Communication is essential for any coach who aims to truly empower their athletes. Just as a coach must invest in their voice, they must also invest in effective communication, in and around training. This goes beyond simple cues or pump up speeches.
“Communication often gets lost in intent.”
I took an interesting route into the collegiate strength and conditioning world. Managing a CrossFit gym was not what many college coaches wanted to see on a resume, and while I played and coached Division III, it was nothing compared to the work and commitment bestowed upon Division I scholarship athletes. Too be fair, many players were easy to coach. Team captains and top players consistently gave their all, and walk-ons would run through a wall if asked. But even at this level teams still had athletes that felt forced to train, which was a whole new challenge as a coach. Especially since the CrossFit members @Cali and I chose to work very hard, voluntarily did what they were told,… and paid cash for it.
During my first year coaching, I assisted with a D1 women’s field sport team in the fall preparing for spring season. Primarily, I introduced freshman to the primary lifts and team cool-down stretches post-sprint work. Gaining the head S&C coach’s, and more importantly the girl’s, confidence; I was asked to handle full sessions as the off-season training progressed.
Trying to take full advantage of the opportunity and make this team my own, I ignored the workouts left for me by the S&C coach and pieced together my own. Observing many instabilities and biomarkers for injury in previous sessions, my first day with the girls included the old school Primal Wall Squat and a healthy dose of dead buggers. The purpose was to not only teach them how to squat into their posterior chain, but also show them the where they were failing and the associated risks. Following the cool-down stretches, I huddled the team up, conveyed this purpose and my observations.
The second solo session with the team was a sprint session on the field turf. Again, ignoring what was left for me by the S&C coach, I put the girls through some dynamic movement prep, then dove into the skips and sprint progression a la CrossFit Football seminar. More concerned with the ‘Steven Seagal’ arm swings, plantar flexion and other issues I was seeing, we spent more time correcting movement than hitting the prescribed sprinting volume. The team’s head sport coach was present for the session. Following the stretches, I argued that fixing those factors I observed would be more valuable than conditioning in fall for a spring sport. Never known to look for those things, he acknowledged them and thanked me for the time.
Intent VS Impact
The following day the head sport coach came down to the weightroom and expressed his concern that the sprint session was not challenging enough for the girls. They were all complaining to him about the soreness in their hamstrings and trunks.
The session wasn’t hard enough, but the girls are complaining of soreness? Logically, this didn’t make sense, and I didn’t respond well. Mostly confused, I had provided purpose for both the team and the head coach, yet neither was satisfied. I was trying to save them from tearing an ACL, and they’re complaining about a little soreness?!!
This instance stuck with me for years as I came to experience more miscommunications in my coaching travels. I failed to effectively communicate my intent in a way that would impact the athletes. My fatal mistake was presenting purpose in logic only I understood, failing to make the connection for the team or coach.
It is important to understand the athlete’s perspective when delivering any training purpose or instruction. They may have had several strength coaches before you that delivered contradicting views, or even the same message but with a different approach. Adjusting the message per their current perspective will grow their base level of training knowledge to. A head full of knowledge is meaningless if you cannot get your athletes to attack a program, work hard, and invest in you as a coach.
Building off Power Coach: Experience’s opportune times to deliver a message, this article will present effective communication tools for a coach to connect, increase coachability, and motivate athletes.
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Communication through Connections
First, determine their understanding of training, training age, and barriers. Establishing their level of knowledge provides a base from which communication flourishes. In the process, many commonplaces will appear. These include sport/training lingo or rules of thumb incumbant to the athlete and most importantly, will provide a starting point in effective communication. After all, investment comes from understanding.
To effectively communicate a purpose or plan, a coach must start from an athlete’s position, not their own. In the above example, I was trying to force my value in injury prevention down the player’s throats, but they were more concerned about not being sore. Even though I spoke with them about the biomarkers for torn ACL and attacking these limiting factors to prevent injury, from their perspective, soreness is an injury!
No doubt, the purpose of the training, values of injury prevention training, or simple physiological cause and effects need to be delivered to the athletes. The challenge is delivering the message from a place common to both the athlete and coach understand.
As a coach that values effective communication, know when and where to look for commonplaces. Any cliche’ (“you gotta stress to progress!”), comparison story (“remember when Tammy Lynn tore her ACL last year in the first game of the season?”) or even movie reference (“don’t run like Edward from Twilight, use your arms like Tom Cruise in The Firm/Minority Report/Ghost Protocol!”) can serve as a commonplace between a coach and athlete. Consider this your opportunity to put the thin, one liner candy shell on your coaching style, and effectively deliver a message.
Cause and Effect
Performance provides a connection on many levels. Look for athletes’ responses to training effects or relating to Game Day experiences with psychomotor fatigue, physiological response, and stories/anecdotes/references during conversations.
The pre- and post-training communication opportunities can be used to find an emotional commonplace:
Create mental approach commonplace in the warm up huddle:
“You will be tired, but I need you to block it out, push through and focus on working hard. Training sessions leading up to the first game are going to make you uncomfortable.”
Return the commonplace following training:
“Proud of you for working hard for me. When you’re sore and uncomfortable you have to be perfect because that is where we build skill. Practice perfection when you’re uncomfortable and tired so come Game Day, you’ll feel like a million bucks.”
Physiological commonplaces exist before, during, and after training. Spotting these is crucial for a clear message and athlete buy in. When an athlete complains of soreness, winces during warm ups, or straight up tells you, “I can’t because…”, they’ve presented a commonplace. For example:
Dealing with soreness day in and day out or not giving you full effort:
“Have you ever been sore after practice or a game? Yes, then there is something you are missing in your training. We need you to push yourself like Game Day in the weightroom so we can effectively prepare you for the on field demands.”
Connecting soreness with purpose and injury prevention:
“Sore hamstrings are a good thing because they are dampening springs that protect your knee. Calves are sore too? Then it did its job in protecting your Achilles. Now apply these stretches to help alleviate that soreness.”
Connection Not Concession
Finding common ground is not concession. It’s finding that connection to get the athlete to understand your point or adhere to your call to action. There will be times athletes and teams require a coach to throw the hammer down, but use it sparingly, as that will not be optimal in the long run.
A strength coach leads an athlete to become more effective in their arena. To accomplish this goal, a coach must use arena performance to help the athletes draw connections to training. Performance-driven athletes respond to performance perspective cues.
In my experience, college field sport athletes come in with great spatial awareness and power in their arena, but little sense of how to use it in the weightroom. Common coaching cues like, “push your hips back!” when squatting, or “bend the bar in half!” while benching make sense to us coaches or any gym rat, but mean nothing to sport athletes. As the frustration mounts for the athlete who can make magic happen on the field but not the barbell, they become increasingly UNCOACHABLE! This is where performance perspective cuing comes into play.
Find a commonplace within their sporting arena that mimics the action of the desired coaching cue. For example:
Cue: “Push hips back into your hamstrings.”
Performance Perspective Cue: “Show me how you box out. Great, now push your hips back with the bar on your back as if you’re trying to box out someone behind you.”
Cue: “Bend the bar in half!”
Performance Perspective Cue: “Grab that bar and bend it like you did the inside of the shoulder pads of that defensive linemen last game. Never let go, Jack.”
The worst thing you can do as a coach is over coach. Screaming action cues at an athlete who cannot compute is like yelling at a dog to fetch the paper, and then getting mad at him for raising his paw to shake.
Performance perspective coaching cueing is the most invaluable communication tool I grant you to empower your athletes. Whether you are working with high school, collegiate, or former athletes in your gym, performance perspective cuing benefits are circular. It helps translate their on-field abilities to the weightroom, leading to much cleaner and natural movements in the weightroom. Improved weightroom performance builds strength, power, and speed for the field.
Intent MUST Impact
Coaching is all fun and games when someone is paying you to yell at them. Working with athletes that are forced to train is a challenge unlike any other; one must adapt or die. First viewed as a incidence with a team and coach I mishandled, the experience forced me to find more effective ways to communicate the purpose per team needs, without compromising the message or program.
Creativity is in the connections. Find the commonplaces between the message and the athletes. Your intent MUST have impact. You may have applied these coaching communication techniques without even realizing it. Now begin to recognize these situations and find facts, comparisons, stories, even bad movie quotes to connect the message and program to injury prevention, mechanics repair, or purely psychology of discomfort. Otherwise, athletes not seeing the reason behind the action are just wasting their time.
John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.
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