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Effective Communication in Critical Sport Moments: Key Principles and Cultural Considerations for Coaches

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Effective coaches embody a combination of sport knowledge, management skills, emotional intelligence, and, perhaps most importantly, effective communication. Generally, good coaches display communication strategies such as active listening, empathy in their language, and articulating clearly when they speak. But when it comes to high-pressure situations (e.g., half-time talks) or moments of conflict, some tend to yell, reprimand, and criticize more than usual. Fletcher and Scott (2010) postulated that coaches’ stress levels during competitions might affect the content of their feedback. This body of research, however, is scarce, because these conversations are usually held in places where coach-athlete interactions are not easily overheard and analyzed. Regardless, it is hard not to consider:

  • If a basketball team was leading or trailing by a few points at half-time, what would be the “best” thing for a coach to say?
  • If the coach has a team of players with mixed backgrounds who speak different languages, how can she best reach all of them in a short amount of time?

Here are three elements that impact individual and team performance for coaches to consider before speaking to athletes during a critical sport situation:

1. Purpose and Content
First, coaches should identify the purpose of their message. Is the goal to provide instruction, calm athletes down, make changes in the game plan, or help the team regain confidence? There could be one clear goal or a mixture of goals. In a half-time situation, Andrews (2015) suggests that basketball coaches divide the period into phases: assistant coaches share game analysis according to specialty while offering concise suggestions. Then, the head coach delivers instructional points and identifies key strengths of players. Finally, players ask questions and chant a process-oriented word like “execute” to focus on performance rather than outcome. This may not be a “one-size-fits-all” approach, but coaches can use it as a reference to help identify potential purposes of their communication. 

2. Delivery

  • Avoid asking “why” questions. During critical moments, it is best to focus on what is important in the moment and for the next play. “Why” questions aim at understanding the intention behind athletes’ previous actions and may not be as helpful. Moreover, they may trigger athletes’ defense mechanisms and inhibit effective coach-athlete communication.
  • Focus on specific instructions and/or positive reinforcement. A mixture of praise and positive non-verbal feedback (like a pat on the back) is helpful in moving athletes and teams forward in tough moments. In a coaching analysis of John Wooden, he was observed spending 75% of his time giving instructional feedback, which included instructions (what to do and how to do it), hustles, and demonstrations; praise took up 7%, while verbal butt-kicking only happened 6% of the time (Gallimore & Tharp, 2004). Coaches should reinforce what is being done well and instruct athletes to repeat that behavior or strategy or give specific directions about what to do next.
  • Give corrective feedback only if athletes are able to make changes right away. Confidence comes from believing that we are capable of completing a certain task. If coaches can support and direct athletes to make positive changes right away, athletes are likely to feel more confident. For example, a tennis coach could remind a player to stay low after a serve. Put the more in-depth, corrective comments and discussions aside until later when athletes have ample time and opportunity to make those changes.
  • Ensure the tone of the feedback aligns with the content. Saying “relax!” with gritted teeth brings forth a mixed message and creates confusion. If the goal is to encourage, then use light-hearted tones. If the goal is to improve athletes’ energy level, speak with enthusiasm and conviction. If the coach is trying to calm athletes down, he or she should speak slowly and pause in between sentences.

3. Cultural Differences
It is also necessary for coaches to be aware of athletes’ learning cultures and styles. For instance, in Hong Kong, coaches and members of soccer teams are often international, representing the local geographical area, Eastern Europe, and Western countries like Brazil and Portugal. During critical situations, the coach must be cognizant of the limited amount of time to bring the right messages across in multiple languages and/or effectively leverage translators. With adult Chinese athletes, in particular, it is helpful for coaches to recognize that they tend not to ask questions and adopt a more passive and obedient approach in their learning (Kennedy, 2010). Turkish and Spanish populations are found to embrace more diverging forms of communication, which include brainstorming and generating ideas (Alemdağ, Alemdağ, & Özkara, 2018; Lingham, Richley, & Serlavos, 2009). Since these tendencies are not absolute, is recommended that coaches discuss preferences with their athletes before game days and come up with communication strategies that are culturally appropriate and inclusive.

Whatever communication strategy coaches decide to adopt during critical sport moments, they must identify the time available, purpose of the message, nature of the content, method of delivery, and any cultural differences. Coaches can then start implementing the optimal communication strategy in practices and scrimmages and tailor their feedback to what is most effective for them and their team.

References

Alemdağ, C., Alemdağ, S. & Özkara, A. B. (2018). The analysis of sports high school students’ learning styles in terms of overall academic success. Education and Science, 43(195), 269-278. 

Andrews, S. R. (2015). Emotional control and instructional effectiveness: Maximizing a time-out. A Journal for Physical and Sport Educators, 28(2), 33-37.
 
Gallimore, R. & Tharp, R. (2014). What a coach can teach a teacher, 1975 – 2004: Reflections and reanalysis of John Wooden’s teaching practices. The Sport Psychologist, 18(2), 119-137.

Fletcher, D., & Scott, M. (2010). Psychological stress in sports coaches: A review of concepts, research, and practice. Journal of Sports Sciences, 28(2), 127–137. DOI: 10.1080/02640410903406208

Kennedy, P. (2010). Learning cultures and learning styles: myth-understandings about adult (Hong Kong) Chinese learners. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 21(5), 430-445. DOI: 10.1080/02601370210156745
Lingham, T., Richley, B. A. & Serlavos, R. S. (2009). Measuring and mapping team interaction. Cross Cultural Management: An International Journal, 16(1), 5-27. DOI: 10.1108/13527600910930013 

photo of Karen Lo, M.Ed., CMPC®

By Karen Lo, M.Ed., CMPC®
Inner Edge

Karen is the Founding Director of Inner Edge and a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology at the University of Hong Kong. She completed her Masters of Education in Counseling and Sport Psychology at Boston University, USA, obtained CMPC® status in 2014 and started her private practice in 2015. She currently sits on the AASP International Relations Committee, serves as Vice-President of the HK Society of Sport and Exercise Psychology and is a part-time lecturer at both the HK Baptist University and the Education University of HK. Her first book, Sport Psychology: Building Confidence and Maximizing Potential (in Chinese), was published in March and is the first Sport Psychology book in HK. She can be reached at karen@inneredge.com.hk or on Facebook/Instagram: inneredgehk.

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