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Coachable Communication

The following is a partial transcript from a prior Process2Perform podcast episode...

I wanted to dive into our ability to communicate with our athletes this week. The language and delivery we choose not only sets the tone for our individual relationships; but also in a broader sense, our language can and likely should be used to communicate the culture of who we are. Who we are as athletes and coaches, parents and children; the language we use can crystalize the culture of our group or organization.

One of the nonnegotiable character traits that is incredibly important for athletes is coachability. I don’t think of coachability in the traditional sense; the traditional sense is from the coaches point of view. Is this athlete coachable? Do they take our instruction or feedback and try to improve? Do I have to repeat myself with this athlete or can they get it after one engagement?

This is how we as athletes are taught about being coachable, and as a means to getting the most out of your relationship with the coach; this is a perspective that an athlete needs to appreciate and act on behalf of. But it is not the only way to consider the relationship...

I try to rethink the term from an athletes perspective, because we are developing athlete entrepreneurs that want to own their process. As individuals who have their own personal culture, their own expectations and standards of excellence; athletes need to always take coaching for what it really is...a third party observation on how I improve our opportunity!

How can I give myself the best chance to find success in this environment? How do I use every bit of information given to me to improve my chances of reaching the next level? These are the questions that elite level competitors ask in any given situation; athletics are no different.

I am bringing this up, because the way that we and parents, coaches, and peers communicate with our athletes is more often than not riddled with emotion. We are emotional creatures it is only natural to bring our entire personalities into the experience. Emotion has the ability to put power into words, but it can also dampen the impact valuable words might have.

Words have consequences if we as athletes allow it. Psychology has taught us that words carry an underlying emotion that we use to interpret whether the information coming at us is positive or negative. This is no surprise to many, but think about the implications of that statement. Depending on one’s demeanor, background, general intelligence or emotional intelligence, number of languages learned; there are so many factors that account for how I interpret words versus how you interpret words.

And this is where we run into a lot of problems in communication. What is honest and forthcoming for me may be aggressive and adversarial to you. There is no handbook on how every individual is going to interpret information. Experts have suggested numerous strategies to complement every personality, but we are still undecided on a best practice method for every individual.

I had a coach ask me this weekend if I thought that players coaches were better than disciplinarians. Was Pete Carroll better than Tom Coughlin, for example...? I don’t think there is a right answer to that question. Coaches who have the ability to develop their athletes are the best coaches. Coaches who are able to put people in positions to be successful, and can also teach them the tools required to find success - that is the coach I want 10 our of 10 times. And unlike many, I don’t really care if he cheers or talks sternly. But that is me, and even with that statement, ultimately I have preferences given the choice.

How most people hear things matters as much as the information. We have to be able to read the room. This is a two way street for my athletes. We are active participants in every relationship. Studies our coming out now that this generation will ask adults more questions than their parents were comfortable with. This is ultimately a good thing, although we are still not all comfortable with the idea.

Regardless, our athletes have to be willing to take the information as objectively as possible so we can learn from it. The information that is being relayed has value, and it very well could have an impact on our careers.

And we have to recognize that the person relaying that information has an underlying reason for communicating in the manner they are. There is an underlying reason for their delivery, and if we can empathize with that, we can get the most out of the interaction.

I have had coaches all of you would love to grab a beer with, and I have had coaches who make you feel you’re on the witness stand. The one that could help me become a better player was the one I respected more, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from both.

In my old age I try to see things as they are, not as how I want them to be. Deal with the reality and you will realize the reality is something you can deal with. This is much more true now as a parent and ex-athlete than I know it was as someone who was constantly getting judged and critiqued as a professional athlete years ago.

It’s a natural defense mechanism to misinterpret, or disregard, things that we don’t want to hear – and it is necessary for most functioning humans to see the positive so that we can continue to build momentum, stay encouraged, and improve our confidence.

This is not a weakness; this is the dance we have to play with our relationships. This is especially true when we are in a position of a subject matter expert or coach. There are two sides to this dance. How do we as authorities on the subject convey information to make the best outcomes possible for our athletes without putting them on the defensive? And how do we as athletes control our emotions when listening to those trying to help us in order to get the most out of the situation?

This is where things get tricky. We want to live with rose colored glasses. It is emotionally 'healthy' to live in the positive state. Psychologically this is the best way forward with our internal voices. We find the positive, we mention the positive first.

But we also have to get across the information that will help our athletes improve. Behaviors they need to fix, defenses they need to ID faster. Things that have real world consequences with respect to that athlete and the team they are playing on.

Now as a practice, imagine you are sitting in a room with your team, and your coach is in the back of the room – or maybe you are on the field with your teammates and your coach is going over some situations from the last game.

And your number is called. You are continually making the same mistakes. The correction has been made, at least in the mind of the coach the correction has been made. This correction is behavioral; it is about positioning, or a defensive scheme. It is something that you are able to change quickly given the proper focus.

A performance psychologist might tell that coach that kindness and positive words will work the best on this athlete – but in situations frustration will often boil over. It is again all about perspectives. From the perspective of the coach, who has already addressed the infraction prior to this meeting; you are either unable or unwilling to perform the task; neither of which are an acceptable outcome for a competitive coach.

From your perspective – maybe the message isn’t clear. Maybe you think the information doesn’t pertain to this specific situation. Of course there is the chance that you are unwilling or unable to perform the requirement...I have found the lack of production usually comes from the practical application, not the desire to be successful.

This means we have a communication issue. And it is two-sided. Athletes: are you already frustrated by the situation and is that rendering you unable to take constructive criticism? Is the emotion of the coach, the tone or volume of their voice, even some of the extra words or phrases that are coming into the conversation – are you allowing those things to distract you from the message?

Notice that I have now put the responsibility of interpreting the information on the athlete. I do this for a number of reasons. The first is perspective; I am an athlete. That information is something I need to hear, I need to correct, and I cannot control how the authority figure delivers the information. I can only control how I interpret it. That is my responsibility. Once we turn competitive, that is my responsibility.

The truth is, throughout our lives we are going to have various relationships with individuals with all kinds of personal styles. We can’t control how they deliver the information. Are there, from a psychological standpoint, better practice way to get your point across? Yes of course! But we cannot as athletes control that. And so we have to take that responsibility away from them and put it on us. It might not seem fair, but that information is potentially the difference between our success and failure. We have to find a way to use it.

As parents and coaches – when we find ourselves emotional (and I am more guilty of this than anything else) take a step back and figure out why you are angry. Are you really doing a great job of conveying your point? Are you setting up the conversation to be successful? What are the conditions the feedback session are starting at? Is the athlete already stressed? Are they the type of individual that can handle more than one byte of information without feeling overloaded?

I am lucky in the sense that athletes who work with me know I only have their best interest in mind. I am not a team coach at this stage, I don’t determine playing time, I have no influence on how many passes they will be targeted for. I just try to help them be the best version of themselves.

And still – even with the athlete knowing all of this – I still have to always read the room.

Now how do you do that as a team coach, or as a parent? Build that individual relationship. Get them to trust that you are investing in them. That you are looking out for their best interest. Invest your time in developing them, make them see you are there to help them achieve their goals while achieving the teams goals.

That rapport builds trust. Trust builds tolerance. An athlete recently talked about dealing with the heat of the moment emotions that come with being on a competitive team. He said the time off the court, the time building the relationships – that time was equity they continually build up with one another. That equity can get used during emotional confrontations without reducing the value of what is being said or who is saying it.

But the equity has to be built up all the time. We train, we build, we trust. Expectations can be extremely high, criticism can be harsh – but first we have to demonstrate that we are committed to their cause.

And even then, sometimes, with some individuals you have to change course. The message isn’t being heard. They are jumping to the negative. And this is tough. It feels impossible to overcome sometimes; feels like the player and coach will never be compatible. And maybe they won’t be. But that doesn’t diminish your purpose. Your purpose – your joint purpose; that is the reason you are here in this moment.

That purpose you share compels you to make it work. To find a solution. And sometimes that solution will be elsewhere. But we have a responsibility to ourselves to uncover every stone before determining that to be the next step.

Keep working!

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