The 4 Cs of Effective Communication for Coaches

Effective communication is essential for all coaches who want to have successful athletes.

As a result, today I’m going to give coaches some tips on effective communication.


I have talked about this before but effective communication is your potential superpower as a coach. Coaches who have effective communication have athletes who are inspired. They have athletes who are empowered. And they have athletes who they don’t just want to be compliant and please, but they actually trust you and they will give you so much more.

So that trust is the key to long lasting confidence in an athlete and the coach. And the way that the coach speaks to the athlete plays a humongous role in whether or not you’re successful at building trust.

So I’m going to share with coaches the 4 Cs for effective communication with your athletes.

#1 ‘C’ of Effective Communication: Consistency

So this is not just for coaches. It definitely applies to coaches, but for parents, a lot of these communication strategies can apply as well. The first way to build effective communication with your athletes is via consistency. You want to actually create communication routines with your team. When I was a beam coach, I used to line them up before beam and I’d say, “How’s everybody doing?” And I’d go down the line and ask them if they were experiencing any injuries or if there was anything that might help me understand where they were coming from today.

That’s when they might say, “I had a really rough day at school” or “I’m really stressed out” or “My ankle hurts” or “I’ve been really scared lately.” So we would actually go one at a time and we just check in and if they’re feeling great, then I cheer. If they’re experiencing something that might diminish performance that day, it’s great to know right out of the gate what’s going on. So I check in, in a loving way, with each kid before we get on beam.

And that’s something they knew they were going to do when they’d walk over. They’d just line up on that white line. And then we would check in. So that was a routine that we did. This could also be a chat when the coaches are acknowledging an athlete who is a standout for the day. And they’re having these moments where everybody’s sort of used to coming together. We’re not necessarily doing physical skills, but we’re having purposeful communication.

Also once a month, you might have a mental training session. Some gyms like to do it every week where they actually have a group session where part of the lesson plan is discussion time. That’s when they do an experiential learning. That’s what I would typically lead – we’d play a game or do something that sort of pushes the kids out of their comfort zone so that they can have a little awareness of “Ooh, that’s how I operate when I’m stressed” or “Ooh, that’s how I operate when I’m feeling really competitive.” And then they have a conversation.

If a coach says, “Hey, for the 10 minutes before we start practice, I will always be in my office if anybody needs to come and talk to me,” that’s a great time because we all know there are times when it is not good. Like when you’re in the middle of coaching,13 kids and you’re spotting something big and someone’s like, “Coach, I need to talk to you.” You’re like, “Okay, this is not the time.”

So you should be really clear about when and how your athletes can communicate with you by letting them know to have their mom send you a text or for them to write you a note. What is the way that you want to have communication facilitated and then set those times up automatically so that the kids know what they are. So that way the kids know that when they have concerns, they can anticipate the good times and the not so good times to bring something up.

As far as consistency, you also want to make sure that you are effectively communicating with every athlete in the same way.

I know some kids are easier to coach and some kids are not as easy to coach. Your method needs to be the same for every single kid regardless. If there’s an athlete that you struggle with communicating because maybe they just don’t speak and you get frustrated or you don’t know what they need, you’re going to have the same system for that kid that you have for the one who’s your best buddy. So you want to make sure that you are being consistent in how you’re communicating ,when you’re communicating, and who you’re communicating with.

That way these athletes sense that there is a foundation of follow-through and trust. So it’s not like one kid’s going to be like, “My coach doesn’t like me because he talks to this athlete in this way and talks to me in this way.” Even if one kid is bugging you, you still want to have that consistent communication, which brings me into the second C of effective communication.

#2 ‘C’ of Effective Communication: Calm and Controlled

Being calm and controlled is the second ‘C’ of effective communication with athletes. When I was coaching, I was all over the place. I’d be really excited and really loud and really mad and really frustrated. I was not very calm and not very controlled. And I noticed that there were other coaches that I coached alongside, who never lost their voice at the end of practice. I didn’t hear them having a freak out from across the gym where probably they heard me.

So what we want to try to do is find a calm and controlled tone. So that way athletes learn to focus on your message rather than your personal feelings. There was no question when I was annoyed with my level sevens. It was like, “You guys are driving me crazy.” Actually if I’m having a problem, it’s not their problem. So my task would be, how can I find calm and control? How can I have a consistent tone? Because my nonverbal communication is powerful. The tone of my communication is powerful. Your words are only about 10% of what they actually take in. So if you struggle with staying calm, if you struggle with controlling your tone, if you struggle with being nice when you’re in a bad mood, this is your challenge.

It’s not that they need to be better so that you can be happier. Instead it’s about you finding your own calm and control that then they’re going to follow suit on.

I actually teach a technique to athletes called a filter and I got this from another sports psychologist. He would talk about how coaches would yell corrections like: “If you don’t point your toes, you are never going to get this skill.” Or “If you don’t get your legs in, you’re going to break your neck.” So coaches will feel like ‘I really want you to make this correction and I’m going to make it very loud and intense because I really, really, really want you to make this correction.’ But what they’re saying is like crazy town, scary stuff.

So I teach kids to put up that filter. And all you’re going to let in is the things that are helpful and constructive, and we’re going to filter out anything that makes things feel dangerous, impossible, or bad. So in that example, if you don’t get your legs in and you’re going to break your neck, then we’re only going to let it then legs then. And that’s it.

If you can do them a favor as the coach, and actually just say “Get your legs in or punch toes,” instead of “You don’t point your toes. You’re never going to amount to anything. And you’re going to be flipping burgers at McDonald’s.” I’ve literally heard kids say to me that that’s what their coach said to them.

So just say “point your toes. It’s looking good. It could be a little bit better though. I think there’s room for improvement in your toes. Let’s look for that. Let’s feel that.” Same message. You don’t have to have the mess though. You can have the message without the mess. Just get the constructive out and that calm and control will allow you to have enough pause to give the words out that will actually be constructive without the part that hurts kids. So being calm and controlled is the second ‘C’ to effective communication.

#3 ‘C’ of Effective Communication: Careful

Being careful is the third ‘C’ of effective communication with athletes. I remember a comment that a boy made to me in seventh grade. I think I was like 11 or 12. And this comment that this boy made to me, which was like him trying to be funny, has stuck with me to this day. And that is how powerful your words are. If you make a comment to your athletes like, “Oh, your legs look horrible,” they hear that. And they take that beyond sport. So you have to be extremely careful with what you say, because they’re at this extremely malleable point in their lives where they have to be handled with care and your words can actually stay with them for a lifetime.

So along those same lines we want to be really careful listeners. In the communication with these adolescents who are very impressionable, they have fragile egos. They are delicate. They need you to be careful with them. So active listening looks like they come to you and they say something like, “I cannot get this correction or I don’t know what to do.” And instead of you going right into problem-solving, which is essentially what coaches do, I’m going to ask you to do something a little out of character. Instead of just going, “Here’s the solution, here’s the correction, do this thing,” you’re actually going to repeat back: “It sounds like you were having trouble with XYZ. Is that right?” So you’re actually asking them before you respond, making sure do I have this right?

A lot of the time in communication things get lost.

There’s the thing I think I’m saying, the thing that actually comes out of my mouth, the thing they think I’m saying, and then what they think it means. So there’s four conversations going around in one little sentence. So many times as a coach I would be like, “Go do 12 of these.” They’re like, “Did you mean this?” I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah”. Things I think I say are not what I actually say. And that also goes for the kids.

So what if the kids were to say, “Coach, is this right?” And you’re like, “Yep, that’s it.” Then you would for sure know, instead of being like, “What are you doing over there? Why are you doing that drill?” And they’re like, “I thought that’s what you said.” And you’re like, “No, you’re not listening.” But you know, it’s more than that. It’s not always that they’re not listening. It’s that maybe you said it wrong or maybe they heard it but they didn’t interpret it the way that you meant them to. So effective communication is so complicated.

The best way to head off that issue is to just ask clarifying questions all the time and encourage them to do it. To allow them to say, “Did you mean this?” without being like, “Yes, of course I did. Why aren’t you listening?” Instead you can be like, “Yep. That’s it kiddo. You got it.” So if they’re asking for something or they’re struggling with something, ask first, “Is this what you’re struggling with?” That allows them to feel heard.

So even if you’re rolling your eyes in your head about that’s the dumbest question I’ve ever heard, if you’re like, “Is this what you’re asking about? Awesome. Here’s my answer,” then they feel heard. Even if you’re going to be like, “That’s not what we’re working on, but don’t worry. It’s okay. I get why that might’ve been confusing. This is what we’re doing.” So instead of them feeling diminished or like they can’t focus or that they’re a bad listener, they’re feeling like my coach cares about me and is making sure that I get the information that I need. So that care takes effort. But man, will it be so worthwhile when those kids feel valued and feel heard. They feel like they can come to you. They feel like you’re not going to hurt their feelings if they do something wrong.

#4 ‘C’ of Effective Communication: Collaborate

The fourth ‘C’ to effective communication is to collaborate. Now I know there’s this one up, one down relationship in coaching. Coach up here, athlete down here. That’s sort of the assumption, right? The coach is in charge and the kid’s supposed to listen and just be seen and not heard and comply and do what they’re told. That’s not the way that I operate. It’s not the way that I thrive as a human. Collaboration makes for such an amazing environment – such an amazing, inspiring, empowering environment. So when you go, “You need to do this, the end because I said so,” it does not make a child’s heart bloom and grow and want to want to thrive. It makes them just want to not mess up.

Instead, if you get shoulder to shoulder and you’re like, “Okay, we are detectives on the scene together. And we’re going to figure this out”, you go to empathy. And instead of telling them what to do and the kid’s like, “I don’t think that’s going to work, but I don’t know how to say that because you’re just telling me now I have to try it. But I don’t feel safe. And I feel scared. And I don’t think I can speak to you.” Instead you’re like, “All right, kiddo, let’s figure this thing out together.”

Let’s say an athlete’s like, “I don’t know why, but I can’t do it. I can’t do the thing you’re asking.” Instead of being like, “Well go figure it out or you have a rope climb,” you go, “Okay, let’s talk this out. What’s going on?” I know you can’t always do this when you have 13 kids on beam. And you’re trying to yell at everybody and get everybody moving and give corrections.

But this is the goal: shoulder to shoulder, arm and arm, let’s work together. Let’s figure this thing out.

So first of all, you’re going to go, “I’ve been there. I’ve seen this happen before. You are not alone. This is normal,” just to normalize somebody’s struggle. They can be like, “Oh good. I’m not horrible.” And then even if you’re like, ‘This is annoying. Why are we still dealing with this?’ you still give them this. This is my favorite line that I love parents and coaches to use – “That’s gotta be so hard.That’s gotta be so frustrating. That’s gotta be so disappointing.”

Then you ask great questions instead of just going right into here’s how you need to do it. This is what you got to do. You’re going, “How did that one feel? What do you think can be improved?” Because I think a lot of coaches are just like, “Do this, do this, do this. Fix this, fix this, fix this.” And then the kids don’t have any say.

And they’re also not training themselves or they’re not being trained to feel “How did that one feel? What do I think can be better?” They’re always just like, “What do I do, coach? What do I do, coach? What do I do, coach?” They’re not empowered. And they’re not individuals who are actually trying to make corrections. They’re just waiting for your next correction, which means the entire group of 13 is dependent on your corrections, which is a heavy cross to bear. And it means you’re always yelling.

So what if these kids were going “That one felt pretty good. I think I’m going to try this.” And then they come to you and go, “How’s this one look”. And you’re like, “Yeah, that’s better.” Wouldn’t that be more efficient? If these kids could learn how to find out, how did that one feel? What can I do better? Then also if they’re afraid or they’re stuck, a great question is what can you do right now? What can you do? Because they get very stuck in can’t and you’re like, “Well, you need to do it, figure it out.”

“Well, what can you do? What does feel confident? Or what feels safe to you right now? And what would be a little stretch out of your comfort zone? What would be just a little bit better?” And you help them to start thinking in that way. Instead of being problem-focused like correction, correction, correction, correction, it’s solution focused. What’s something you can do successfully right now? Okay. Go try it and then show me when you’re done.

And instead of going, “Oh, you’re failing because you’re not doing the original assignment,” they’re actually making progress. They’re actually building confidence because you have stopped to ask them, “What can you do? What can you do? Okay. And how do we stretch that? How do we push that? How do we get you a little bit farther against your edge so that we can get you closer to the skill that I know is inside of you? ”

So those are our four Cs of effective communication: consistency, calm and control, careful, and collaborate.

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