In Coaching: Good/Bad/Unfair, Peak Performance Strategies, Problems in Youth Sports, Winning/Losing

The wonderful world of EXPECTATIONS and GOALS. It’s the start of a new year and with that, along with their New Year’s resolutions, many athletes begin to set goals for the upcoming season: “I’m going to finally make the varsity.” “I’m going to nail down that college scholarship.” I’m going to score double figures every game.” “I’m going to break 5:00 in the mile.” “I’m going to bat at least .350.” “I’m going to set the pool and Conference records!” Expectations, dreams, goals, call them what you may. They are another one of the athlete’s double-edged swords. When you know how to properly use your goals and expectations, they can help you cut through obstacles, overcome blocks, motivate yourself to get back up after falling and, ultimately, carve your athletic dream into a wonderful reality.

However, when you misuse goals and expectations, when you bring them out at the wrong time, they can physically and mentally tie you so tightly in knots that you will consistently choke under pressure and perform way below your potential. Athletes who misuse their goals continually experience frustration when they compete because they just can’t seem to execute the way that they’re capable.

Furthermore, the pressure that they experience right before and during competition makes it impossible for them to relax and have fun. Without the ability to feel loose and enjoy themselves, these athletes are more prone to performance slumps, fears, blocks and failure. If reaching your dream as an athlete is vitally important to you, if you want your son or daughter to really enjoy their sports experience and be as successful as possible, if you, as a coach want your athletes to come through in the clutch and consistently perform like champions, then it is critically important for you to understand the “A, B, C’s” of goals and expectations. In this blog series, we will explore how to use your expectations to motivate you to take your training to the next level without it interfering with your performance in competition. So far we’ve discussed the do’s and don’ts for the athlete and for the parent. Today we will address the coach.


“Communicate your expectations clearly to your athletes.”

Just how clear are you with your athletes? Do they know where you really stand? Do they know exactly what you want from them? Are you an effective communicator?

These are important questions for you to ponder if you want to be successful in reaching and positively affecting your athletes. Without the ability to clearly communicate, what you know and want your athletes to learn will not get across. Communication is such a basic, commonsensical issue that most coaches pay it little direct attention. Everyone seems to take it for granted and would agree that you have to be a great communicator to be a great coach and teacher. This is so obvious a statement that it’s almost embarrassing. However, listening to the hundreds and hundreds of athletes that I come in contact with every year, you’d get the impression that coach-to-athlete communication was as complex and difficult to grasp as advanced rocket science and that very few coaches did it well. Let’s listen in:

“My coach hates me! He like doesn’t pay attention to me in practice unless he’s yelling at me for something I did wrong! The really frustrating thing for me in practice is that all he does is tell me what I’m doing wrong. He never once tells me what I need to do to change it! I mean, what’s with that! And the thing that really gets me is that the minute I make a mistake in a game he just yanks me! I know I’m not supposed to screw up, but how the heck am I going to learn to correct what I’m doing wrong if I get taken out every time I mess up? What really bugs me more than being taken out is that when I come to the bench he doesn’t even look at me and doesn’t say a word to me. I feel totally invisible and worthless. He must hate me. Why else would he just ignore me like that? You know, sometimes when he pulls me out I don’t even know why and to me it seems like I was doing fine. When he won’t talk to me it leaves me completely confused and like REALLY pissed off at him! For Pete’s sake at least talk to me! Say something!”

“I’ll tell you what I really can’t stand! If I have a bad race, he does one or two things. He either totally ignores me or gives me this look that just makes me feel awful. I ask him how he thinks I did and this is all I get. He’s so disappointed in me and I know he’s angry but he won’t ever say anything. It makes me feel like crap and I know it affects my other races. Why can’t he just tell me what he thinks? Why can’t he be normal and at least let me know what I did wrong? He never does that. Oh, sorry! I forgot. He does sometimes yell at me after a bad swim and tell me that I swam like a snail. I always find that most useful! You know the funny thing. I know it’s not just me. He does the same stuff with Jenny and Abby. I’ve even seen him do it with some of the guys. They think he’s just a jerk but still, I can’t get away from feeling terrible about myself.”

I think the real problem arises because many coaches are not aware of how and what they are communicating with their athletes. For example, the coach will have it in his head what he wants from his athletes in terms of effort, attitude, attendance, compliance with team rules, etc. but will not make his expectations explicitly clear with the players. Before, during and after competitions, the coach will not communicate enough with his players. He won’t be clear enough with his during and after-performance feedback and will therefore leave the athlete guessing as to what’s really going on in the coach’s head and what the coach really thinks and feels about him.

In this, many coaches fail to grasp one of the underlying principles in communications: YOU CAN’T NOT COMMUNICATE. That is, in everything you say or don’t say, in your voice tone, volume and speech tempo, in your body language and posture, you are always communicating. When you deliberately or accidentally ignore a player you are communicating. When you casually make a joke you are communicating, and in all of this you are communicating most powerfully. In fact, the words that you use in your messages convey only ten percent of the real meaning of your actual communication. Thirty percent of your message is conveyed in voice volume, tone and tempo and the remaining sixty percent, by far the bulk of your message is conveyed in unconscious, non-verbal factors like facial expression, posture, and eye movement. When we communicate with anyone, it’s always the non-verbal component and unconscious factors that really convey the true meaning. This lends more meaning to why the expression, “talk is cheap” is so true.

It’s because of this communication axiom, “YOU CAN’T NOT COMMUNICATE” and the power of non-verbal expression to convey meaning that coaches really need to develop an acute awareness of how and what they communicate. Having such an awareness will make you a better, more effective communicator. Being a more effective communicator will make you a better teacher and ultimately, a far more successful coach. This is really the heart of your job as a coach. It is NOT your knowledge of the game or vast experience. It is not the brilliance of your X’s and O’s that will ultimately make you successful. It is NOT your grasp of motivational techniques. Coaching is all about successfully conveying what you know to the athlete. If you do not have an effective vehicle for this conveyance, what you know and all your experience is virtually worthless.

Along with this, it’s important for you to keep in mind a second principle of effective communication: THE TRUE MEANING OF ANY COMMUNICATION IS THE RESPONSE IT GETS. In other words, it’s not your intentions or meaning that is important when you are interacting with an athlete. It is instead how that athlete hears what you’re saying and then responds. In this way, your words and non-verbals are like a foreign language to the athlete. You say something to him and then he automatically interprets your message through his own emotional filters to arrive at the “true” meaning that he experiences. Your intention may be a constructive, positive and noble one. However, he may walk away feeling demeaned and put-down by you. In communication terms, which one is the “real” message? Simple! His! The true meaning of any communication is the response it gets. This puts the total responsibility for communication on your shoulders in a way that goes beyond the obvious.

Yes, of course you are the coach and it’s your job to teach and communicate with the athlete. However, what this really entails is not only that you pay very close attention to what you say and how you say it, but also and much more important, that you take the time and energy to notice the response that your communication elicits. This means that communication is not just a one shot deal. You say what you have to say and everyone lives happily ever after. This only happens in fairy tales. In the real world you have to continuously check out and verify if your message was received in the exact way that you intended it to be. This means that you have to not only ask the athlete to tell you what she heard you say, but you have to then carefully watch her behavior afterwards to be sure that she has truly gotten your message. Making this extra effort to be sure that what you said was heard as intended is absolutely critical to effective communication, especially with adolescents! Without doing this your message will rarely get across and you’ll feel continually misunderstood and confused by your athletes’ responses to you.

Speaking of adolescents and communication: How often do you stop to think that almost each and every one of your athletes is continually looking to you for your approval, respect and acceptance? They are hypersensitive to your moods and will frequently be self-referential in trying to explain these moods to themselves. That is, if midway through practice they begin to experience you as angry or disappointed, many will begin to feel responsible, as if they have had a direct role that led you to your bad mood. If they don’t feel directly responsible, they will certainly begin to use their imaginations to try to figure out what’s going on for you.

In this way you are in a position of unbelievable power with your athletes. What you say and do, and how you say and do it can make or break an athlete’s day or week, not to mention dramatically affect her performances on and off the playing field. In fact, saying absolutely nothing to an athlete during practice or competition will have the same powerful effect. Obviously this is truer if you’re working with high school aged athletes and younger than if you’re coaching in the college ranks. However, even the vast majority of college athletes are just as sensitive to and similarly affected by your communication style and moods.

Sometimes coaches forget that most of the young athletes they work with are just that, young and immature. Even college-aged athletes are not neurologically and emotionally adults yet, despite the fact that they may be inside an adult body and look like an adult. As a consequence of their immaturity, the athletes you work with are quite impressionable and sensitive. Harsh words from you need to be chosen and timed wisely for the proper effect. The very best thing that you can do for your athletes is to be clear and direct with them. Take the time to explain yourself. Make your expectations of them crystal clear. Be patient and willing to repeat your message over and over because this is what coaching really is anyway, repetition. Treat your athletes with compassion and respect. Be honest with them. Take the time to be sure that the message that they received is the one that you intended. Finally, be aware of all the different ways that you are always communicating with your athletes. Don’t make the mistake that far too many coaches do. Don’t be an unconscious communicator. Be aware of the many different ways that you “speak” to your athletes and be sure that what you are saying both verbally and non-verbally is exactly what you intended. Taking the time and energy to insure that you communicate clearly with your athletes will pay off both in practice and competition. Making a sincere effort to reach your athletes will not be lost on them and will have a significant positive impact on their life.




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