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Sending effective messages

This is an excerpt from Coaching Youth Cheerleading by American Sport Education Program.

In chapter 1, you learned about the tools needed for coaching: comprehension, outlook, affection, character, and humor. These are essential for effective coaching. Without them, you'd have a difficult time getting started. However, these tools will not work if you don't know how to effectively apply them when working with your squad. This chapter examines what communication is, and how you can become a more effective communicator.

You might mistakenly believe that communication occurs only when you are instructing squad members to do something, but verbal commands are only a small part of the communication process. At least half of communication is nonverbal. When you are coaching, remember that actions speak louder than words.

Communication in its simplest form involves two people: a sender and a receiver. The sender transmits the message verbally through facial expressions, and possibly through the use of body language. Once the message is sent, the receiver receives it, and ideally understands it. A receiver who fails to attentively listen might miss part, if not all, of the message.

Sending Effective Messages

Young squad members need accurate, understandable, and supportive messages to help them learn the basics of cheerleading. This will help them as they develop skills and confidence in their own abilities. That's why your verbal and nonverbal messages are important.

Verbal Messages

The well-worn statement “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” just isn't true. Spoken words can have a strong and long-lasting effect on young athletes. Your words are particularly influential because youngsters place great importance on what their coaches say. Perhaps you don't remember much of what your elementary school teachers told you, but you may still recall specific statements your coaches made. Such is the lasting effect of a coach's comments.

Whether you are correcting misbehavior or praising a squad member for good effort, you should consider a number of factors when sending verbal messages:

  • Be positive and honest.
  • Speak clearly and simply.
  • Say it loud enough and then say it again.
  • Be consistent.

Be Positive and Honest

Nothing turns people off like hearing someone nag all the time, and children react similarly to a coach who gripes constantly. Kids need special encouragement, because they often doubt their ability to perform well in an athletic event. When possible, look for what your squad members do well and praise them for it. On the other hand, don't cover up poor or incorrect technique with words of praise. Kids know all too well when they've made an error, and no cheerfully expressed cliché can undo their mistakes.

An effective way to correct a performance error is to first point out the part of the skill or behavior that the squad member performed correctly. Next, explain in a positive manner the error that she made and demonstrate how to perform the skill the correct way. Finish by encouraging her and emphasizing correct performance.

Make sure you don't follow a positive statement with the word but. For example, don't say, “Way to step and lock, Melissa, but if you push down through the bases' shoulders more, you'll pop up much quicker.” Many kids ignore the positive statement and focus on the negative one. Instead, say, “Great job of stepping and locking, Melissa. And if you push down through your bases' shoulders a little more, you'll pop up even quicker next time. Way to go!”

Speak Clearly and Simply

Positive and honest messages are good, but only if they are expressed directly in words that your squad members can understand. If you ramble, your squad members will miss the point of your message and subsequently lose interest. Here are tips for saying things clearly:

  • Organize your thoughts before speaking to your squad members.
  • Know your subject as completely as possible.
  • Explain things thoroughly, but don't bore your squad members with long-winded monologues.
  • Use language that your squad members can understand, and be consistent in your terminology.

Say It Loud Enough and Then Say It Again

Talk to your squad members in a voice that everyone can hear. A crisp, vigorous voice commands attention and respect. They might tune out weak speech. When you are speaking to a young squad member individually about a personal problem, it's appropriate to soften your voice. But, most of the time, your messages are for all of your squad members to hear, so make sure that they can! An enthusiastic voice also motivates squad members and tells them that you enjoy being their coach. Use caution; however, avoid dominating the setting with a booming voice that takes attention away from your squad members' performances.

Sometimes what you say, even if it is stated loudly and clearly, won't sink in the first time. This may be particularly true when young squad members hear words that they don't understand. To avoid boring repetition, say the same thing in a slightly different way. For instance, if you are working on a game cheer and a few squad members are not hitting their motions on the right count, you might first say, “Okay, hit your motions on the correct word!” If they don't appear to understand, then you might say, “We have motions so the crowd knows when to yell, so it's important that we hit our motions on the key words of the cheer!” The second form of the message may get through to squad members who missed it the first time around.

Be Consistent

People often say things in ways that imply a different message. For example, a touch of sarcasm added to “Way to go!” sends an entirely different message than the words themselves suggest. Avoid sending mixed messages. Keep the tone of your voice consistent with the words that you use. Don't say something one day and then contradict it the next day; this will be very confusing to young squad members.

Also, keep your terminology consistent. Many cheerleading terms describe the same or similar skills. Take the person going on top of a stunt, for example. One coach might use the term “top person” or “top” to indicate the squad member who is going on top of a stunt, but another coach might say “flier.” Although both terms are correct, to be consistent, have the staff agree on all terms before the start of the season, and then stick with those terms.

Nonverbal Messages

Just as you should be consistent in the tone of voice and words you use, you should also keep your verbal and nonverbal messages consistent. An extreme example of this kind of inconsistency is shaking your head, indicating disapproval, while saying, “Nice try.” Which message should the squad member believe—your gesture or your words?

Messages can be sent nonverbally in several ways. Facial expressions and body language are just two of the more obvious forms of nonverbal signals that can help in coaching. As a coach, you need to be a teacher first. Avoid any action that detracts from the message you are trying to convey.

Facial Expressions

The look on a person's face is the quickest clue to what he or she is thinking. Your squad members know this and study your face for a sign that tells them more than the words you say. Don't try to fool them by putting on a happy or blank “mask.” They'll see through it, and you'll lose credibility.

Serious, stone-faced expressions provide no cues to kids who want to know how they are performing. Don't be afraid to smile! Your smile can give a great boost to a squad member who is unsure of herself. Plus, a smile lets your squad members know that you're happy to be coaching them.

Body Language

What would your squad members think you were feeling if you came to practice slouched over, with your head down and your shoulders slumped? Would they conclude that you were tired, bored, or unhappy? What if you watched them during a game or competition with your hands on your hips, your jaws clenched, and your face reddened? Would they decide that you were upset with them, disgusted at a call on the field, or mad at a fan? Most likely, some or all of these possibilities would enter your squad members' minds. This is not the impression you want your squad members to have of you. That's why you should carry yourself in a pleasant, confident, and vigorous manner.

Physical contact can also be an important use of body language. A high five, a pat on the head, an arm around the shoulder, or even a big hug are effective ways to show approval, concern, affection, and joy to your squad members. Youngsters especially need this type of nonverbal message. Of course, keep within obvious moral and legal limits, but don't be reluctant to show positive affection toward your team.

More Excerpts From Coaching Youth Cheerleading