Communication is Vital to Reaching Players
As a coach, you set the tone for the entire team. You lead the players by example, whether you’re consciously thinking about it or not. How you communicate can and will influence how the team communicates and, therefore, how the team performs.
We know that communication is a critical element of effective team work. The Harvard Business Review recently affirmed this in a study that concluded team performance was closely related to the communication among the team. They concluded:
With remarkable consistency, the data confirmed that communication indeed plays a critical role in building successful teams. In fact, we’ve found patterns of communication to be the most important predictor of a team’s success. Not only that, but they are as significant as all the other factors—individual intelligence, personality, skill, and the substance of discussions—combined.
So how can good communication be the key to coaching? We’ve outlined the following tips to get you started in the right direction.
Set a Positive Tone
The players will mimic the coaches’ communication style, sometimes even subconsciously. A team that is built on positivity, achievable goals, and praise will outperform a team bogged down by negativity, criticism and frustrating, unrealistic goals.
The team wants to know that you have their back. Try not to take sides in player squabbles. Instead, serve as a mediator to help both parties hear the other’s concerns and come to a workable solution.
Also, be careful when speaking about the players to parents, coaches and even the media. Word can travel fast, and a player hearing about negative comments made by an esteemed leader can destroy his or her self-esteem and motivation.
As one high-profile coach put it:
Loyalty is extremely important to a team’s success. In terms of communication with players, this is displayed in our confidentiality policy. For instance, I won’t talk to a player about another player’s playing time. If a player entrusts me with confidential information, she needs to know she can trust me to make the best decision on her behalf. The only breech of this confidentiality is when I believe the player is in danger or is a danger to others.
Approachability is a product of trust. However, the players also need to know that you’re available to discuss their needs and problems. Make sure to remind them periodically that they can come to you with any problems or suggestions.
Undoubtedly, you will have players approach you with personal concerns about their family life, career, education, moral dilemmas and other personal problems. Take these issues seriously, even if they seem minor. If you are caught at a bad time, explain this and set up a better time to talk so the player does not feel you are disinterested.
These issues can go far beyond simply getting a sports player up to par on the field. These opportunities allow you to help someone develop into a healthy, thriving person. Treat the opportunities as gifts, and the players will remember and thank you for years.
Be an Active Listener
Active listening is essential for communication to take place. Both the players and the coaches must engage in active listening. Here are a few tips from the Hockey Australia Communication Resource for Coaches:
- Maintain Eye Contact
- Send brief verbal cues (“Mmhm,” “Oh, I see,” etc.)
- Paraphrase the other person’s concerns (“It sounds like…,” “If I understand you correctly…”)
- Reflect the other person’s feelings (“You felt that…”)
- Question for more information (“Tell me what happened,” “What happened next?” etc.)
- Summarize the other person’s message
These simple actions help you make sure you understand the player’s point. They also let the player know that you understand their point. When a person feels they have not been heard or understood, the communication barrier breaks down.
Take a Double Positive Approach
This tip focuses on positivity and praise as better communication styles for skill building.
The “double positive” phrase comes from praising successful performances rather than only calling attention to mistakes. This helps the player recognize when they’ve done something correctly rather than puzzling them with the thought of, “Ok, I did it wrong. But what exactly am I supposed to do?”
You can also use the positive approach to open and close any critiques you make about mistakes. Even a simple “Good try!” can be empowering enough to keep the team’s motivation up.
Try the Q&A Technique
Help the team think for themselves and contribute their own ideas. Offer a problem and ask if they can come up with a solution. This gets the team more engaged in the communication process than a typical standing lecture. As Human Kinetics puts it:
For example, if you ask your players a question such as, “Who can tell me why that was such a good pass?” or “What defensive systems are our opponents using?” you will achieve two objectives. First, you will elicit the correct technical diagnosis; and second, by involving the players in the discussion, you will encourage them to develop their own powers of observation and critical analysis. Getting players to appreciate and develop their own knowledge of the game is surely at the heart of good coaching, and the question-and-answer technique enhances this process.
What Are some Potential Communication Roadblocks?
Even if you follow the above tips, you may find your message is not getting through. For effective communication to occur there needs to be both a speaker and a listener. A player may not be actively listening and understanding for a multitude of reasons. One study published in thejournal Athletics Coach found the main difficulties arise from the following issues:
- The athlete’s perception of something is different to yours
- The athlete may jump to a conclusion instead of working through the process of hearing, understanding and accepting
- The athlete may lack the knowledge needed to understand what you are trying to communicate
- The athlete may lack the motivation to listen to you or to convert the information given into action
- The coach may have difficulty in expressing what she/he wishes to say to the athlete
- Emotions may interfere in the communication process
- There may be a clash of personality between you and the athlete”
If you find these situations cropping up, there are a few extra measures you can take.
First, make sure to think ahead a little more before approaching the player. Make sure you know the essentials of your message: who, what, why, where, when, and how.
It might be easier to address the group instead of an individual player. This can help avoid them feeling singled out. Otherwise, make sure to communicate privately with the player to avoid them potentially feeling embarrassed.
What & Why
Revisit the purpose of your communication. What do you most want the player to understand? If they can only take away one comment, what should it be? Remember why you want to talk with the player. You may have gotten frustrated with the communication roadblocks to the point that you’ve essentially forgotten what you were originally trying to convey.
Where & When
Choose an appropriate setting. Try to avoid bringing up serious issues when the player is exhausted or when they’ve had a bad day. Also try to avoid a bad location, like a crowded locker room or hallway, where the student may be distracted or anxious and thus unable to fully process your message.
How you phrase things will make a huge difference in how the players receive the message. Some people like to “bookend” their criticisms with positive messages, e.g., “You did great with that triple at practice, but try to be a little faster when round the bases. If you can do that, you’ll be racking up half the points for our team with the way you play.”
You might also want to revisit the basic C’s of Communication. As outlined by the Crookes study, these include the following tips to be:
Some Final Tips on Coaches and Communication
Remember that players can see through a “Do as I say, not as I do” mentality. To have the team effectively communicate amongst themselves, they must see productive communication skills modeled for them.
That’s why communication is key to coaching in so many ways. A coach’s need to communicate does not end with getting telling a player to move downfield. The coach also has to communicate team goals. He or she establishes with words (and follow-through actions) a team atmosphere and mood that can either be uplifting or discouraging. A coach that demonstrates good listening skills will foster players with better listening and follow-through.
Finally, remember that appropriate communication is also something that needs to be modeled at an age-appropriate level. Some coaches, as discussed by Coaches Colleague, tend to forget when they are talking to impressionable, young athletes. Every word has the potential to stick and become part of a negative vibe among the team. So use your words to help players develop a healthy attitude toward sportsmanship, body image, self-esteem, sexism, racism, and other sensitive topics. When talking to older players, tread carefully around the topics of dating, relationships, sex, and other more informal topics.
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