Coaching: How To Connect With Athletes

Regardless of the level of sport, whether it’s high school, college, or professional, coaches are always searching for better ways to connect with their athletes. The goal is simple: for the athlete to understand a message, and then to go execute it. It’s commonly understood that in order for an athlete to “run through a wall” for a coach, there needs to be rapport built first. In short, the athlete needs to know the coach cares about them. But how can that be established quickly? Connecting with your athletes (and this doesn’t just apply to sports) requires 3 things: knowing what your athletes want, providing the right kind of feedback, and clearly defining what’s expected of them.

Know What Your Audience Desires

Before working with an athlete it’s imperative to know what the player wants out of the sport, the game, or even that very day. In My Mental Playbook, the book asks the reader “What is Your Why?” This refers to intrinsic and external motivators behind athletes playing their sport. But think in broader terms, what do they DESIRE? If you coach high school sports and your audience is made up of 15-17 year old athletes, they may WANT to win, and get better; but what they DESIRE is to be popular, to be liked, to impress a girl they have a crush on, to make it to college. If you’re speaking to college athletes, they may desire to be famous, to have Lee Corso say their name on College Gameday, to have everyone recognize them on campus.

In the television series “The Office,” in a job interview, a character says, “You see, I sit across from a man. I see his face. I see his eyes. Now does it matter if he wants a hundred dollars worth of paper or a hundred million dollars of deep sea fishing equipment? Don’t be a fool. He wants respect. He wants love. He wants to be younger. He wants to be attractive. There is no such thing as a product.”

Regardless of the group you’re working with, if you can incorporate what they desire into your speeches, plans, or program, you have their immediate attention.

Immediate, Direct, Neutral Feedback

Many coaches struggle with when and how is the best time to give feedback. Is it best to correct an error in practice, or wait for a meeting after? Is it wrong to single a player out for a mistake? Is it okay to yell or does that shut them off? Research has the following answers:

The best time to give feedback is immediately after a mistake is made. If you’re on the practice field, and the player does something wrong, correct the behavior instantly. The recency effect occurs, meaning the more time passes after a mistake, corrections will have less of an impact. The player may not even remember the play afterwards, even if shown on film. Also, if you don’t correct a mistake immediately, the player will continue to make the mistake for the rest of the day, and could develop a bad habit that’s difficult to break.

The best way to give feedback is directly, not broadly to a group. So, if “player X” is a linebacker who was assigned A gap responsibilities on a run play but went into the B gap, it is best to (immediately) stop, and say “player X, you have the A gap on this play!” rather than broadly saying “linebackers have the A gap when we’re running this play.” While some coaches may be weary of calling players out directly, it elicits the best results if done consistently (meaning every player is always given feedback immediately and directly when a mistake is made).

The best tone in which to give feedback, although this is extremely difficult in the heat of the moment, is a neutral tone. It’s the information that you’re giving, not your displeasure with the athlete, that’s important. An overly positive tone will make the correction seem unimportant. An overly negative tone will lead to the player focusing on the emotion and not the message. It will also create an environment where they’re afraid to make a mistake because they don’t want to get yelled at. A neutral tone that simply delivers the message and moves forward is the most effective way to correct a behavior.

How do we Define it? What does it Look Like? How can we Practice it?

I’ve referenced Coach Casamento before on my video blog, and he discusses this practice when it comes to building character. Anytime a coach wants a player to do anything, whether it’s on or off the field, they should be able to answer these three questions above.

Coaches often think they are delivering a clear message when really their athletes are interpreting it a different way. They know what they want in their head, and they assume their athletes are envisioning the same thing. A great example was given to me by my professor, Allison Cumming-McCann, regarding respect. Her daughter was in kindergarten and they would be coloring at their desks. After coloring, the teacher would ask “who would like to come to the mat so we could read a book?” Allison’s daughter would never come. Eventually, Allison got a call from the teacher saying “your daughter is being disrespectful because every time I ask the class if they’d like to come read, she’s the only one who doesn’t.” Allison replied, “Have you ever just TOLD her to come to the mat?” And the teacher said no. Allison explained that if her daughter is being ASKED to do something, and she doesn’t want to, that’s not being disrespectful, and she guaranteed the teacher that if she told her daughter without question that she needed to come to the mat for reading, that she would. The same behavior was seen by two different adults in a completely different way.

That is the struggle of a program. Whether it’s a character trait, a desired intangible, or an assignment on the field, it is necessary to clearly define what you’re looking for in your athlete. Once it’s defined, there must be a clear example of what it looks like. To stay on the example of respect, maybe respect looks like eye-contact, being on time, and helping each other off the ground after each play. Lastly, it must be able to be practiced just like anything else. If a coach wants a shortstop to get better at fielding ground balls, they’d have a period of practice where they work on different types of situations where ground balls need to be fielded. If a coach wants a player to have respect, athletes must be given situations where they must practice and develop it.