Sports coaching is about developing strong relationships and educating athletes. A coach guides young individuals towards achieving their highest potential and helps them learn about themselves. A coach also passes on information and knowledge from firsthand experiences. Paying attention to athletes’ verbal and non-verbal cues will show whether they are understanding what the coach is teaching or not and how they are coping with the training, socialization, physical and emotional requirements, and feedback the coach must give.
In What Makes a Good Coach? Joan Scrivanich, a USA Triathlon and USA Track & Field Certified Coach, states that some of the best coaches have never reached elite status. What matters is that they know how to get their athletes there. “Coaching is an art and a science,” she states. “It’s about seeing potential in someone and being able to teach and push them just the right amount. It’s about knowing an athlete’s weaknesses and strengths and developing that athlete to their potential.”
To help athletes reach their objectives, potential, and possibly world-class performances, communication must be at the heart of all coaching relationships. Here are the key elements to set in place for proper communication that will allow athletes to hear and apply feedback.
First, Leading by Example
The first and most important step is to set the tone by leading by example: be open-minded, approachable, and authentic. Coaches cannot expect an athlete to listen, talk to them, or be receptive to them if coaches are not putting in the effort to engage with the athlete. While coaches don’t have to be overly extroverted, they must find ways to connect with each athlete. According to Forbes, people who smile at others, remember others’ names, ask good questions, are willing to learn from others, and are good listeners, will establish those connections.
Develop Trust and Connection by Building Rapport with Athletes
It’s vital that coaches build rapport with athletes at every opportunity. This can be achieved by “checking in” with them at the beginning of practice, learning about their interests and activities outside of the sport, and sharing personal stories and interests. Building trust also requires that coaches allow themselves to be known. Following the Golden Rule, which requires that we treat others the way they want to be treated, shows athletes that their coach has been listening and making the effort to get to know them well. A coach needs to connect with athletes at a human level.
Help Athletes Build a Wide Range of Physical, Technical, and Emotional Vocabulary
Communication will greatly improve when coaches can better understand their athletes, so it’s important to encourage and support them in expressing what they feel, both physically and emotionally. Questioning athletes and helping them use more precise language when describing their performance will give them practice in building that vocabulary.
Once again, the key here is to be a role model. Use the language that will help them express what they are feeling. The physical terminology may be easy for coaches, and for some, emotional intelligence may be a little more difficult. Doing work in this area will help coaches identify and manage their own emotions and be able to recognize and help their athletes do the same.
Provide Specific, Performance-Related, Non-Judgmental Feedback
Words and language matter. A coach should focus on providing specific feedback that is relevant to the sport and athletes’ performances. Offer guidance on how to improve and do better rather than judgment. Always focus on performance, providing feedback that is technical, physical, tactical, or mental.
Offer a Safe Space for the Athletes to Feel Heard
As a coach, it’s important to provide time in the training schedule for the athletes to share their questions and concerns. Having them contribute to the development of the team’s vision, objectives, and training strategy is also a wonderful way to develop trust and collaboration within the team.
However, Forbes warns, “Don’t make them regret removing the mask.” If athletes share their questions and concerns, don’t make them regret it. “Sarcasm, criticism, or jokes that might make the other person feel judged for what they’ve shared is a major faux pas.” Treat every idea with respect to maintain the collaborative spirit.
Choose the Right Time and Situation to Provide Feedback
If athletes aren’t in the right frame of mind or the environment isn’t great, then a coach’s feedback will be poorly received, so pay attention to the situation and the athletes’ moods. For example, providing feedback to an athlete who just finished a race, is breathing hard, and perhaps is disappointed by the result isn’t the best time.
This is where emotional intelligence can come into play again. Understanding an athlete’s mood in the moment will help coaches find the right time and place to give feedback.
Ask for Permission to Provide Feedback
Asking athletes, “Are you open to feedback right now?” or “May I tell you what I see?” is a great way to start the conversation. It is a non-threatening way of providing feedback and ensuring they will be listening. By starting the conversation with a question, the coach also demonstrates that this will be a two-way communication and collaboration, rather than a criticism.
Finally, Don’t be Afraid to Have Difficult Conversations
Coaches can have respect and collaboration in their program and still have challenging conversations. Coaches will always have difficult topics to discuss with their athletes, such as team selection, lack of performance, or character development. It’s important to be honest and respectful when approaching these topics and to be transparent.
If coaches take the time to lead by example, develop trust, and communicate effectively, having these difficult conversations will be much easier. For additional support, check out the Top 7 Lessons summary of Douglas Stone’s book Difficult Conversations.
Keeping these steps in mind will help coaches develop young athletes who are independent, autonomous, and have the necessary life skills to make their own decisions and be successful in any environment.