Effective Coaching Series Pt. 2: The Nuts and Bolts of Meaningful Communication

youth sports coach

Posted by Adam Skoranski

Hello all, and welcome back for part 2 of my series on coaching. Last time we dove into Self-Determination Theory, and how the application of this motivational theory applies rather nicely to the coaching world. I highlighted the main tenants of this theory, including one’s innate desires for autonomy, competence and relatedness. Hopefully by the end of the post many of you agreed with the researchers’ beliefs that applying this theory to one’s coaching style is a darn good idea.

I have decided to focus on COMMUNICATION STYLES for this week’s post. More specifically, I will highlight some recommendations for how to develop and nurture effective communication between coach and athlete. Again, I implore each of you to think critically about this information, either drawing on personal experience or future coaching plans. How would you run your team?…….With that said, let’s jump right in.

A good coach understands their role as part teacher, part motivator. How in tarnation could one accomplish these all-important goals without employing an effective, useful communication style? I’ll save you the Google trip and tell you now, one cannot. Communication is the backbone of coaching. Effective communication is the backbone of positive, effective coaching. Negative communication is the backbone of negative, ineffective coaching. Still with me? Good.

The trouble comes when coaches fall back on habits and communication styles they’ve always known. This can be good if our coach happens to understand the importance of empathy, honesty, consistency, support and encouragement. However, when our coach’s communication style of choice is one of a cold, inconsistent, authoritarian manner, trouble tends to brew among the village folk.proper-communication-is-the-key-to-success-21357378

What makes a good communicator?

Again, there isn’t an exact set of established characteristics, but I think we can recall individuals who were able to get their message across more efficiently than others. Good communicators have a solid idea of the WHAT, WHO and HOW of communication.

Effective communicators know WHAT they want their message to say. They are knowledgeable about the event they coach and know the gist of their forthcoming message. Effort must then be put into figuring out the WHO of the message. Generally speaking, coaches will have an understanding of the player, performer or team they will be addressing. Also included in the WHO is an understanding of the personal characteristics of the individual, but more on that later. Now, the real work beings; the HOW.

How one broadcasts their message makes all the difference in the way their audience hears them, and in turn, judges their competence, connections, warmth and support. The HOW of communication is so important. It’s the syrup on the flapjack; it’s the gas in the engine; it’s the Simon to the Garfunkel! Once it comes time for a coach to broadcast his/her message to the team, so many important factors are on the line, all hinging on how the athletes receive the words. Athletes want to play for someone they see as credible, someone who listens to and respects them, and someone who will be straight up and honest about what they did wrong, and how to fix it; not how they are wrong as a person. Coaches can develop and foster this sense of trust and security from day 1 with the type of communication style they choose to employ.


Personal connection.

One of the most important recommendations has to do with the personal connections made between coach and athlete. Effective coaches take the time to know their athletes on a deeper level.  They understand who they are as people and what else they may be dealing with in other areas of their life. This connection falls under the WHO of communication; really knowing your audience, knowing what makes them tick and how best to plant the seeds of your information. Athletes who feel they play for a coach willing to take this extra step will inevitably open the door for more effective communication.

coaching football 2011

Do as I say, not as I do? No, no no…

Effective communicators also model the behavior they preach. Personally, I could let a lot slide from an ineffective communicator/coach. But what really made my blood boil was when a coach would say one thing and do another. Promise one action to one player and hand down something entirely different to another. I can also say this inconsistency from a coach has shown up time and time again during my professional travels as one of the most consistent (ironic, don’t you think) predictors of unsatisfied and negative athletes. Elite athletes can still find a way to play and play well for a coach with whom they do not feel a positive personal connection. But many find it extremely difficult to put forth any significant effort to a coach who does not either live up to his word, or does not live what he preaches. Imagine a coach who emphasizes punctuality and consistent presence, when he himself attends practices only sporadically. Now take that little, itty-bitty piece of frustration you feel in the pit of your stomach and multiply it by the equivalent of an entire season. Makes sense, right?


Time to give feedback.

One of the easiest to use and most fruitful tricks for effective communication is to use the “sandwich approach.” You’ll probably get a different answer depending on who you ask for a definition, but for the purpose of this post we will go with the method outlined by University of Washington psychologist Ron Smith and colleagues. Imagine the following example: [Coach’s name is Bob, player is Ted. Ted makes a mistake on the court. Bob decides to employ the sandwich technique to address the mistake and offer his take on how best to attack the situation in the future. First, Bob begins with a positive statement, maybe something about Ted’s awesome effort or a good play he made earlier in the game. Bob immediately follows this positivity with a future-oriented statement aimed at informing Ted how best to react to the same situation in the future. The final piece of toasted rye bread comes when Bob finishes with an encouraging statement about how Ted’s performance will increase in the future if he is to employ this proper technique.] Sounds a little more appealing than a full-on lecture, yes?


But, but, but…

One final recommendation laid out by Shane Murphy (2004) is for coaches to use more “ands” than “buts.” Using a plethora of ‘buts’ in your language can cause your message to get cut off and only half be digested, usually the negative part. By using ‘ands,’ coaches and other communicators keep the constant flow of conversation going and encourage those listening to take everything in.

So, there we have it, another post on the all-important coaching arena. As with all my posts, I encourage you to take my words more as suggestions I feel work well. Having been an athlete my whole life, and more recently occupying the mental coaching role, I have seen time and time again how ineffective and maladaptive coaching can completely ruin a season. I have seen absurdly talented individuals lose all drive to compete and dread the thought of getting to the field. Coaches have a huge responsibility on their shoulders. And, most times, a minor switch in communication style can be the catalyst needed to turn the corner from good to great.

Stay well, and I shall see you all next time.



Hedstrom, R. (2012). Coaching Through Conflict: Effective Communication Strategies. BC Coach’s Perspective, 8-9.

Margaret, G., Kirubakar, S., & Kumutha, N. (2010). Communication skills: a cognitive–behavioural approach to enhance relationship skills in young sport coaches. British Journal Of Sports Medicine44i49-i50.

Murphy, S. (2004). Sport psych handbook. (1 ed.). Champaign: Human Kinetics.

Smoll, F. L., Smith, R. E., Barnett, N. P., & Everett, J. J. (1993). Enhancement of children’s self-esteem through social support training for youth sport coaches. Journal Of Applied Psychology78(4), 602-610.







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