Communication is perhaps the most important skill you can possess. It can make or break your relationships, friendships, and partnerships — and it’s the difference between your team reaching their potential or not.
Billionaire businessman Richard Branson says “Communication is a skill that you can learn. It’s like riding a bicycle or typing. If you’re willing to work at it, you can rapidly improve the quality of every part of your life.”
Proper communication requires more than you conveying the right message in the right way. It requires being interpreted in the way you intended it. If your message is taken the wrong way or interpreted differently, there will be a breakdown in communication that slowly poisons the trust built between you.
Being able to communicate effectively can be a difference maker when it comes to selling your athletes, parents, staff, administrators or other stakeholders on your vision, strategy, or plans.
There are a number of obstacles that get in the way of healthy communication. Here are nine of the most common barriers to a coach communicating effectively:
- Different Perspectives
- Lack of Connection
- Not Listening
How complex is your playbook? How clear are you about the rotations on drills in practice? If your athletes are confused about how to rotate, they can’t focus on the purpose of the drill.
What about your instructions to athletes? Are they geared toward the smartest athletes or everyone? Do you have different sets of rules or expectations? Think through these questions and learn from other coaches and mentors.
Be as clear and concise as possible so that you minimize any confusion. When you’re unclear about your expectations or instructions, your athletes will struggle to comprehend the situation. Just because it’s clear to you doesn’t mean it’s clear to your athletes. Remember, it’s not about what you know, it’s about what your athletes know.
Not understanding someone else’s point of view is one of the biggest obstacles when communicating. In the book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey says to “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
One of the best ways to bridge gaps, find common ground, and motivate your athletes is to know what makes them tick. How do they think? What’s important to them? If you don’t know those kinds of things, you can’t inspire your people.
When you fail to walk in another person’s shoes and see their perspective, you make healthy and respectful communication more difficult. You may not see eye-to-eye with them, but you need to fully understand where they’re coming from.
You think differently than your athletes, their parents, and your administrators, so it’s important to understand them if you want to move forward.
Coaches assume things all the time. You assume that your athletes know things that they don’t. You assume they understand what you’re saying. You assume they are on the same page as you. You assume that they’re as committed to improvement, success, and the team as you are. In fact, you may even assume that they’re as committed as you were as an athlete.
Assuming athletes want or think certain ways can be a huge obstacle to communication, and ultimately the health of a program.
Lack of Connection
If athletes are going to buy into your vision, they need to know, like, and trust you. This doesn’t occur unless they respect you. This respect typically comes as a result of connecting.
“Tough love” is a phrase that gets thrown around quite a bit. However, coaches often forget about the love part. Your athletes have to know that you love them. It’s not enough to say it — you have to live it out. If you want to give tough love, then you better have a strong bond.
You have to constantly connect with your athletes on a personal level. They need to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you love them. You have to connect with them to the point that they KNOW you care about them. The more they know you’re concerned about them as people and not just athletes, the more likely you are to develop a bond with them. This trusting and respectful communication creates a stronger culture.
As a coach, you’re the smartest person in your locker room. You’re the smartest person in the gym or stadium. You know more than the young people you coach. You’re the expert on your team. You’re right more than you’re wrong. You’re right — but it comes at great cost.
Great teams require concessions from everyone. It’s not a coach vs. athlete, coach vs. administrator, or coach vs. parent thing. Be proactive in creating a win-win environment. It’s not about you getting your way. It’s not about you being right. It’s not about who gets the credit or the blame. It’s about moving forward so we all can experience success.
Miles Kington once said, “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, but wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.” As coaches, you have a tremendous amount of knowledge but that doesn’t mean you’re always wise. It’s not about what you know. It’s not about how smart you are. It’s about what your athletes know. It’s about what they can do. If they lose respect for you or feel intimidated by you, you’ll have a hard time inspiring them.
When you talk, you’re only repeating what you already know. You aren’t learning anything new. Stephen Covey says, “Most of us listen with the intent to reply rather than the intent to understand.”
Not only is listening a form of respect and can serve to build trust with the people around you, but it’s also a great way to learn, grow, and develop yourself. Everybody we’re around has something to offer if we pay attention and listen. Learn to listen and listen to learn.
Athletes will struggle to listen to you if you’re always negative. They will lose respect for you. When you’re constantly beating someone down mentally, pointing out their flaws, or withholding praise, you breed complacency, fear, and a general lack of motivation.
Some coaches rarely provide positive comments to their athletes. Most coaches will refute this. When they’re confronted about being negative, they’ll defend themselves and point out the times they’ve been positive. However, it’s not what you can defend. It’s what the perception is. You’re not in the middle of a logical debate class with counterpoint arguments.
Instead, you’re dealing with athletes (or parents) who have feelings, emotions, and pride. If they believe that you’re negative, then that will be their reality. If this is the perception, then your words of praise, instruction, or constructive criticism will often fall on deaf ears.
The bottom line, however, is to catch your athletes being good. There is a time for constructive criticism, but you’ll ultimately get more out of your athletes if they’re inspired instead of irritated or demoralized.
Adults have a hard time staying focused — your athletes are even worse. They have extremely short attention spans. Ironically, coaches seem to forget this too often. There are so many things that can distract your athletes from comprehending your message.
The background music is too loud, the temperature is too extreme, they’re tired or hurt, their friend is waving to them, the trainer is handing out water, the assistant coaches are talking about the last play, they just got robbed by an official’s bad call, they’re arguing or talking with a teammate. You get the picture.
Be aware of possible distractions. You will never eliminate them all but find ways to minimize them. If your athlete is distracted, they won’t be an active participant in the communication. If you have a distracted athlete, your message won’t be received.
Think about how many times you’ve had an argument with someone and your words got tangled up because you were speaking too fast and your brain couldn’t keep up. When emotion is involved, there’s a good chance that someone will struggle with either interpreting the message or clearly articulating a message.
Emotions cloud communication. Emotions cause people to get defensive or act in ways that are not logical. Using emotion strategically can work, but only if you’ve given it careful thought. Most of the time, emotions don’t produce productive long-term results.
Buying what you’re selling
When you communicate with others, remember that they might not be on the same page as you are. Be as clear, positive, relevant, and productive as you can with your communication.
You’re a salesperson. You might not be the classic used car salesman or door-to-door salesman, but you’re selling something. Your philosophy, your playbook, your vision, and your ideas.
You have a great opportunity and responsibility. But this doesn’t work if people aren’t buying what you’re selling.
Jamy Bechler is the author of four books including The Captain and The Bus Trip. He is also the host of the Success is a Choice Podcast, a professional speaker, and trains organizations on creating championship cultures. Bechler spent 20 years as a college basketball coach and administrator and now works with high-level businesses and teams, including the NBA. He started TheLeadershipPlaybook.com membership community and resource center to help athletes become better teammates and more positive leaders while strengthening the culture of teams and athletic departments. Follow him on twitter at @CoachBechler or contact him at speaking@CoachBechler.com.