“Yup, he’s lost the room! ...they just aren’t listening to him anymore...”. As students of the game we have all heard these phrases describing a situation where a coach and his struggling team are failing to communicate. Often these coaches, who once held their player’s attention and focus with every word, no longer appear to understand one another. Performance is lost and as Mr. Trump says... “Someone is going to be fired.”
Why does this happen?
There are perhaps many reasons this happens but often the seeds of unfortunate situations like these lies in the coaches’ ability to build and maintain the trust and confidence of his team. In sport trust and confidence is built through effective, genuine communications. In fact, I would suggest that the most effective coaches have always been and always will be the most skilled communicators.
What makes a good coach communicator?
They are the individuals who are able to get their intentions and ideas across easily, sharing their knowledge in a way that can be readily understood and applied. This is no easy task. There are multiple factors to consider in an open two way communication model. There are also countless mitigating circumstances that interfere with the message and the receiver of the message. In this blog entry I will highlight a few important details that every coach can use to improve their communications and build on their current skill set.
Coaches must understand the power and value of positive communications. They must be able to use all their communications to be consistent in their messages with their team. You will find that communication is the vehicle a coach uses to teach, to reinforce performance, to establish an ideal environment and to deliver corrective information driving player development and optimal performance.
The coach’s main target in communicating is always his player. But, coaches also communicate with others. These other groups include parents, administrators, the media, fans, officials and other coaches and athletes. While the information shared is dependent on the audience, when communicating a coaches’ attempt to convey a clear message remains as a constant. Clear, concise and instructive are how messages from most coaches (should) appear. To be an effective communicator coaches rely on acquired knowledge, their experience and a unique perspective of play. When coaches communicate with players it most frequently providing what is known as feedback. A great axiom in sport is “Catch your athletes doing what’s right giving compliments and praise.” The idea is to reinforce behaviour and shape athletes responses and motivations.
A coaches’ feedback comes in many forms and can be regarded as the fuel (or lack thereof) for a player’s optimal performance. Feedback, when measured, is most often is in the form of verbal messages. But, feedback also is frequently found to take non-‐verbal forms like a physical expression, gesture or movement. A fist bump, a pat on the back or a facial expression. Body language also sends messages (intended or not) to players. Arms crossed, head shaking side to side and a stern expression communicates a very different message than an open receptive stance, a nod of approval and a pleased smile.
Sport psychologists note that performers eagerly seek feedback so that they can make sense of their actions and so that they decipher their contribution and efficacy in play (Sullivan, P and Feltz, D.L.; 2003). In the context of team play, or tactical/technical skill choice a player attempt to make sense of their skill and tactical choices are supported and facilitated by the feedback of others, like the coach. In his book Creative Coaching (Human Kinetics, 2001), Jerry Lynch suggests that honest feedback should be fair and consistent, demonstrating care and concern with a clear message. When feedback is delivered in this manner it generates enthusiasm and buy in.
Feedback, when used well, is also a vital ingredient in motivating learning and in stimulating a player’s mental and social engagement with their team. Feedback connects players to the team’s purpose, reinforces actions and inspires effort. This supports and builds team cohesion and enthusiasm in play. When a team is engaged and uses positive feedback a special energy appears and teams are seen to “click” and “gel”.
Coaches should also be aware to manage provided feedback. For example, negative feedback is an all too often used “motivator”! Coaches should be aware of its power and negative feedbacks double-‐edged damage. Like all feedback negative feedback can motivate action. However, it just as quickly demotivates sustained effort, creating individual disengagement and it quickly erodes trust and team cohesion. In fact, negative feedback like harsh judgment, blame, put-‐downs, name-‐calling or sarcasm are classic roadblocks to effective communication and therefore performance. In the today’s modern game especially, negative feedback is not effective and doesn’t work! ( http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-‐and-‐fitness/fitness/angry-‐ coaches-‐beware-‐athletes-‐respond-‐poorly-‐to-‐negative-‐feedback-‐studies-‐find/article4687276/ ) Negative Feedback doesn’t have a place any longer and would not suggest using it despite your past experiences or bias under a “hard-‐nosed coach” who punished you and made you “better” twenty years ago.
So, effective feedback should be positive, frequent and it should be linkable to the actions players have made. By providing positive and meaningful feedback players are able to anchor and connect with the feedback and apply personal relevance to it.
Furthermore, players often report an emotional connection to their action when the coach’s feedback is positive, immediate and well-‐delivered. This motivates them to repeat the skill, action or behavior or to invest time into refining the action to get it right and derive more positive treatment.
Feedback should therefore be immediate when ever possible and provided directly to the players. As a hockey coach feedback commonly is found in a few environments, but isn’t limited to these locations. These are, the bench, the dressing room and on the ice. I would also encourage you to make use of notes, electronic social media, and the telephone to creatively praise athletes. By providing feedback players begin to act confidently and are able to easily accept constructive and corrective feedback.
Always make sure that the feedback provided is genuine and real. This can be done by linking to performance and effort demonstrated by players. For example, when asked, players easily decipher between what is genuine and false feedback...the “atta boys” that aren’t linked to anything falls on deaf ears and can actually disengage athletes and erode trust. So, make sure your feedback to players is always genuine and earned. Let players know they matter to you and the team, looking for ways to build confidence rather than pointing out the times they fail and the errors in their play. Remember, by providing positive feedback in this context you are giving players your permission to stretch themselve, instilling courage and giving them your endorsement to make mistakes.
I love the Positive Coaching Alliance’s ELM philosophy -‐ Effort, Learning, Mistakes – supporting this purpose will go a long way in developing highly performing teams. (See the http://positivecoach.org/)
Feedback takes on two basic forms. The most often observed is positive general feedback and the second is positive specific or positive corrective feedback. General feedback relates to a player’s effort, attitude and participation. General feedback is most effective when connected to a teams ethic or philosophy. It mustn’t be confused with overzealous (false) praise described above which is a dangerous deceiver and a detractor from performance and learning. Specific positive feedback is differentiated from general feedback in that it is linked to a specific technical or tactical skill and is used by coaches to teach or refine a skill or skill set. For example:
Coach (on ice at practice) ‐ “Nice effort Billy, lookin’ good!” [positive general feedback]
Player ‐ “Thanks Coach”
Coach – “Hey, Billy, when you are playing that 1vs.1, what can we do to get around a defenseman?” Player – “Hmmm?”
Coach – “What about using that inside out fake, we just practiced, in the last drill, you were doing so well with the cones; You’ll be able to get some space and more time to shoot.” [positive specific feedback]
Player – “Oh yeah, that’s cool...I’ll try it!”
Coach – “That’s the attitude I like !...keep workin hard!”[General positive feedback]
As opposed to:
Coach (on ice at practice) ‐ “Billy! Come here!”
Player ‐ “Oh no, now what coach?!”
Coach - “Billy, it’s a 1vs.1, you gotta beat that defenseman.”
Player - “??”
Coach - “We just did this in the last drill!
Player - “We did?”
Coach - “Come on, pay attention and start trying harder!”
Another useful tool coaches can use when gathering and providing useful feedback is the use of questions. By using questions the coach puts the player in the drivers seat. Questions require and request that players become active owners of their own skill development, learning and experience. When coaches use questions effectively rapid and transformational coaching is possible. In addition, when coaches question they get back valuable information about a players understanding of skill, tactical comprehension and physical literacy. This information is invaluable to the coach and informs a coach’s next stage of planning and teaching.
Effective use of the powerful tool of feedback will assist coaches and players throughout the season. In times of great challenge the room will remain a location of trust and mutual cooperation. With confident, courageous, respectful and persistent players the coach will never “loose the room” and the team will become one that everyone can be proud of.