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’

Follow me on Twitter @inkingfeeling for updates and please share if you enjoy reading. Thanks!

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