I hear it all the time from coaches in all sports.
"My athletes just aren't getting it", "They just won't talk to each other or communicate out on the field", or "I've given every speech on communication possible and it's still not working".
If you are one of these coaches or your child has one of those coaches, the good news is that to overcome this challenge we, as their leaders must do less talking, not more. While we are indeed the designated leaders of our programs, our job is not to fill the air with only our voices and feedback.
All the sport knowledge in the world is useless if your audience of athletes grow numb to one voice. The consistent complaints of short attention span in today's athletes is typically blamed on social media and this generation's need for instant gratification.
Beyond this, if we are diligent in our pursuit to dive deeper we will also see that most coaches have unintentionally removed the inter-team communication where we become the nucleus of every team conversation from beginning to end. This evolution is not always by design but can conveniently and sometimes hastily be utilized by coaches as an alternative to deafening silence when athletes fail to contribute to coach-driven discussions.
As coaches, we are quick to take the reigns and lead which is a reasonable habit. However, below is an example of this reoccurring theme in high school and college athletics as well as a few helpful methods to improve your communication with and amongst your athletes for better results and athlete empowerment.
As I stood behind the try zone scouting the second half of the opening round of the girls national high school tournament, the team 15 feet from me was now down by 20 points. I watched the trailing team gather in the try zone.
As a coach that places a heavy emphasis on player accountability and body language, I scanned each of the athletes hunting for even the smallest signs of leadership life. Most appeared exhausted while a few players exchanged words with the teammate closest to them but overall, no collective attempt to communicate as a group was being made. As the opposing team set up for their conversion, the coach of the losing team approached and player dialogue ceased.
"Do any of you want to be here?" he asked sternly.
"You are losing because you need to be aggressive. They are embarrassing you and you aren't even trying! Work harder. Stay focused. Hit hard".
He pumped his fist after each cliche phrase and I could see the visual indifference from his squad as he waited for any kind of reaction to his advice. Exhausted faces and eyes retreated to the ground while some opted to check out completely. His dissatisfaction was clear as I watched him throw his hands up and push outward as if to signal that he was giving up.
As the coach exited, all eyes were still to the ground and players returned to their spots for the next kick off. Not surprising, the last ten minutes of the game were no better than the ones before it. I noticed a small change in energy in one or two players after the talk, but as expected it was not enough to mobilize a team effort. The field remained quiet even as they returned to play.
The fact that these athletes were working their hardest was pretty self evident to me. However, the fact that they were losing to a team that was far superior in fitness and game plan, was not as evident to their leadership. Those athletes left that tournament with less points than their opponent but the more troubling fact was that they exited with zero understanding of how little their work rate had attributed to their failure.
They fought individually through the match and had clearly not been taught how to communicate needs and strategy with one another.
While I will not criticize a high school club coach who, in the moment was venting some frustration, I will take the opportunity to highlight the achilles heel in this method of message delivery and content. As an athlete, I grew up with coaches who yelled and intimidated players to get results. As an adult coach, I do not advocate for this method but I also do not begrudge those who are periodically animated in the expressions of their message.
Our messages to our athletes are crucial but in order to build stronger teams, promote more independent decision-making and connect with players on a different level, we must consider addressing existing behaviors and practicing new ones. I ask that you consider the four methods below.
1. WORK TO MINIMIZE OR ELIMINATE CLICHE COACHING
Many coaches engage in this common form of empty instruction. These are the coaches who repeatedly urge their players to, "Be aggressive", "Be confident", "Focus more", "Get after it" or "Just work harder".
During a behavioral profile consultation with Olympic Rowing Medalist, Bo Hanson of Athlete Assessments, we discussed how my behavioral style was both similar and different from the profiles of my athletes. As a result, we discussed alternatives phrases that may reduce cliche language and help my more analytical athletes better absorb the message.
Rather than instructing my athlete to "be more confident", he suggested the phrase "Have some belief in yourself". This clarifies for the athlete what it means to be confident rather than just ordering them to exhibit a trait they may not have or are still developing.
We all know that image of the hollywood athlete that magically transforms onscreen from an introverted, third string player into the miraculous hero of the game. While this is nice to think about and sells movie tickets, all coaches know this result is far from typical nor is it a realistic expectation.
When asking an athlete who tends to be less physical, more team-centered or analytical in their thinking to "be more aggressive", your words risk the return of a hollow reception where it's highly unlikely to promote a change in their own behavior. It's in these times that coaches can become impatient or resort to just believing the athlete is ignoring or is incapable of understanding what they are being asked to do.
Many sports possess contact or a competition of strength against an opposing team or athlete. Rather than saying "be aggressive" or emphasizing physical action targeting the opponent, try restructuring your language to include more of the how and why of the skill. Example: Demanding a soccer player be more aggressive or physically imposing to gain possession will fall short in explaining the process or method. In this scenario, you are only explaining the outcome desired. In addition, coaches with a more direct and dominant demonstration style of competitive aggression between athletes, can often be a deterrent that creates additional angst in the athlete over that particular skill.
As an alternative, suggest the methods of footwork in attaining the ball and be clear in explaining how recapturing possession will help the team in transition. This reframes the focus on the ball and the value of the skill rather than just placing emphasis on physical force or collision with their opponent. An athlete focused on obtaining the ball with a clear path and plan of execution will feel less anxiety over the contact. The result is hopefully completion of possession which raises their confidence in future competitive performance segments.
Re-wording your message to help the athlete achieve, feel and create their own success will be far more fruitful than expecting a full 180 degree change in behavior after one or two repetitive training contact sessions.
2. PROMOTE EFFECTIVE TEAM COMMUNICATION DURING STOPPAGE TIMES
In most sports there is a typical amount of stoppage time. This can be official stoppage, clock adjustment, injuries, fan disruption, call disputes, position changes or media timeouts. These are prime opportunities to regroup, reiterate plan of attack, tighten up defense, catch a breather, or share a few words of encouragement. On the same note, there are also stoppage periods that can kill momentum if not recognized and managed accordingly. These opportunities, depending upon your sport may range from few to many but the one thing these time periods all have in common is that coaches can unknowingly or unintentionally squander them.
I have scouted my fair share of prospective student-athlete competitions in a variety of sports where an injury occurs and the teams seem to maintain zero direction in how to utilize and capitalize on this window of time. I have watched athletes range in their behavior from weak communication, non-game related conversations, taking a knee, sitting and yes, I have even watched players lay down on the field during stoppage. These are all behaviors that many coaches ignore, fail to see or prepare for.
This recognition and skill to make the most of these time periods will take practice and analysis first on the coach's part and then the players. In this analysis ask yourself, if I wasn't on the sidelines or able to go out to my players, would my team be able to handle communication without me? What kind of dialogue would they share and which player or players would step in to lead the communication in my absence? What are my best recommendations for content and delivery of messages when athletes are tired or frustrated?
Discuss these moments with your team in advance.
Ask your team to come up with obvious examples of stoppage in your sport. Where should their attention be during these times? How do they believe they can utilize this time better? Are they communicating with the entire team or just a teammate in their radius? What does productive communication look like during these periods? These questions and their answers hold the keys to taking you and your team to a whole new level of communication, trust and independence in competition and practice.
Watch game film for this kind of behavior and ask your athletes to discuss
During a stoppage period, point out the situation. How much stoppage time was available? Was this time window enough for technical suggestions such as lower body position in contact to cut down on missed tackles or, was this a small window where the team could connect but 10 words is more effective than 20? What was the team's body language like and did they come together or move further away from one another?
Remember, this practice will not be perfected overnight and the true place to sharpen this is in practice so that both you and your team grow more comfortable with the independence during the live competition.
3. PLAYER TO PLAYER DIALOGUE INITIATED BY COACH
This analysis is fairly simple to gauge and any kind of practice with your team can provide opportunities to strengthen this skill. As coaches we often bring the team together to discuss a certain skill, a play or a game plan. We pose questions where the athletes supply the answer or report to us, in what can feel like a classroom session.
Our college and high school athletes sit in class all day being asked to supply a one on one hand-raising answer to the professor or teacher. The more their sports experience becomes like their academic experience, the quicker we will lose their attention.
Any coach, that has ever said "huddle up", "bring it in" or "circle up", understands that space. While these are supposed to be circles that promote dialogue and feedback more often than not out of habit or control, we as coaches can turn these gatherings into what feels more like a quiz or test that players only participate in when called on. This leads to coach asking a question that is met with silence from the team or blank stares which understandably frustrates coaches.
To remedy this, try analyzing the below:
What does your team's body language consist of when you are addressing them? Do they direct their questions about game plan specifically to you and only you or do you allow them to promote dialogue between their teammates to discuss and execute?
You can practice this exercise by bringing the team in and asking a starter question followed by your own step back from the circle. As a player addresses your starter question that kicks off dialogue, if they attempt to speak to you answer them politely with, "Thank you for that answer, please address the team with your feedback and discuss."
This will promote communication that is still sparked by you but allows them to graduate into a conversation. During the beginning attempts at this exercise you will need to continue to stay in the radius to keep them on track and perhaps mildly redirect but the end result is these behaviors become habit and eventually you can move on to the next step below.
4. PLAYER TO PLAYER DIALOGUE INITIATED BY THE ATHLETES
This stage is your bread and butter and the real end goal in coaching. This may prove to be more difficult for coaches who have always displayed a fair amount of rigidity in their control of practice and games. However, the rewards far outweigh the growing pains of adapting in your own behavior.
For this exercise, when things are not going as planned during practice or a drill needs to be stopped and addressed, identify a player before the stoppage. Briefly address that player on the side and let them know that you would like them to stop the drill and have them discuss what the team needs specifically to be more successful in the task at hand.
As most coaches know, not every player is comfortable addressing the team in this manner. This is all the more reason to give them an opportunity to do so and build their belief in team dialogue that will eventually improve over time. This practice at the high school level will be invaluable to empowering your athletes for playing on the intercollegiate stage with upperclass teammates who tend to dominate the dialogue.
If it helps, in the beginning, you may opt to identify a more open and outgoing player to lead the example and then after some practice, move on to those who need more exercise in the area of speaking up or expressing their perspective. This process will take time and may even feel slow at first if you are not used to this type of team communication. However, commitment to this practice will pay you back in dividends.
As the coach of a three-time national championship squad, in the national finals in 2016 I attempted to address my team at half time when the score was tied 17-17. My senior touched my shoulder as we approached the team in the try zone.
"Coach, we've already been talking about it out on the field and what we need to do. We know exactly what needs to be fixed. Can you let us address the team first?" she asked.
Without hesitation I took a step back and watched history unfold. The words exchanged between my players in that huddle were flawlessly on point, well expressed and received. These moments are truly the valuable parts of coaching when you are able to watch your players take control of their own game and communication. I sincerely hope all coaches have the pleasure of witnessing this in their lifetime.
For me, my days of blowing the whistle to stop play due to poor drill execution or lack of flow have been slowly replaced by the player's recognition of their own needs and ability to "bring it in" on their own.
Regardless of year in school, experience level, position or social capital the goal is for each player on your squad to be aware of their freedom in expressing feedback, sharing dialogue, addressing conflict and strengthening communication.