Conscious coaching: good communication and consistent contact
Good communication is often the difference between success and failure in the relationship between a coach and their athlete. The impact of verbal and nonverbal communications is the key to how you win or how you lose. Research indicates that effective communication skills are a learned behavior.
The relationship with your athlete starts with that initial conversation; whether that’s over the phone or in person. Regardless of the mode of communication, it’s important to start building a positive relationship with your athlete. Some upfront key skills that may or may not seem obvious but will enhance communication with your athlete are as follows:
- Explain why you may or may not ask an athlete to do something.
- Be empathetic and sensitive to your athlete’s feelings to connect emotionally.
- Communicate consistently according to their personality and training style.
- Develop creative ways to communicate with your athlete.
- Use positive communication to encourage, support, and reinforce practice, play, and progress.
- Build professional rapport with your athlete with your expertise and unique style
- Determine what else they need to achieve peak performance and refer to other professionals to take their game to the next level.
Listening is more than good communication skills. It is about the willingness and the ability to understand an athlete’s perspective and a genuine interest in getting to know your athletes. When you really hear what they are saying will affect how you talk to your athletes and make a big difference. How you communicate with them is more important than what you actually say. And how you communicate affects how they feel, and this affects the choices they make.
Listening is not about convincing an athlete to do something, or providing the right information. It demonstrates that you seek to be respectful, that you care for them, and that you want to form collaborative relationships with them. By default, you will communicate information, however your main goal is to build a relationship with your athlete and get to know them and their needs, and help them make their dreams come true.
Positive connections with your athletes give you the opportunity to be supportive in their pursuit and passion in the sport. This pursuit seldom occurs all at once and without challenge. However, a collaborative relationship leads to more nurturing and more guidance throughout the process.
A good model of communication
These simple communication strategies allow you to be more effective. Your athlete’s will feel supported, understood, and comfortable as they form a relationship with you.
- Ask open ended questions. Open questions are very important for building collaborative relationships with your athlete because they invite discussion. They invite the athlete to express personal fears, barriers, failures, and successes. For example, what could you have done differently during that rally?
- Use clarifications. Clarifications are an opportunity for you to make sure that you accurately understand what your athlete has said, and it gives your athlete an opportunity to ensure they said what they really thought or felt. Reflections are powerful because they show that you are listening, communicate understanding, encourage elaboration, and build collaboration. For example, your athlete says, I can’t play my matches like I practice. I feel tight. A reflection might be, it sounds like you don’t feel as loose during a match as you do in practice.
- Provide affirmations. Affirmations show appreciation for your athlete and their strengths. As a coach you must listen carefully to know what to affirm. When you give affirmation, it is important to genuinely affirm something the athlete personally values. For example, your slice is looking good.
- Offer options. Rather than provide your athlete with one option or idea they can do, give them options. Two ideas can be good because they can choose one or the other. However, three or more ideas gives them multiple options to work through and choose what might be the most appropriate for them.
Besides having a great communication style, one thing is for certain, athletes need more than one visit or interaction a week to help reinforce their training program. Some will need more ongoing, consistent support. How do you accommodate your athletes?
Technology is rapidly growing and this provides many ways to communicate with your athletes: webcam, face time, Facebook, twitter, email, text messaging, etc. Technology has changed the way the world communicates and operates and for the most part it can be very beneficial but how do you use it to your advantage and where do you draw the line? That is a good question!
Use all forms of communication
There aren’t any ‘strict’ rules on what to use, how to use it, and what is or isn’t appropriate. It is just important to use what makes the most sense for you and for your athlete.
- Understand needs. First and foremost, talk to your athlete and see what their needs are. Realize, your athlete may not initially know what their needs are and this may change over time. Work with your athlete to develop a plan that works for them and for you.
- Be professional. You want to maintain the same professional relationship regardless of your mode of communication. For example, you may not maintain a professional relationship with your athletes if you’ve invited them to join your personal Facebook page. On a personal Facebook page, there is generally a lot of personal information, much of which you cannot control.
- Use good communication style. You also want to maintain a good communication style. For example, if you are texting an athlete, it’s important to use a professional style of communication including some of the elements from above. Even though you might not think it’s a big deal to use slang and shortcuts, it starts to change the definition of your relationship.
- Set expectations. In all practicality, you need to decide for yourself how much time is ok to spend communicating with your athlete and figure out where those boundaries are. And make sure you communicate those boundaries. You may develop packages that include some forms of extended communication. For example, one-month package might include: 4-1 hour live training sessions, 2 video reviews, and 2-15 minute webcam/face time refreshers.
The continuum of peak performance
Part of helping your athletes stay happy and healthy is making sure you have good referrals. Athletes may have many different things they need support with. Fortunately, you don’t have to know everything about nutrition, confidence, physical therapy or fitness. There are professionals who specialize in all areas outside of your expertise. It’s important for you to distinguish between your education (scope of practice), what you know, and what you personally use.
When it comes to understanding scope of practice, the best rule of thumb is to give advice in specialties where you have the knowledge, or have been trained or certified in it. If you don’t have a background in nutrition, it may not be okay to have a conversation with athletes about a specific diet or nutritional supplement. You can supply athletes with articles and websites that may be helpful. If your athlete has questions that are outside your scope of practice, refer your athlete to other professionals. This will help your credibility with them and provide your athlete with the best support aligned with what they need.
Your effectiveness depends on the level of communication with your athlete. As a sports coach, the need to give a lot of good information can get in the way of being present, fully listening, getting to know your athletes and your athletes’ needs.
In recent years, the research has suggested that how you engage and connect with your athletes is critically important to their success. Engagement involves building a foundation with your athlete; listening and being able to understand what they want, what they need and who they are overall as an athlete and person. This involves constantly and consistently communicating with them. And now you can be more effective by creatively using different modes of communication: email, webcam/face time, texting, etc. Athletes need more than what traditional coaching used to provide.
And remember to build a referral network to add credibility to your coaching platform. Athletes need your expertise as well as the expertise of other skill sets to support a well-rounded training regime.