Judge a coach not based on what he knows, but his ability to communicate effectively and ask the right questions.
A few years ago, as a young coach and teacher, there were a few pieces of advice that I got from multiple men and women I worked for. A few phrases that kept coming up
1. Don’t be their friend.
2. Don’t smile until Thanksgiving.
Being a young coach/teacher and having little experience in both settings, I tried to take that advice. Not only is it bad advice for my personality, it’s terrible if you are wanting to build trust within any relationship. If we can’t build trust, we have nothing to stand on, we have no common ground, and we will not get the best out of each player. It took me too long to realize this and the moment I stopped worrying about those two things, my life changed.
Speaking of Coach K. In his first meeting when he became the head coach for USA Basketball, he said there were only two standards that matter.
Look at each other in the eye when you talk.
Always tell the truth.
Coach K believed these two standards when working together build trust, and that trust is the cornerstone of all exceptional teams
Communication and its role in coaching
A few years ago, I started AOTC podcast, and with that, I get to interview some of the greatest baseball coaches around the world. I love being able to share, steal, and collaborate on ideas but there is another massive benefit to running a podcast. Editing. No, that’s not the benefit, but that is something we all must do to make the audio sound better. We must go through the conversation and decide what needs to stay, be cut, shortened down, turn it into quotes, etc. I absolutely hate doing this, but after spending a few hours on each podcast, I got tired of listening to myself! We all hate the sound of our voice; it’s not that bad I promise. However, my deliverance on questions was average at best, I used filler worlds (umm being a big one) and there was not much of a flow to the conversation. I tell you all of this because it caused me to consciously think about how I was speaking to other people and how I was speaking to our team. If I had a hard time listening to myself, wouldn’t they? So why is this important?
There is little doubt that communication is the most important aspect of being a great coach. Are there many different forms of this? Absolutely! This can include being a good storyteller, changes in cadence to draw them in, tone (Loud/soft), pausing can all help. Coaches usually speak quite a bit, so how can we make it mean more, and how can we say more with less? Here is some advice on some things to work on, and believe me I know all too well because I’m continuing to work on these daily.
Tell the truth
Telling the truth in a productive way is something that I have had to learn to do the last few years and it has been extremely beneficial. What does the player want? To feel accepted (which is a big part of culture), to get better, and to get more playing time. What does the coach want? The same things. Early in my career, I wanted to sugar coat things. Mainly because I love our players and I knew too well the feeling of constantly being put down as a player. Neither are effective strategies if we want the player to get better. If we want them to trust us, we must tell them the truth. Think about it in your own life, we are most brutally honest with the people we are the closest with, family and friends. For me, this always toes the line between truth and grace. This is always something we want to keep in mind and research shows that the ratio of positive to negative comments for productive output is 5–1!
I recently read this article over the Mariners telling the truth and I absolutely it. It has some great ideas with it and worth your time.
Truth without grace is mean. Grace without truth is meaningless.
Truthful conversations are not only helpful for the player and but they help us lead them in a direction that most benefits the player and the team. Do your best not to blindside the player whenever you need to have a conversation like this. They’re never easy but they are needed if we’re “coaching” and not just giving feedback.
This is another aspect of communication that we must learn. How well are we listening to the player? There are times I am caught up in practice coming up with an answer to their question, rather than truly listening to them. There are times that they will be able to figure it out themselves, and that’s what we want! It also shows a level of truth when players know that they can come to us and not be criticized or judged based on what they say. Listening may be the most important part of communication.
Asking the right questions
If I listen to how a coach asks questions, I can tell you immediately how good of a teacher/coach they are. We have all had conversations with coaches who make it one sided and about them. They do all the talking and we are sitting there listening wondering when they’re going to stop. Think about how our players feel if we are doing that to them? Asking good questions is a large part listening. And with players, it’s a large part leading them to the right answer. We as coaches are part time psychologist, and this is a great opportunity for us to help them own their career by helping them to find the answer on their own. If we can do that, they’ve owned it, which will not only make it more memorable it will help buy in because they’ll feel like they came up with it on their own. The coach that can ask the right questions to their players is going to get the most out of their players.
Here’s a few thought-provoking questions to ask your players in the midst of practice.
- Do you agree/disagree? Why?
- What do you feel? Different from before? Where?
- Are those your words or mine? (When they are explaining something)
- What do you think? (Then let them try it)
- What solutions do you think would help with that?
- How/why, did you decide to start doing that?
This is another area where I’m consistently working on. How can I say more, with less complex words and terms? How can I meet the player where they’re at and help influence them in the simplest, most concise language? We will work with players from all differing backgrounds and education levels and it’s our job to be able to connect with them. We can use fancy words we found in medical journals with some but most may not know or care what perception and action coupling is, or the thought process behind the Bernstein theory, or what kinesthetic awareness is. They just want to get better. It’s our job to be able to understand these things, and explain it in a way that makes sense to the player.
“Every morning the coaching staff and I would meet for breakfast and discuss the fine points of the practice plan, as well as the latest scouting reports. That allowed us to share information with one another and make sure we were all on the same page in terms of day-to-day strategy. Each coach had a high level of autonomy, but when we talked to the players, we spoke as one.”
- Phil Jackson in his book 11 rings
Consistency is a big one. We want to have clear expectations on what the player needs to do and not do in the program. There will be exceptions but usually if a player understands completely what is being asked of him/her, then they’ll do their best to accomplish this for the coaching staff. We also don’t want there to be any confusion on what is important to the coaching staff, and have members of the staff telling players different things. If we want to make lasting behavioral changes, then we must be consistent about the behavior we want to see. To do this, let them know when they do something wrong. Also, praise the behavior when we see them doing the right thing. Behavior is learned. We are either coaching it or allowing it to happen.
Practical quick hitters
Treat them as equals not employees.
- They are the ones hitting, throwing and fielding. They win the games, not us. It’s also their career. We will be the final decision maker, but let’s work hard with them.
Never leave on bad terms
- If you get on to a player, always debrief as to why before they go. Try not to leave on bad terms as often as possible.
- We get onto our players for this. So, are we modeling it?
No absolutes…. yet
- This goes back to telling the truth. Give them examples of things they can work on and why. Don’t tell them what they need to fix without some practical application. In addition, don’t talk in absolutes and put them into boxes where they won’t work to get out of. Try to end the conversation with… yet. “You can’t drive the ball to the opposite field, yet.”
Being a good story teller
- If we want them to listen to us intently, this can help immensely. Changes in cadence (fast or slow), tone (loud of soft), consistent eye contact with everyone and pausing to draw them in can all be helpful.
Speak their language
- At-least be attune to what each generation uses as vernacular. For this one, be familiar with “bet”, “No cap” and “I’m dead”. They’re all great ones to break out on occasion if you need a laugh.
Stop using your buzzwords
- I’ve started to ask my players “are those my words or yours” and if they only use ours, do they own it or are they just spouting back info at us trying to appease us? Try to go a day without using words you use all the time, it’s hard but it helps expand our vocabulary immensely and it may help connect some dots for the players.
- Don’t be afraid to talk with players about playing time. Especially if they ask in the right time and place. Be specific with feedback; give them some things to work on. It’s also a great exercise to do this with players who are in part time roles. Tell them why, tell them you see them working hard (or that they aren’t) and they will get opportunities. We will need every player on our bench in a critical part of the game to make a play, we need to him or her to be ready and motivated for this. Having open lines of communication is a great way to make sure they know their role and they are prepared.
Praise your coaches often
- Tom Rath and Donald Clifton found that when leaders made a habit of praising their staff, it increased productivity and engagement with colleagues, improved loyalty, and led people to stay in their jobs longer. (cite)
I’m a firm believer that the best coaches are the best communicators. Having a growth mindset is another one that you could argue could be #1 as well as having emotional intelligence. However, no matter if you have been a coach for 3 years or 30, communication that is more effective is something we can work on. There are many aspects of being a good coach. The hope is that this article challenged you to pick a few things to work on and it gave you the why behind it. Have a growth mindset and consistently be working on ways we can better relate and communicate to all the players on our team. After all, we’re all in it together.
Have a great week