Talking a Good Game (Part II): The Coach-Athlete Relationship

Coaches

It’s taken me five years, but last month I finally managed to complete my Level 2 coaching qualification. While I haven’t yet coached to anywhere near the level I’ve played, I always try to use my playing experience to improve my coaching skills. Just as every player is different, every coach is different – and that’s a good thing. However, I believe that to be a great coach you must be a great communicator.

I spend much of July and August working on summer hockey camps. This means I have to figure out very quickly how to communicate effectively with loads of different kids, often several days or weeks in a row. Sessions need to be safe, fun and understandable. The way I communicate can have a major impact on my ability to build rapport, and of course this isn’t just about what I say, but how I say it: my words, body language and demonstrations must all be chosen and adapted as appropriate to the group of players on any given day.

Broadly speaking, the same threads run through communication when coaching adults. Your tone may change and you might convey more sophisticated messages, but generally, the objectives for a coach are similar: create a learning environment, provide feedback, and make things safe and fun. Winning can be important too, but often that’s a by-product of those objectives: get the processes right and the outcome takes care of itself. One of my biggest priorities when I’m coaching is to be consistent and energetic at every session. As a player, I respond best to coaches who have these qualities –it’s easier to understand their expectations, trust their feedback and be open and honest in both directions.

On the field, I believe that an enjoyable environment tends to generate a steeper curve of improvement. That doesn’t mean every session will be fun, and it certainly doesn’t mean that training will be easy. However, as I’ve mentioned previously in this blog, I think often having fun = playing better. Players motivated to push themselves – whether through hard work, concentration or repetitions – are likely to make more effective, robust progress. In terms of communication, that means rewarding improvement, giving constructive criticism and sometimes allowing the players to work out the answers for themselves… and knowing when each of these things may be required.

“If we were supposed to talk more than we listen we would have two mouths and one ear”
Mark Twain

Game day brings further challenges. Depending on the situation, a coach has to judge when to motivate or pacify, praise or criticise, stay calm or get riled up. Often, coaches are dealing with similar expectations, frustrations and anxieties as players, so communicating during competition needs real perceptiveness and an ability to detach oneself from the often emotionally-charged environment.

Of course, the role of a coach extends far beyond the field. The biggest communication challenges may relate to selection, disciplinary problems and dealing with poor performances or results. The approach taken in these scenarios can make or break player-coach relationships, the dynamics of a squad and even the psychological or emotional well-being of a player in the longer term. It’s important to recognise that these situations (and the weight of responsibility they create) can be emotionally draining for a coach too, but I honestly can’t emphasise enough how important – and how impactful – sensitive, intelligent communication can be at these times. I won’t pretend I’ve had to make any huge decisions as a coach, but even in dealing with less significant issues – an under-confident player, a disruptive child or an out-of-form team mate – my good and bad experiences as a player have definitely shaped my awareness of how the style, method and content of coaching communications can have a positive or damaging effect.

As I’ve talked about previously, I believe that while technology, statistics and equipment can be important, the ‘human’ parts of sport tend to elicit the greatest mental and emotional responses from us as players and supporters. Coaching, too, is about people: reading people, understanding people and figuring out what makes people tick. The best coaches may be tactically astute and experts in technique, but often ‘people skills’ are the essential key that can unlock the more sport-specific capabilities of a coach. I’ll finish where I started: to be a great coach, you have to be a great communicator.

 

Click here if you missed ‘Talking a Good Game (Part I): How Players Communicate’

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Talking a Good Game (Part I): How Players Communicate

Talking a Good Game

As the “Pomicide” unfolded in the fourth Ashes test yesterday, cricket journalists must have been hastily searching their thesauruses for synonyms for ‘unbelievable’. There’s always a lot to discuss in cricket – maybe it’s the amount of statistics or the brilliant banter between the pundits, or maybe it’s just because it gives us Brits an excuse to discuss the weather. Stuart Broad’s bowling was the obvious talking point yesterday, but I also read an article about how the lack of sledging in this Ashes series may be contributing to the quality and entertainment of the cricket itself. This got me thinking about how the things that are said on, off and around the sports field can affect sports performance.

In this blog, I’m going to look specifically at communication between players. There’s no doubt that communication within and between teams has the potential to significantly influence training, mindset, confidence and ultimately, performance. Sledging – where, players seek to gain an advantage by insulting or verbally intimidating the opposing player” (thanks, Wikipedia) – is probably as old as cricket itself. Sometimes it’s good-natured, sometimes it’s simply verbal abuse which has led to inevitable discussions about its place in the game. However, in general, sledging illustrates how language can be used as an attempt to directly influence or unsettle a player’s performance. It’s safe to say this happens in most team sports – who hasn’t heard (or made!) a sly remark between players in football or hockey? Sometimes one comment can be enough to sidetrack an experienced professional completely – remember Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt after an alleged insult from Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final?

In individual sports, a war of words often precedes the physical battle. One of the best examples of this is ‘trash talk’ in boxing – weeks are spent trading insults before a single punch is thrown. Of course, often these exchanges are encouraged by the media in their attempts to build excitement about the event. Even in sprinting and tennis, where there isn’t direct contact between athletes during the competition, interviewers often try to stir up rivalries or antagonisms. In F1, there is the added dynamic of competition within teams. Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg aren’t just driving against Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Williams’ Valerie Bottas – they seem to be engaged in a constant battle with one another both behind the wheel and on the team radio. They may be teammates, but at the moment they are also one another’s greatest rivals.

Communications within a team can have a huge impact on building a successful dynamic. In my experience of both international and club hockey, this has been a regularly revisited aspect of our attempts to create an effective performance environment. It’s always going to be difficult to find ways of communicating that suit everyone in a squad of 11, 16 or perhaps even 30-odd players. One person may prefer direct criticism, while another prefers it to be sugar-coated. One player might yell, while another prefers to discuss something quietly after the game. When you add in pressure, fatigue and the ‘heat of the moment’, it becomes almost impossible to get this right for everyone 100% of the time. My own attitude towards communication is that some things are negotiable, but others aren’t. If I’m not working hard enough, I fully expect to be yelled at (hopefully this doesn’t happen too often!). If I miss an open goal, most of the time I probably don’t need a teammate to give me aggressive verbal feedback about it.

Something that’s often forgotten is that it isn’t just about how players talk, it’s also about how they listen. Most people have a default way of saying something in a given situation: a player makes a mistake – teammate A shouts criticism at them, teammate B has a quiet word at the next break in play. We also tend to have a default way of hearing that feedback. Some people will perceive yelling as a personal insult and go into their shells, others will find it motivating and use it to spur them on. Ultimately, we can’t expect people to change the way they talk to us on the field unless we are also prepared to try and be flexible with how we listen.

Sometimes it’s also about what isn’t said. Teddy Sheringham and Andy Cole forged a successful striking partnership for Manchester United when they didn’t actually talk to one another. Perhaps this Ashes series is better with the players focusing on cricket rather than on sledging. Alyson Annan, one of the greatest ever hockey players, used to practise taking penalty strokes, “with teammates throwing water at her and yelling in her ear, so she could perform the skill regardless of any distraction” (p128, ‘Beyond the Limits’). In the 1996 Olympic final, she stepped up to take a stroke in total silence – the one scenario she hadn’t anticipated. She scored and Australia won. I suppose in the end, the best players write their stories in their own words.

 
Next time… I’ll be exploring communication between coaches and players.
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