Lately I’ve had a trend show up in the work I do with clients. It shows up in different ways and often times out of frustration and confusion between athlete and coach. The issue is poor communication. At first, I was frustrated myself. How can so many people have such a critical element so messed up? Then I realized, this is a common theme in so many areas of life. Family and personal relationships, work environments, casual interactions in public, they all are ripe with miscommunication infused with assumptions and other sorts of negative thinking interference. The reality is, communication is a difficult skill to master, and one that requires constant work. Picking the right strategy is also complicated based on various factors. In sport, the pressures of competition can make things even more difficult.
To begin with, there are several factors that cause difficulty in communication in within sport. To me, the most obvious is connected to the differences in positions of power. Because not everyone has the same “rank”, there tend to be unwritten rules about what we are and are not allowed to say. In a related fashion, because of our awareness of our inequality, we often times find ourselves in a state of worry or fear about how others will perceive what we are saying. For example, the person with less power may worry that speaking up may cost them an opportunity, while those with more power may worry that what is said will be taken the wrong way. Conversely, some people either lack awareness, or just don’t care, and then blurt out their emotions leaving damaged relationships. In either case, many people I work with come in the door with “damage” because of previous bad experiences that now leave them scarred. The outcome is often times coaches and athletes who now feel “trapped” inside themselves, and as a result unable to compete at their best. Clearly, this is not the place athletes and coaches want to be. And to continue to outline specific examples would likely leave you feeling hopeless. Instead, I think it might serve better to give attention to “why” having better communication skills benefits all involved.
Perhaps the most critical benefit working on communication is that it builds trust between athletes and coaches, and secondarily with the support groups who surround both. Without trust, communication is dicey. But by implementing specific patterns and techniques, athletes and coaches learn to value one another beyond their physical skills and position responsibilities. Instead, they develop the ability to rely on one another in good and bad moments. Each becomes a resource for the other.
This leads to what I consider the second benefit, creating an open atmosphere where all can learn and grow. Poor communication closes doors and minds, and this is catastrophic in sport where adjustment and evolution are critical to staying competitive. But improving and maintaining good communication patterns allows coaches to learn from athletes as data points about what is happening in the field of play. Coaches are able take what they learn about how players are thinking and feeling and mix this with their own knowledge of the game to make in-the-moment decisions. And athletes obviously benefit by becoming open to gaining new and valuable knowledge from one another and coaches.
By building this cooperative culture, communication then becomes a tool for the instances of adversity that will undoubtedly show up. If poor communication has been the standard, difficulty will highlight how bad the communication pattern really is, and expose the team to fracturing and poor play. But teams who have practiced and developed solid communication will have the ability to address things as they are, developing a common knowledge of why things have gone wrong, but more importantly also have the tools to work to make it better. In essence, difficuilt moments become challenges that allow a team to grow and improve.
The task at this point is to be able to work through the awkwardness of learning to communicate effectively. I feel there are three foundational strategies that promote the good outlined above, and become the bedrock for developing even more complicated communication skills as needed down the road.
The first strategy is to purposefully have honest acknowledgements. This can be done as a routine practice, or one that you intentionally work on to infuse into practice and competition. Personally, I prefer the routine approach. As with physical skills, mental skills can be practiced purposefully so as to make them habits. Two methods can be applied here. First, use the first 10 minutes of the practice following competition to have coaches and athletes give recognition of one another. Specifically identify what was done well, why it was good, and who did it well. And you will likely find this puts a little energy into the rest of practice. The second approach is to use the time at the end of practice as a coach and not the progresses that have been made. The focus can be on something specific for the day, or things they team/individual has become better at over the season. In either approach, be honest and sincere (sarcasm is just a shady version of being mean). By focusing on the positive, you are building an account you can draw on later when difficult things really need to be addressed.
Another core strategy for learning and building effective communication is to ask for opinions. This includes being open to opinions that are different than your own. Clearly, when others voice a view that agrees with our own perspective, we experience validation. But being open to differences of opinion can benefit us in two ways. First, we acknowledge the value of the other person (see previous paragraph). Second, we give ourselves the opportunity to grow and learn, rather than believing the false narrative that we already know all that needs knowing. Both outcomes allow for greater clarity, as well as an increase in knowledge and understanding that will make us better at planning and in being prepared for unexpected situations in the future.
The third foundation skill for learning to communicate is to clarify responsibilities. While this may seem like a given, too often I encounter people who are upset because they had assumptions about everyone else understanding their role and duties. By deliberately communicating role responsibility, everyone involved has clarity over who has the power of decision. By incorporating opinions (above), the leader in charge can validate other’s, expand their understanding, and increase the likelihood of making a good decision. Additionally, being clear about who will accept responsibility for outcomes, there is an increase in commitment to role responsibility. Following the chain of command also means understanding that the head of the snake eats first in the victory of battle, but also gets chopped off first when it goes bad. Clear communication of roles and responsibilities increases buy-in, as well as the likelihood of success.
Learning to communicate in sport is essential. Doing so is not a one time effort. This takes practice, commitment, and willingness. Along the way you will experience discomfort, make mistakes, and get better. All are a part of the process. And by continually working on the skill, you will find an increase in your “toughness”. Because as we get better at communicating, we become better at understanding and listening while improving our approach. In the end, everyone involved benefits. Should you find yourself needing more help in this area, why wait? Make the call, bring in an expert.