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The Many Sides of Communication

Communication is a two-way street. Not only do coaches need to be able to send clear messages that are interpreted as intended, they also need to receive messages from their athletes and staff. In a book published by Human Kinetics, Sports psychologists Damon Burton and Thomas Raedeke, describe what good communication looks like and why it’s so important to the success of a coach.

Coaches who can clearly communicate expectations, goals, standards, and feelings to their athletes will be better able to provide instruction and lead their team. First, it’s important to note that there are two types of communication: verbal and nonverbal. Both can play a major role in how you interact with your athletes. 

Many don’t realize how much nonverbal actions or gestures can affect the messages you send to others. According to Burton and Raedeke, “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).” This means that your behavior should reinforce what you say. For example, if you tell your athletes to have a positive attitude regardless of the score, you shouldn’t have a sad or dejected look on the sidelines when your team is losing or making mistakes.

Just as athletes will pick up your nonverbal cues, coaches can also learn a lot from the ways athletes behave. Not every athlete is going to tell you when they’re feeling confident or when they’re unhappy or discouraged. By being an active observer, you can better understand how your athletes are feeling and how you should communicate with them.

Timing is key to communication. Coaches constantly need to make judgments on whether or not a message needs to be sent. Sometimes a situation requires a coach’s intervention, while other times athletes might benefit from having the independence to figure things out on their own. Try to find a balance between talking too much and talking too little. Coaches who talk too much tend to ramble on and bore their athletes with unnecessary instruction, while coaches who talk too little can make the mistake of assuming their athletes know what to do or what is expected of them.

Interpretation is also a major factor. Saying something is one thing, but getting others to correctly interpret what you mean is another. It’s easy for coaches to think that what they say to their athletes will be interpreted as encouragement or helpful instruction. Yet, according to Burton and Raedeke, a simple “Run hard!” from a coach can sometimes be interpreted as “He never thinks I run hard enough.” In order to effectively communicate, you will need to give equal weight to the content of the message and the emotional impact on the receiver. By getting to know your athletes, you can become more aware of what to say and how to say it.

Burton and Raedeke cite a study that involved spending hundreds of hours observing coaches and evaluating their impact on athletes (Smith 2001, Smoll & Smith 2006). The researchers observed more than 70 coaches, coded over 80,000 behaviors, and surveyed close to 1,000 athletes. Their findings provide a helpful guide to effective communication.

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
  • Technical instruction and a moderate amount of general encouragement unrelated to performance quality

On the other hand, athletes responded unfavorably to coaches who:

  • Failed to notice or reinforce good performance efforts
  • Criticized mistakes
  • Provided instruction after a mistake in a critical fashion
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