Unfortunately, academia hasn’t caught up with the human element in coaching yet.
Coaches are simply not going to learn ideal communication skills on their way through the typical school curriculum.
As a consequence, you’re going to need something more than what’s found in the classroom to help you fill out your coaching toolbox when it comes to communicating with your athletes.
To that end, here is a list of my top five communication skills that are often overlooked, underappreciated, and underutilized when coaching athletes:
1. Social awareness
2. Emotional intelligence
4. Eye contact
5. Active listening
Let’s take a moment to break down each one to learn the why behind the what.
I always revert to an acronym I came across years ago when thinking about social awareness: KYP.
Know. Your. Personnel.
What does this mean?
Know the person in front of you. Who is that person? What is his or her background? What about injury history? Exercise likes and dislikes? What has worked and what hasn’t worked for this individual in the past with respect to training? What drives him or her to get the wheels in motion?
These are questions that constantly circle through my mind when training one of my athletes. Am I making myself aware of these things, and am I making a conscious effort to empathize?
Social awareness is about truly understanding the person behind the athlete within the training environment. This isn’t a skill born overnight, and certainly takes quality time to develop. However, increasing your social awareness will allow you to better understand each individual you work with.
Isn’t the goal of a coach to better understand people? Aren’t they looking to us for coaching guidance, support, and feedback?
The obvious answer to these questions is yes.
If we all agree, then, shouldn’t we want to understand them as best we can so we can ensure their training success?
There will be unique entry points for each individual athlete from a social standpoint. You’re the coach, so it’s your job to figure out the best point of entry each time around.
Social awareness means picking up on every little detail about that person and their behavior so you can demonstrate compassion and empathy as you guide them on their training journey.
Most coaches will read this and roll their eyes like I’ve lost it.
But trust me―emotions are important.
Before I tell you, I want you to stop what you’re doing. Now close your eyes and think about a moment in the past when you were coaching one of your athletes. Actually picture it precisely.
Can you notice the small details of your surroundings, what time of day it is, what you and your athlete are discussing, and things of that nature?
Good, now continue thinking.
Did you come across a moment when you smiled with joy, laughed so much it hurt your abs, brought it in for a high-five, or put your arm around their shoulder when they appeared to doubt their ability?
I would imagine that most, if not every single person reading this, can relate.
The best part is that all these moments represent an emotion. You’ve been using emotion in your coaching all along. And you likely did it, however unconsciously, because you cared.
Now I want you to do it consciously so your ability to demonstrate emotional intelligence as a coach will be amplified.
Emotional intelligence is quite simple when you look at its parts.
Combining emotion with intelligence just refers to your ability as a coach to sync your emotions to the emotions of your athlete in the training environment in order to make the best possible decisions. In doing so, you will be able to better manage all emotion and adapt to and support each athlete toward achieving his or her individual goals.
Why does this word belong in the coaching vocabulary?
Before I answer that question, think about your answer to the following one…
Aren’t your athletes vulnerable when they come into the weight room?
If you believe this to be true, then you understand that most athletes are relatively new to this environment and typically lack the knowledge and experience that you have when it comes to training.
In essence, the athlete likely feels as if he or she were in outer space, because the training environment is a complete unknown. They really don’t know what to expect, and probably are timid, shy, and in some cases nervous.
To guide your athletes toward achieving training success, then, you must meet them on their own ground by also demonstrating a certain vulnerability.
This makes it easier for them to feel more at ease and comfortable in this new environment, while also enabling them to put a higher degree of trust in you as the coach. With that will undoubtedly come more buy-in to the overall training process and a greater level of patience as you do your coaching work.
A big part of being vulnerable as a coach is being relatable to your athletes. You want to show them that you are, in fact, just like them. You both go through hardships in the training process, ups and downs, and even experience moments of doubt.
When you check off all these boxes toward being vulnerable and relatable, it will place you in a position not only to talk the talk as their coach but also walk the walk—and use that experience to create open discussion and talking points.
Go to Google and type in: “Coach K.”
Look up any image of Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) coaching one of his basketball players. You’re sure to find an image of him making direct eye contact with his athlete.
Now go ahead and type in: “club bouncer.” You’ll probably see images of a guy with his arms crossed in front of his chest, wearing both a pair of shades and a blank stare on his face.
Which person would you rather work with if you were an athlete looking for a coach?
I’m not a betting man, but I would put my money on Coach K every single time.
Let’s compare and contrast.
Coach K, and all great coaches, possess the ability to make direct eye contact with their athletes. You could say that a typical club bouncer makes direct eye contact from time to time as well, and you wouldn’t be wrong.
However, making eye contact as a coach means focusing on helping the person you’re looking at become a better overall version of themselves. That’s what Coach K does. That’s what YOU can do too.
- Make direct eye contact in a way that shows you care about the goals of your athlete. In other words, skip the eye roll or look off to the side like you’re too busy to notice what your athlete is up to.
- Utilize body language that allows your athletes to trust you and feel comfortable asking you a question. You don’t want them to get the impression they’re always bothering you.
- Meet them at their level with an empathetic, open line of communication so they don’t feel judged or embarrassed when they don’t get something right or they make a mistake.
My theory is that everything begins with eye contact. I’m not suggesting you have a staring contest with your athletes. If your mind is wandering there, then you’re simply missing the point. I’m saying that direct eye contact builds trust. With trust we know we also get buy-in.
So be more like Coach K. His track record speaks for itself, and in time yours will too.
Critical thinking is something every coach must engage in, especially if they want to prioritize safety and longevity for their athletes.
This undoubtedly ties into the skill of active listening. Active listening is something most people claim to do, but in reality they’re just hearing instead.
Let me be clear: active listening and hearing are two very different things.
Simply hearing what your athlete has to say, in my opinion, is akin to letting those words go in one ear and out the other. Sure, you took a moment to appease that person by giving them a moment of your time, but did you really take what they said into account? Did you truly apply critical thinking skills, attempt understanding, and determine to act based on what he or she said to you?
These are questions you must ask yourself to discern between hearing and active listening. Now let’s discuss what active listening comes down to.
Active listening, to me, is like pulling out the time-out card and bringing everything to a cold stop. (Think Zack Morris in Saved by the Bell.) Let your athlete speak. Listen to what he or she says. Pause for a moment. Gather all that information. Think critically about it, and by that I don’t mean negatively but analytically. Take it apart. Put it in context. Take everything that was said into account. See what you can apply to their issue from your own experience. Now provide a response that shows how well you listened, one that’s conducive to collaboration. The next step is to take action and use that conversation as the guide.
Pretty big difference, huh? Be a listener, not a hearer only. Your athletes will thank you.