3 tips for improving coach-player communication

The flow of information goes both ways.

Communication is foundational to the relationship between coaches and athletes. With that being said, the effectiveness of a coach’s communication with athletes is often overlooked.

There are many questions that come up when examining the quality of one’s communication. As a coach, how can you make sure your message is being interpreted the way you intended it to be? What types of things can you do to increase the likelihood that your message gets heard?

I had the chance to ask Carmen Bott, a strength and conditioning coach of over 15 years and a professor at both SFU and Langara College, for some of her insights on communication between coaches and athletes.

1. Collaboration

The process of communicating must be one of collaboration between coach and athlete — the flow of information goes both ways.

A great way to foster the ideal environment for this to happen is to open up the conversation to other topics. Coach Bott often does this between sets with her athletes, discussing music, movies, or current events. Bott explains this is effective as it is “a simple way to defocus the individual,” which allows for the conversation to be more collaborative.

Not only does this practice encourage mutual communication, it “fosters other aspects of their identity, and gives attention to other parts of their being as a human,” says Bott. When this dialogue is exchanged in an honest and transparent way, communication has greater efficacy.

It is also imperative to pay attention to group size when communicating to a group of athletes.

“If drills are teaching intensive, try to keep groups under eight athletes. If drills are familiar and more flow type, they can be easier with larger groups.”

Following the coaching session, it is then time to observe behaviour and be on the lookout for understanding. As Bott puts it: “once you communicate, throw them in the fire, then watch!”

2. Repeat, repeat, repeat

Communicating, like many things, comes down to repetition.

It is one thing to be clear in the delivery, but the message needs to be constantly verbalized in order to stick.

“The worst thing we can do is fixate on something [the athlete] isn’t supposed to do. What you want is to direct the focus to the do. If you say, ‘don’t do this,’ the brain doesn’t register the don’t, and it fixates on the action.”

It is imperative that when repeating expectations, we focus on the behaviour wanting to be repeated, instead of the unwanted behaviour.

When we are providing feedback to an athlete, Bott makes sure that “the feedback is on the behaviour, and not accusatory.”

This idea is similar to the way Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carrol voices expectations, which he advises coaches to “critique effort first.”

It may also prove valuable to ask yourself, “what is the root of this behaviour?” Bott suggests, as often an athlete’s behaviour is the by-product of multiple factors, such as a reaction to unclear messaging, and not just their apparent laziness.

3. Searching out feedback

Searching out feedback is essential for Bott to make sure she is on the same page with her athletes and that the correct message is being encoded. More so, it helps her comprehend the state of her athletes with greater clarity.

The feedback process isn’t one that happens once or twice a year but is a constant by-product of the athletes feeling comfortable. There may be times when this is difficult though.

“Formal surveys may be needed in cases such as larger groups, I might use survey monkey to ask questions such as if they feel prepared for the level they’re going into — or if there is something they expected that I’m not delivering.”

Collecting feedback in this manner is also ideal for questions that the individual may not feel comfortable expressing face-to-face. Additionally, in situations where evaluations are not possible, such as with younger groups, Bott advises new coaches to have a coach mentor around to evaluate their performance and communication skills.

At the end of the day, communication will never be perfect, that is the reality of dealing with humans. There are certainly numerous ways for a coach to ensure their intended message is clearly understood, but these are a few actionable ways to positively impact communication.

“Communication should be a matter of fluidity and collaboration rather than about control,” Bott explains.

The more we try to control and impose our will on those in front of us, the less likely we are to be in establishing successful communication.

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Kyle Bergh

Kyle is a psychology student at Simon Fraser University, where he also competes on the men's hockey team.

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