Communication is key to coaching.
Every coach communicates with their players in lots of different forms but is your coaching communication natural, thought out, pre planned or just off the cuff? Do you have a communication strategy? It’s another over looked coaching topic because we can often take for granted that we communicate with our players and that ticks the box but if we were to dig a little deeper what would we find? You might surprise yourself.
Lets break down communication into three main areas. What you say (verbal), what your actions say (body language/signals) and how you take feedback (listening). I’m sure communication experts would be able to break it down even more but to keep this simple we’ll just focus on these factors for now.
I did a presentation to a group of coaches recently and emphasized that “Everything you do and say communicates a message”. As a coach you are constantly communicating messages to your players whether you know it or not, whether they are planned or not those messages still get sent. Think of it like a text message. If you text somebody you write (or plan) what you want to say, you even consider how it sounds as it’s in written form and then you send it when you’re happy. So you’re consciously communicating a message to someone. Have you ever written a text and then thought, oh that doesn’t sound very good, deleted it and started again? What if someone sent that message before you deleted it? How would you feel knowing someone received it and it wasn’t quite right? Well that happens in coaching, everything you do and say gets communicated and received whether you’ve had time to think about it or not.
This creates a few questions when you think about it. Do I say the right things? Do I act in a respectable way with my players at training or during games? Do I talk too much? Do I talk enough? Is it better to say nothing?
Here is a scenario in coaching.. Your team is playing a match, one of your players has just made a mistake, maybe even cost the team a goal and the coach will shout something like “Come on son, you got to get rid of it quicker!” or “You can’t let that happen again” or “What did I say about square passes, see what I mean?”. Do you think the player knows they have made a mistake? Yes they do. Do you think it helps them if the coach points out that mistake so everyone else can hear it? I would say no it doesn’t. So why do coaches say anything? The simple answer is because they don’t think before they speak.
Here is the same scenario but using body language.. Your team is playing a match and your player makes a mistake, maybe even costs the team a goal. What is one of the first the player does? Well straight after thinking about the mistake they have just made, they look over at the coach. What might they see? The coach with their head in their hands looking at the floor or in the extreme case their coach kicking a water bottle in anger. What message does that communicate to that player? Pretty much the same message as above maybe even worse. That player wants to see what you think of them at that moment so what message do you want to give them?
Now of course in professional premier league football or in World Cups at Senior Level you can understand coaches feeling the emotions and the players are probably big enough to handle it but when we relate these situations to youth players and kids learning the game it’s a different situation.
At the moment I’m doing some PD by completing some coaching papers at university and one of the topics I’ve been learning more about it how people listen. There are different stages of listening and the ultimate way to listen is referred to as ‘active listening’. The rule for active listening is STOP, LOOK, LISTEN, RESPOND. It’s simple but when you think about whether you actually look and listen there is usually room for improvement. Have you ever had someone texting while you’re trying to talk to them? Pretty annoying isn’t it. Well if you don’t look at the person who is talking to you you’re sending a similar message that you don’t really care.
A coach asked me a while ago did I have any favorites in my team? I thought about it a lot and it suddenly made me think “Do I talk to certain players more than others?” “What message would that send?” So I decided to test myself. I asked my GK Coach to listen to how I communicated during a match. I got him to take some stats over 90 minutes, recording how many times I communicated to each player in the pitch and was what I said positive, negative or neutral. It’s a pretty simple thing for someone to tally while the game is going on. I was really surprised with the results. I was amazed there was a player on the pitch I never spoke to throughout the whole game, I then thought back and realized I never spoke to them individually before the game either. So this player didn’t get a single word from me for the whole match, how must that make them feel? That exercise made me so much more self aware of my communication to my players. I now get someone to do this for me every game and I check in every 10 mins to see how I’m tracking. I thought it was important I communicated to everyone in the team and my sideline verbal comments needed to be positive.
When I started my current campaign with the NZ U17 Women’s Team I also decided to create a communication strategy which would make me a better communicator. I didn’t need it to be overly complicated so I started slowly with some simple pointers and I discussed this with the team. These were my promises:
- I will never criticize a technical mistake/error when you are trying your best
- I will only ever give you negative feedback if I don’t feel you are giving your best
- I will be open and honest with you at all times
That was it. Plain and simple. I also made a big effort to be approachable, happy and talkative off the field and more clear, precise and effective on the pitch. Bearing in mind my previous example of how often I talked to players in games, I also made an effort to say something (even just hello) to each player at training and games. Only my players and staff would be able to tell you if they think I’m a good communicator but like anything I’d like to think I’m getting better but I know there is always room to improve.
What and how we communicate to our players is so important but I believe it’s also very easy to take communication for granted and focus our coaching attention on other things. It’s not easy but the best coaches are great communicators.
If you were to ask your players a few questions what would their answers be?
- I am a good communicator?
- Does my passion for football come across in my coaching?
- Would you describe me as a calm coach?
- Would you say I talk to you a lot?
- Do you feel I’m interested in you?
I’ve focused my attention in this blog on types of communication. There is a whole other aspect to communication which is how effective it is. Do your messages get across to your players? Do they understand what you coach? This is a whole separate discussion topic but I think thats part II in coaching communication, first and foremost we could all think more about how and what types of communication we use with our players.
I would encourage all coaches to record their communication in games and see what results it brings up, it might give you some excellent feedback on your communication qualities. Even just thinking about it or writing up a communication strategy is a step in a positive direction. Players want to feel special, feel valued and feel loved and this can only be felt through communication. If you can continually improve how you verbally communicate (more often, more positive and more thought), what messages you give through your actions (positive body language, enthusiasm and composure) and how effectively you listen to players (stop, look & really listen) then you will be improving as a coach and your players will love you for it.
It’s a topic worth communicating I reckon.