7 Steps to Becoming a Master Communicator

Communication is not just a one-way street. Good communicators must be able to talk clearly and also listen closely. Athletes cannot learn efficiently if they are not receiving clear instruction, so the focus of this lesson will be on sending information to the athlete.

Interaction with the athlete should be consistent, with few changes from practice to competition. Communication from the coach should be clear, positive, and meaningful. Clear communication means that you say what you mean, with no confusion. You make your requests specific and your criticism descriptive.

Positive communication can be a bit more difficult. When you are upset with your team or frustrated by their performance, it is hard to keep your words and body language positive. When delivering criticism or bad news, pick out at least one positive aspect of the team’s performance. Do not leave your team feeling negative, because this will not encourage their improvement or motivation for the sport.

An element of communication that often gets left behind is listening. Speaking is only half of communication, and listening is just as important. To learn to listen well, pay attention when players and other coaches are talking. Give them cues, such as nodding your head, to show that you are still listening and are interested in what they are saying. Occasionally repeat sections of what the other person is saying to ensure that you really understand what they are saying.

The final note before we begin the guidelines is about silent communication. The majority of your communication is non-verbal, so when you think of communication, think of your body language. The way you hold yourself, your facial expressions, and your hand movements all send very clear signals to your players about your opinions and mood, even when they contradict your words. Make sure that you communicate, both verbally and non-verbally, in the same manner.

Use the Right Terminology

Every sport has terminology associated with it, and you should commit to indoctrinating your players into that language as soon as they become part of the team. This will help everyone feel included and part of a group, which promotes trust and teamwork.

You can use this terminology to communicate the outcomes you expect and the activities for the team. This will help coaches and athletes set proper expectations and stay on the same page. When everyone understands what they are working toward, the outcomes, and the way to get there, the activities, then you will have more interest from everyone involved.

Share Your Expectations with Athletes

Proper expectations are a common theme running through today’s lesson. Achievement is the point of sport, and it is your responsibility to make clear your expectations for high achievement. Whatever you want for your players during the season, the game, or the practice, you need to make it very clear. Never expect that they know what you want them to do unless you have said it out loud.

There are two good ways to ensure that you communicate achievement expectations to players. The first is that you provide positive feedback. If you encourage players by showcasing their strengths and noting their weaknesses, they will feel inspired to keep improving while taking time to appreciate their achievements so far.

The second way to ensure expectation communication is to provide instructive comments relative to athlete performance. If you see something going wrong, don’t keep that to yourself. Work with players to show them what they need to improve on, and give them concrete steps to make that happen. If you continually point out the bad but never provide a way forward, your players will stop respecting you and lose their motivation for improvement.

Grab and Keep Their Attention

Routine is key for young people, because it helps them understand expectations about behavior and attention. Create an environment that is welcoming and consistent for giving athlete feedback.

For instance, you can make it a point to always have athletes come to your office for feedback instead of doing it on the field. Or, you can take each player aside to a specified location on the field when it is time to do evaluations. Either way, let players know what is going to happen by creating an orderly environment that is not distracting.

Another important point for keeping athlete attention is making sure they understand what you are saying. While this seems easy, people in general often claim that they understand something they do not simply to avoid embarrassment. It is your job to ensure that all athletes know what you are saying and why before you move on. This helps you all to stay consistent in expectations and directions.

Individual vs. Team Feedback

There are two pieces to feedback: individual and team. You cannot help your team improve if you neglect either one, so focus equal attention to helping individuals on the team improve so that the team itself can improve.

Team feedback should happen when everyone is present and should provide clear communication about what is going right and what is going wrong. It should be instructive without being negative, even if there are many things to work on. Feedback should inspire players to do their best and to fix their mistakes.

Individual feedback should be tailored to each individual player and should happen one-on-one. This should be more of a discussion, where players express their own concerns about their abilities as well as receive tips and criticism from you. This should also be a positive time, where you encourage players in their strengths and give solid pointers on how to improve their weaknesses.

Individual feedback should also be linked to overall team goals. If an athlete is doing something that is negatively affecting the team, that player should understand that their performance is not just hurting them, it is hurting the entire team. Likewise, when you give feedback on something a player is already doing well but could still use some improvement, you can give them motivation to keep improving by pointing out the team goals of improving on that particular skill. Players should know that they are not competing in a vacuum—they are part of a group that has goals of its own.

Watch Your Language!

There are four important parts to language in this section:

Professional

Age-appropriate

Nonsexist

Inclusive

Professional language means that you communicate in a manner befitting a professional adult. You should not belittle players or make fun of them. You should not use swear words or other insulting language. Never use racist or otherwise demeaning language.

Age-appropriate language means language that players understand and that is appropriate for their level of development. If you consistently use words that are too advanced for your players, they will leave practices confused, frustrated, and bored. If you use language they understand but that might be too harsh or controversial for their age, you run the risk of negatively impacting their own communication style, as well as experiencing a backlash from concerned parents and coaches.

Nonsexist language is language that does not discriminate based on gender. Even if you have a team full of boys, do not use language insulting to girls, or vice-versa. You must remember that what you say in practice goes home with players and becomes part of their cultural understanding. If you make sexist language ok in practice and games, they will come to believe that sexist language is ok in the world.

Inclusive language is the last of our four. Inclusive language means language that relates to everyone and that includes everyone. It does not isolate one player or a group of players. It is not racist, ethnic, religious, or gender-based, and it does not offend players, coaches, or parents. Inclusive language encourages teamwork and unity and promotes the overall goals of the team.

Give Athletes Time to Process Information And Ask Questions

Instructional cues are those tools in language that allow you to mark a change in subject or focus. These cues tell players when the lesson is starting, when it is changing course, and when it is ending. It also tells them when it is appropriate to ask questions and when they should be listening.

Pace your instructional cues so that athletes have enough time to understand what you are saying. Including silent time in your instruction is important, because it gives players a chance to process the information and recognize any confusion they are experiencing or questions they may have. Give them a few moments after each important concept so that they can take in all the information you have just provided.

By giving enough time between instructional cues, you also encourage questions and player participation. Let players know that it is ok to ask questions and request clarification. If you encourage participation and interaction among your team, you are more likely to get relevant questions and comments from players that will help everyone at large.

Don't Overdo It!

Communication is essential in sports, but there is such a thing as over-communication. This happens when you repeat yourself too many times or do not allow players enough time to work on their responses before jumping in with the same comment.

Players need time to incorporate suggestions you give and criticism you offer. Provide adequate time for them to show real change before repeating your feedback. If you continually offer them the same feedback without checking their progress, or before progress can reasonably be expected, they will lose motivation and respect for you and the sport.

No one likes being told the same thing over and over, especially if they are making an effort to change. In games and in practices, pay attention to how many times you are saying something. Offer a suggestion once and wait a little while. Offer another suggestion in the meantime, but do not go on a tirade of everything that needs changed. This is also over-communication.

Over-communication involves any of the following:

Excessive repetition of feedback

Communicating all problems or issues at the same time and expecting change

Communicating too frequently, especially during a game, in such a way that it distracts players

Work with players and other coaches to set up a time for effective communication, and bite your tongue the rest of the time.

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