COACHES CORNER: How much coach training time do you give to improving your communication skills?

We often accept that we understand the extent of the meaning of the notion of effective communication and credit that understanding and application of it as an inherent part of our coaching repertoire. This is a false mindset. Possessing good effective communication skills are often a telling difference which can separate the coaching skills of an elite coach from a non-elite coach. Especially in modern day coaching where people management plays a critical role in achieving success.

In this article we look at what are communication skills and what you can do to review and improve your own communication skills.

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. Therefore when trying to improve your communication skills both aspects of communication requirements need to be addressed. 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).

As coaches there is a need to be able to clearly communicate expectations, goals, standards, and feelings to their athletes. We 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. As a coach, this means listening attentively. Players need to be able to communicate their goals, frustrations, and feelings to their coach also in the right manner and right time which as a coach you need to plan also for.

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 behaviours (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 behaviours so that you understand the messages you are sending to your players.

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. I recall the story of the AFL coach who knew he had to do something to communicate to his players at the half time talk in the dressing rooms of the importance of lifting their game intensity if they were to win the grand final after trailing at half time. One part was to deliver an inspiring message and the second to ensure the emotional impact needed was also delivered. His answer was he asked his assist prior to half time to loosen the hinges on the dressing room door. After the coach delivered his inspiring message he demanded the players follow him back out to the ground determined to win at all costs. He then led his team out but instead of opening the door he went straight into it pushing it over because of the weakened hinges. The players were inspired as they went on to win the game. Planning and implementing your communication is so important to achieving the success you desire.


So what is the effect of your communication?

Smoll and Smith spent hundreds of hours observing coaches and evaluating their impact on athletes ( Smoll & Smith 2006). In all, they observed more than 70 coaches, coded more than 80,000 behaviours, 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 unfavourably to coaches who failed to notice or reinforce good performance efforts, criticized mistakes, or provided instruction after a mistake in a critical fashion.


How to improve your communication skills?

  1. Make communication a priority. Take classes, read books, magazine articles or learn from successful communicators around you. Seek a mentor or coach
  2. Simplify and stay on message. Use simple, straightforward language.
  3. Engage your listeners or readers. Draw your players into the discussion. Ask questions and invite opinions. Solicit their feedback. However in doing this have a purpose for it and ensure engagement timing is appropriate
  4. Take time to respond. After you’ve listened (and understood) take time to “draft” in your head what you want to say.
  5. Make sure you are understood. Don’t blame the other person for not understanding. Instead, look for ways to clarify or rephrase what you are trying to say so it can be understood.
  6. Develop your listening skills, too. The best communicators are almost always the best listeners. Listen without judgment and don’t be distracted by thinking about what you want to say next. Then, respond, not react.
  7. Body language is important. Studies show that 65% of all communication is non-verbal. Watch for visual signs that your players understand, agree or disagree with your message. And be aware that your body is sending signals, too. Have a mentor observe and record your body language so you can gain valuable feedback.
  8. Maintain eye contact. Whether speaking to a crowd or one-on-one, maintaining eye contact builds credibility and demonstrates you care about your players.
  9. Respect your players. Recognize your message is not just about you or what you want. You should sincerely care about the needs and the unique perspectives of those to whom you are communicating. One of the best ways to show your respect is simply by paying attention to what they say.

Source: various

Human Kinetics – Psychology of Sports Coaching

Reference: Smoll FL, Smith RE (2006). Development and implementation of coach-training programs: Cognitive behavioural principles and techniques. In JM Williams (Ed.), Applied sport psychology: Personal growth to peak performance (5th ed., pp. 458-480). Boston: McGraw-Hill

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