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Good communication skills are key to successful coaching

This is an excerpt from Sport Psychology for Coaches by Damon Burton & Thomas Raedeke.

What Is Communication?

is the act of expressing (or transmitting) ideas, information, knowledge, thoughts, and feelings, as well as understanding what is expressed by others. The communication process involves both sending and receiving messages and can take many forms. Verbal communication is the spoken word, while nonverbal communication involves actions, facial expressions, body position, and gestures. Communication can occur in one-on-one or group settings, and in written formats (e.g., printed materials) or in visual formats (e.g., pictures, videos, and observational learning). And it involves not only the content of a message but also its emotional impact, or the effect the message has on the person receiving it.

Sending and Receiving Messages

The very word coach suggests that individuals in this profession send many messages. Coaches need to be able to clearly communicate expectations, goals, standards, and feelings to their athletes. They instruct, encourage, discipline, organize, and provide feedback. And although we tend to think of effective communicators as being able to send clear messages that are interpreted as intended, communication is a two-way street that also involves receiving messages. For a coach, this means listening attentively. Athletes need to be able to communicate their goals, frustrations, and feelings to their coach.

Nonverbal and Verbal Channels

As a coach, you can say a lot without uttering a word: A frown, a look of disbelief, a disgusted shake of your head, or a smile can communicate quite a bit. In fact, communication experts suggest that between 65% and 93% of the meaning of a message is conveyed through tone of voice and nonverbal behaviors (Johnson 2003). Thus, in addition to becoming aware of the words you use, it is essential that you become aware of your tone and nonverbal behaviors so that you understand the messages you are sending to athletes.

Lou Holtz tells a revealing story about his coaching experience at Notre Dame that highlights the importance of developing self-awareness in becoming an effective communicator. His recruiting coordinator developed a video to send to potential recruits. Holtz thought it did a great job of selling the program but wished it included some clips of him having positive interactions with his players. The recruiting coordinator said he had looked and looked but could not find any. This comment took Holtz completely by surprise because he prided himself on being a positive coach and sending positive messages (Janssen & Dale 2002). This experience helped Holtz become more aware of his interactions with his players and discover a pathway for becoming a more effective communicator. Like Holtz, many coaches are often unaware of the messages they send nonverbally.

By the same token, athletes also communicate nonverbally, and coaches can learn to be more effective listeners by becoming astute observers of athlete's nonverbal communications. Understanding the nonverbal messages athletes send is a passport to greater understanding of the athletes you are coaching.

Content and Emotional Impact

When communicating, coaches tend to focus on the content or the substance of the messages they send: "Run hard"; "Follow through strongly on your shot"; "Fake before you pass"; "Practice with intensity." In doing so, they believe that the information is objective and that athletes will always receive the message as intended. That belief is far from the truth. When receiving messages, athletes may not share the same perception or hear the same message the coach thought she was sending. For example, by saying, "Tomorrow we are going to make sure to get this defense down," a coach may mean, "We're going to focus on the technical aspects of the defense to perfect our execution," but an athlete may interpret it as, "Tomorrow's going to be a physically tough practice." Communication problems arise if a coach assumes athletes are interpreting a message exactly as the coach intended. Thus effective communicators focus not only on message content but also on how a message might be interpreted by-and might affect-the receiver.

Beyond message content, then, communication also involves the emotional impact of the message on the athlete. How do your athletes perceive and react to the content of your messages? Failure to recognize the effect the message has on the athlete is all too common. For instance, a coach could intend "Run hard!" as a positive note of encouragement, whereas the athlete could interpret it negatively: "He never thinks I run hard enough." Effective communicators give equal weight to message content and emotional impact on the receiver. The challenge in effective communication is to be clear both about what you say and about how you say it by becoming more aware of the impact your messages have on your team.

Sending Effective Messages

Effective communicators are able to send messages that clearly convey the intended content and are received in the desired way. The most important judgment you need to make is whether a message needs to be sent. Some coaches talk too much, rambling on about things that bore others or distract athletes during practice. Some coaches talk too little, assuming that others know what they think or want. We've listed some guidelines for sending effective messages in figure 2.1. Read each guideline and then honestly rate whether this is a communication strength or weakness for you by circling the appropriate number. Be sure to rate yourself objectively and take action to improve any deficiencies. Rest assured that we all have communication strengths and weaknesses!

Effect of Your Messages

Smoll and Smith spent hundreds of hours observing coaches and evaluating their impact on athletes (Smith 2001, Smoll & Smith 2006). In all, they observed more than 70 coaches, coded more than 80,000 behaviors, and surveyed nearly 1,000 athletes. They found that athletes responded positively to coaches who provided

  • positive feedback after a good performance effort,
  • corrective instruction and encouragement after a performance mistake, and
  • technical instruction and a moderate amount of general encouragement unrelated to performance quality

In contrast, Smoll and Smith found that athletes responded unfavorably to coaches who failed to notice or reinforce good performance efforts, criticized mistakes, or provided instruction after a mistake in a critical fashion.

Learn more about Sport Psychology for Coaches.

More Excerpts From Sport Psychology for Coaches