Beyond “Positivity” Part II: When and How Coaches Communicate

What coaches say matters. More than the substance of our feedback, when and how we communicate can also meaningfully impact athletes. When coaches offer feedback refers to timing and frequency of communication. How coaches communicate regards psychological meanings that we convey—and athletes perceive—through an expression. Subtleties of coach feedback that can influence how athletes appraise instruction include gestures, tone of voice, body language, eye contact, and instruction timing/frequency. Attending to these aspects of our communication is essential because coach-athlete interactions are hardly one-directional transactions in which coaches transmit information that athletes passively receive. Athletes actively participate in and contribute to the relationship. Coaches need to ensure that our role in that relationship is transformational—not transactional. We can nudge ourselves in the transformational direction by carefully attending to when and how we offer feedback.

Research in sport psychology has largely focused on links between different types of coach feedback (e.g., praise, instruction, or criticism) and athlete outcomes (Black & Weiss, 1992; Horn, 1985; Smoll et al., 1993). These studies underline the message from the last post: Coaches should offer players appropriate praise and task-contingent feedback. While this evidence-based practice may have value, such a blanket, rigid prescription overlooks complexities and nuance of coaching.

Recent work from Erickson and Côté (2016) offers insight to the subtleties of coach feedback. Researchers assessed separate communication patterns between youth volleyball coaches and individual athlete and players’ developmental trajectories over a season. Athletes fell into one of three different trends: low-declining, moderate-maintaining, and high-increasing on developmental outcomes. Crucial are links between coach-athlete interactions and these trajectories: athletes in the low-declining group received the highest amount of coach interaction, which was controlling in nature and included individual task instruction and encouragement. In contrast, athletes in the high-increasing group had significantly more non-sport specific interactions with coaches.

What do these results mean for coaches?

When and how coaches deliver instruction matters; however, coach-athlete relationships underpin these patterns of communication. Coach-athlete interactions are rooted in the relationship that a coach build with each athlete. This dynamic relationship not only affects future interactions, but athletes’ appraisal of those interactions (e.g., coach feedback). Thus, coaches need to actively get to know who their players are as people. Coach-athlete relatedness is linked to more favorable athlete developmental trajectories. Athletes who perceive a caring, trusting relationship with their coach are more likely to persist through challenges, experience adaptive emotions, and possess higher levels of self-esteem (Kipp & Weiss, 2013, 2015). Specific to “when” and “how” of coach feedback, more task-contingent feedback is not necessarily better. Just as excessive praise can backfire, players may interpret frequent coach feedback—whether corrective or encouraging—as an indication that their coach holds low expectations for them (Horn et al., 2010). While each coach-athlete relationship is unique and every athlete’s needs differ, constant, controlling coach feedback may undermine athlete growth.

Here are a few practical suggestions for coaches to help guide athletes along a positive developmental path through coach interaction and communication:

  1. Know your athletes as players and as people. Coaches can do so by intentionally carving out time to ask athletes questions about who they are and actively listen to them. We should be as deliberate about cultivating relatedness as we are with allocating time for players’ technical/tactical development.
  2. Give players opportunities to problem-solve and make decisions. Coaches can convey belief in their athletes’ abilities when they give players time to problem-solve and respond to challenges in practice and competition. When the situation permits, instead of bombarding athletes with feedback, give athletes opportunities to correct their mistakes on previously learned tasks. After repeated unsuccessful attempts, then offer corrective instruction.
  3. Offer If-Then Instruction. Coaches can make subtle, powerful, changes in how they communicate with IF-THEN instruction, which brings an athlete’s attention to what they can control, and conveys the coach’s belief in the athlete’s ability to do so. For example, replace “C’mon, stay low on defense!” with, “if you stay low, then you’ll be able to change direction on defense.”

Enough on communication! Next time I consider the space between our speech—silence. Circle back to take a deeper dive into the use of silence in coaching and implications for athlete development.


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