If we are strong, our strength will speak for itself. If we are weak, words will be of no help.
– John F. Kennedy
I believe coaching to be synonymous with communicating. If you aspire to be a great coach, then you better be a great communicator…period. Without this skill set, messages are destined to be misinterpreted and misunderstood. Not being on the same wavelength with your athletes will most certainly result in sub-optimal physical performance, but also severely hamstring any chance of establishing a solid coach / athlete trust relationship.
In future blog posts, I’ll spend some time writing about aspects of verbal communication and coaching feedback, but for now I’ll turn your attention to non-verbal communication. Non-verbal communication is something most of us have habit of looking for and recognizing in our athletes. We sense that an athlete is probably having a bad day when they walk through the doors with slumped shoulders, and eye focus locked two inches in front of each painfully-slow step. Additionally, if you are anything like me, then you know that an athlete continually rolling his eyes at your instruction and feedback is a pretty good indicator that he is about to be kicked out of the training session (half kidding). However, the majority of us are probably guilty of being relatively unaware of the non-verbal messages WE send to athletes.
Some researchers estimate that non-verbal cues represent approximately 70% of all communication. That exact number is probably largely situational, but it is clear to see the power of non-verbal communication when you understand that the way athletes perceive what we say often depends on the facial expressions that accompanies our words. Imagine getting the Coach Cowher scowl (above) while being told how great your effort was. With that look, there’s no amount of sugar coating that would allow his words to be perceived as positive or encouraging.
Non-verbal communication can be separated into 8 main categories, all of which send strong messages of approval, disapproval, frustration, mood, anger, disbelief, alertness, etc. Here is a quick rundown and some examples related to athletic development coaching (think about the messaging of each as you read through them.)
- Facial Expressions: smiles, eye rolling, scowls, raised eyebrows, wincing.
- Gestures: hand gestures to signify movement, clapping, head nod, fist pump, thumbs up, yawning.
- Body Language: posture, sitting, leaning against wall, arms crossed, hands in pockets, pacing.
- Proximity: moving away or towards an athlete, standing close or far way from athlete.
- Paralinguistic: how things are said – tone, pitch, volume, clarity.
- Eye Gaze: steady eye contact, avoiding eye contact, blinking, glancing, darting, glaring.
- Physical Contact: handshake, high five, shoulder squeeze, light arm touch, manual adjustment, palpation.
- Clothing & Appearance: clean, neat, wrinkled, tucked shirt, untucked shirt, matching, groomed.
Some of these non-verbal cues can be used to your advantage and some will detract from your coaching objectives, but the first step is to become aware of them. In order to get a better idea of the way athletes perceive your actions and other non-verbal cues, try the following;
- Have someone film your next training session, then play it back and carefully monitor the non-verbal communication methods you use. Build a chart of the examples and categories above, and mark each instance in the appropriate action or cue. Also take note of whether they seemed constructive or detrimental to the athlete’s experience. The first time I did this; there were a handful of things that I was completely unaware of. To this day, I am still consciously force myself to speak clearly and project my voice.
- Coach a training session in total silence. You may want to start with just a part of the session. A “silent” warm-up is a good way to get your feet wet, but the real challenge is leading an entire session without saying a word. This includes the athletes; they aren’t allowed to say anything either. You’ll be amazed at how much can be communicated by using facial expressions, gestures, and physical contact.
As I realized after watching a playback of myself back in graduate school, non-verbal cues convey messages whether you know it or not. Here are a few tips to use them in order to become a more effective communicator:
1. Match Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication
Don’t send mixed messages.
2. Maintain Eye Contact
Show confidence and attentiveness.
3. Use Positive Body Language
Have open and engaging posture. Sitting or leaning can be seen as a lack of interest and just plain lazy.
This is the easiest and best way to communicate that you enjoy coaching and spending time with your athletes.
5. Look the Part
Demand respect and establish credibility by showing attention to detail with your coaching uniform.