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Effective Communication for Coaches

Effective communication is one of the most written about, most studied, and most talked about topics in the coaching world.  “It’s not what you tell them – it’s what they hear.” I have that quote from Red Auerbach inscribed in the coaching book I carry regarding his take on the importance of effective communication.  No amount of knowledge of the sport will matter if the coach is not able to find the proper method of delivery.

Types of Communication

There are three different main types of communication: interpersonal communication, intrapersonal communication, and nonverbal communication.

Interpersonal Communication

Interpersonal communication is the method of exchanging messages through verbal and nonverbal means. This type of communication covers what is said or the message that is delivered (Interpersonal communication, 2015), and, possibly, more importantly, the way it was delivered. Everything from the body language used (nonverbal communication) to the tone of voice applied can change the interpretation of the meaning.

Intrapersonal Communication

Intrapersonal communication is an often undervalued form of communication. While we spend a fair amount of our day talking to ourselves, most of us don’t place much value on what’s being said and the effect it can have on our outlook, motivation, and even performance. When the term changes to “self-talk” it becomes a sport psychology concept used to talk ourselves into a higher level of performance.  We can train ourselves in this form of communication to increase our performance (Lister, 2017).  However, it can also be used in a negative fashion to talk ourselves into a poor performance. An example of this in youth sports is when a hitter thinks to himself, “this pitcher is throwing really fast. I’ll never be able to hit the ball.” With that thought, he’s probably correct.

Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication is the way we transmit our messages to another person, other than speaking or writing. It includes the volume and pitch of our voice, our body posture, eye contact, facial expressions, and many other forms (Non-verbal communication, 2017). This, in my opinion, is the most important type of communication because, for the most part, it’s unconscious. We conduct this form of communication without thinking about it unless we’ve placed a large emphasis on bringing it to the forefront of our minds.

Types of Listening

Poor listening skills are nearly as bad as poor message delivery and can just as easily create the miscommunication problem. Without effectively listening to the message being delivered, the message will not easily be received, if at all.

Active Listening

Beyond simply hearing what the person is saying, active listening is understanding the entirely of the verbal and nonverbal cues provided during the message delivery (Active listening, 2017). As much of the message delivered is nonverbal, being attentive to the signals provided will greatly assist in the receipt of the message.

Supportive Listening

Supportive Listening

Supportive listening refers to a method where the speaker feels the receiver is providing beneficial emotional support during the delivery of the message  (Jones, 2011). With this type of listening, there’s an emotional connection between the speaker and the listener and a solid belief that the listener understands the speaker.

Aware Listening

Aware listening is a transformational type of listening in which the listener first listens inwardly as it will sway our other types of listening. It’s a type of listening where we understand those around us, the other listeners, may not react in the same manner in which we do.

Communication Barriers

There are numerous barriers to communication. They all cause conflicts within the message between the sender and the receiver but some are more easily overcame than others.

Inconsistency between words and actions

This is one of the main problems with youth sports coaches. As they don’t have the years of experience often necessary to maintain a steady message, they change parts of the message such as verbiage. This becomes problematic as the young athletes are then unsure as to the meanings.

Remaining Silent

This is a communication killer that I often see from the children I coach in youth sports. As they feel it’s less threatening to communicate nothing, it creates a lack of a message. This makes communicating very difficult for both parties.

Difficulties in Expression

This is another problem often seen in youth sports. The children, especially younger ones, are not yet skilled in communicating their feelings or thoughts. This often creates a poorly delivered message, or not the proper message at all.

Others include: 

Receiver not paying attention to the sender

Receiver’s tendency to evaluate and judge communication

Lack of trust between sender and receiver

Socialization and hereditary differences

Differences in the mindset or perception between people


Tendency to tell people what they want to hear

The Sandwich Approach

The “sandwich approach” is another way to deliver a message to a player regarding their performance. This is directly in line with the Positive Coaching Alliance and their theory regarding their “criticism sandwich”. This technique places the instruction, or criticism, between a positive statement and a compliment.

A technique for this would be used when a fielder misses a fly ball in baseball. The conversation would look like this:

Coach: “Great hustle to get to that ball! What I’d like to see next time is for you to get your glove above your head so you can directly see the ball go into your glove. I know you can make that catch for me!”

Another example of this used with a hitter that strikes out without swinging.

Coach: “That was a tough at-bat. I want you to step into that batter’s box WANTING to hit that ball. You’re a good hitter. I know you can hit this pitcher!”

It’s imperative to reiterate the importance effective communication. The way we deliver our messages as coaches is crucial to the most widespread receipt possible. Our efforts in listening to our players may be the bridge that supports a close relationship and a general feeling of openness among the players. Without understanding first the importance of effective communication, and secondly the methods and techniques within the topic, it will be difficult for a coach to connect with his or her players and the instructions, regardless of how simple or advanced the techniques or drills they will not likely be received.

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