The GIST: Effective communication is based on the needs of each player and team. When coaches give players voice, we can more fully understand what our athletes need to feel optimally supported. With preseason approaching, consider integrating this session into your off-the-field training. These activities can serve as a starting point for coaches and athletes to share knowledge and define what effective communication means and looks like on their teams.
After a brief summer break, both-and coaching is back! Somehow the summer got away from me. Nevertheless, after so many seasons as an athlete and coach, my brain and body automatically shift gears when August arrives. I go into one mode: preseason mode. As many of us start up with our college, high school, or club teams I want to bring up a topic for coaches to consider addressing—to plant some early seeds— in the first weeks of training: effective communication. This concept was a major emphasis of my high school girls’ soccer team this spring, and one that I’ve touched on in an earlier series of posts, “Beyond Positivity”. In those entries I explored the nuances of coach communication (i.e., what, when, and how coaches give feedback), including how we might use silence as a valuable communicative tool in our work with athletes.
This entry tackles the subject from a different perspective by exploring what effective communication means for your team and athletes.
To do so I will offer a recap of a session on effective communication that I facilitated with my student-athletes during the spring. You might consider integrating any, or all, of these activities as an off-the-field preseason session. These activities are meant to draw on team knowledge and co-create communication standards with your athletes. Reflection and discussion centers on several questions: What type of communication does an athlete/teammate need and when? What constitutes effective communication on our team? What does effective communication look like in action? Feel free to use, leave out, or adapt any aspect of this session to best fit you as a coach, your context, and athletes.
Before I overview the session, let me clarify why communication became a point of emphasis for our team. We started the season with a young squad, only one senior, a sizable freshmen class, and several returning players who had only joined us the year prior. Some might call this a “rebuilding year”. I cringe when I hear that statement because it shifts a coach’s focus from improving based on where athletes are at, to a preoccupation with proving oneself (as a coach or team). When coaches adopt this mentality, doing so can come at the expense of athlete development. Optimally challenging (and raising the bar for) players becomes a more difficult task when we safeguard against defeat and lower expectations before our players even step onto the field. As coaches, let’s not fall into this trap! Young teams might lack foundational skills that you wish they possessed, but these groups present a unique opportunity for coaches as culture creator to establish—and reinforce—good habits. If coaches plant these seeds with athletes early on, they are more likely to internalize those behavior patterns and model them for new and future players.
As a younger group, we not only lacked on-field communication but also clear standards for what effective communication meant on our team. The mix of inexperience and diverse player personalities led to instances of ineffective communication: younger players feeling as though older players were bossing them around, and older players feeling as though younger players were not listening or committed. After a few conflicts between players, our coaching staff decided that the group would benefit from more a explicit conversation on effective communication.
Here is a breakdown of the session—keeping this caveat in mind: as with technical/tactical skill building, culture building and behavior change are on-going processes. One session on effective communication will not be a complete cure-all for or prophylaxis of team communication issues. Consistent reinforcement is essential for players, and coaches, to internalize desired values and actions. As coaches, we not only need to model these behaviors. Moreover, we also need to encourage players when they effectively communicate and own our mistakes—as coaches or players—when we fall short of doing so.
Effective Communication Session Synopsis
Activity I: Effective communication on our team
I started by asking the girls to think of a recent moment in which a teammate effectively communicated to them (e.g., encouragement, instruction, suggestion, or criticism). They wrote down who that teammate was, what happened, and why the communication was effective for them. This was meant to guide athletes to self-reflect on their needs, but also gave them a chance to recognize their teammates.
Debrief: As a group, we discussed their responses. I did not have each girl share their who-what-why, but took notice of which players spoke up, or did not, and who was actively listening. Several girls offered their responses, and I nudged players to consider commonalities and differences across examples. We distilled these anecdotes down to key characteristics of effective communication on our team, which were honest, direct, & positive. With this definition, I emphasized to players that it’s not just what we say that is impactful, but how we communicate—that communication needs to be honest and selfless. Praise that is not earnest can undermine our legitimacy as the communicator and backfire. At the same time, our communication should aim to help teammates be successful—to build each other up—not break teammates down. When players know that teammates mean well, and are genuinely trying to support our success, they will be more open to receiving corrective instruction (or constructive criticism) and less likely to take feedback personally.
The first reflective activity helped our group established what effective communication means for our team. While we might define communication that is honest, direct, and positive as our team standard, I asked players to consider if, and how, effective communication might depend on the individual and context. Though we might defer to honest, direct, and positive feedback in most teammate interactions and team situations, how we communicate may depend on who we are working with and how they show up on that day.
Activity II: Effective communication as individual and context specific
I asked each girl to write down what kind of communication they need from their teammates (or coaches) when they are having a good day versus bad day. I clarified that the good-bad day scenario could be for a host of reasons, including but not limited to sport-related events. I invited each player to share her perspective with the group in this second activity. In this case, I wanted to give each person the opportunity to speak to her needs, and likewise teammates (and myself) the chance to listen and gain insight into how to best support each player. Here are some of common responses from our group:
“I am motivated by the little things. It’s a huge boost when you catch me, and let me know, that I doing the little things well.”
“I want limited feedback on my bad days.”
“Hold me accountable when things aren’t going my way.”
“I just want you to tell me what to do!”
“I need positive reinforcement no matter what kind of day I am having. I had a bad coach when I was younger. He would always scream at us, and it’s still hard for me to shake that.”
This session is one example of how to start a conversation with your players to glean valuable information about their needs and co-create team standards for effective communication. Effective communication is individual and context specific—based on the needs of each player and team. When coaches give players voice, we can more fully understand what our young people need to feel optimally supported. At the end of the day, it’s not about us. It’s about them. Facilitating a session on effective communication, however, is not a quick fix—it’s a starting point. Consistent reinforcement of effective communication when coaches catch players doing so is necessary for all team members to internalize those behaviors. Along with praiseworthy actions, coaches need to attend to “challenge moments”: when players (or coaches themselves) fall short of effectively communicating based on team standards. Coaches can use “challenge” moments” as opportunities to reinforce desired behaviors (or acknowledge their own mistakes) and encourage athletes to see mistakes as a part of the learning and culture-building process.