to try again, if appropriate. In my practice, I ask all my athletes to be “willing to screw up once in a while.” Expectations of perfection can be deadly to the long term athletic development model.

2. Communicate everything that happens in your session as part of the process of long term athletic development or the “journey” of the athlete. Every athlete has a destiny to fulfill. They were placed here to be a part of a magnificent canvas of struggle, learning and achievement. Remind them of that, regardless of the circumstance confronting them in the here and now.

3. Comfort them if they need it, inspire them whenever possible and correct them only as much as absolutely necessary. When correction is necessary, use the “Sandwich Technique.” Place the correction or constructive criticism between two hearty slices of love, praise and affirmation!

4. Subtly and indirectly remind them that they are already more than enough!, Remind them that everything new they achieve, learn and complete simply expands their universe and gives them more ability to help others achieve as well. I expect my experienced athletes to lead by example, make newcomers feel welcome and “teach” them about our pre-hab, mobility and flexibility techniques. The “teacher” gets a sense of accomplishment and the “newbie” loses that fear of the unknown more quickly.

5. Have fun and be willing to laugh at your own foibles. A few years ago, I was playing a game of tag with some athletes and took a complete header, nearly taking out a table in the process. I was fine, but we were done for a good 5-10 minutes. Why? As soon as it happened, the athletes in the group realized I was laughing and it became contagious. Once they realized I could laugh at myself, it became okay for them to laugh at my circus act, too.

I encourage you to improve your communication and feedback skills. Hone these skills until you become a source of “brain food” for your athletes! You might just be able to influence the structural and functional development of your athletes brains!

And to think, for my whole life, I thought fish was brain food…who knew?!?

Keep the faith and keep after it!

Success! You're on the list.

  1. Diamond MC, Krech D, Rosenzweig MR (August 1964). The Effects of an Enriched Environment on the Histology of the Rat Cerebral Cortex. J. Comp. Neurol.123: 111–20.
  2. Diamond MC, Law F, Rhodes H, et al. (September 1966). Increases in cortical depth and glia numbers in rats subjected to enriched environment. J. Comp. Neurol.128 (1): 117–26.

General References:
John A. Kiernan (2005). Barr’s the Human Nervous System: An Anatomical Viewpoint (8th edition ed.). Hagerstown, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. ISBN0-7817-5154-3

Duane E. Haines (2004). Neuroanatomy: An Atlas of Structures, Sections, and Systems (6th edition ed.). Hagerstown, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. ISBN0-7817-4677-9

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.