Communication & Persuasion; Your Most Important Assets as a Coach

The two most important qualities a coach can have are clear, coherent communication skills and the ability to persuade people to do things that they may not want to do.

The two most important qualities a coach can have are clear, coherent communication skills and the ability to persuade people to do things that they may not want to do.

Communication is now and always will be the most important asset in a coach’s arsenal. You can have four degrees, 2 masters and a doctorate, but no one gives a shit if you don’t know how to get your point across. Without the ability to deliver your message, it doesn’t matter how deeply you’ve thought through its content.

Nowadays, there are a lot more theoretical coaches out there. They put in all the study, learn all of the training methods and know the intricacies of periodisation inside out. However, there is usually one massive, gaping hole in their practice. They haven’t a clue how to practically apply that vast knowledge and thus get the best out of their athletes.

You see, as coaches, the most important part of the job is communication. There is literally no point in having all of this knowledge inside your head, if you can’t convey that to the group or individual. Likewise, you can’t have a one-size-fits-all model of delivery. Every person is different. Thus every athlete is different. They all have a different background, different roles, different levels of education, different colloquialisms and thus a different understanding of various words and terminology. 

You can have your own favourite coaching cues for specific exercises, but that doesn’t mean that they will work with the athlete in front of you. Very often, you will figure out that different cues work best with different athletes. At the end of the day, all we are trying to elicit is a specific movement outcome. If we achieve the desired outcome, then our coaching has been successful. So in reality, the vast majority of the job is simply persuasion.

Our athletes come into the gym, and we have to attempt to persuade them to perform a given movement, in the manner which we desire. Often the desired manner of execution is what we perceive to be the most efficient movement pattern, for this athlete, in our head. But again, that perception is a dynamic and varied one, and often what we observe can change what we want extremely quickly.

Though different coaches may have a different perception of the most effective movement path, it is undeniable that persuasion is how we get there.

However, it is not always the players that we have to persuade to execute their processes to our liking. A huge part of the role of an effective S&C coach is persuading the sport coaches to carry out training, in a way that we deem has the least adverse effects on our athlete’s overall wellbeing. If we cause no harm, then we are one step closer to improving performance.

Unfortunately, it is often the case that other coaches’ beliefs are the ones that are even more difficult to change. This headstrong conviction to ineffective processes has developed over many years of doing the same things over and over again. When someone has married themselves to specific drills, games or beliefs around conditioning, it can be very challenging to get them to adopt a new method as more advantageous. 

After all, if they do that, they have to acknowledge that what they’ve been doing for years has been sub-optimal. Coaches typically hold their ability to coach as an integral part of who they are as a person. So then, in their eyes, you may be questioning whether their life’s work has been a lie. When you look at it like that, no wonder there’s a significant resistance to change.

© Sport the library/Jeff Crow Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games Australian head Athletics coach (AUS) Chris Nunn talking with athlete

So then, how do I overcome that issue and persuade the coach to do what I want them to do? Well first, in a similar fashion to what you do with your athletes, you need to get to know and understand the person first. Only by doing that, can you begin to understand how to be most effective in getting your message across.

After you do that, they’ll understand that you genuinely care about how effective they can be in their role. It might be fair to say, that in some cases, you may care about that just as much as you care about how effective you can be in yours.

Once you know the person, you will be able to understand why they are so attached to certain training methods or principles. Only by knowing that first, will you be able to begin to change their unflinching beliefs. You’ll know what is the lowest hanging fruit and thus most likely to be changed. And you’ll also know what are the non-negotiables and thus unlikely to get around. Then you’ll be able to maximise the training methods that you both agree on, and attempt to minimise the stuff that you deem to put your athletes at the highest risk.

Lastly, by getting to know your fellow coaches a little better, you’ll begin to understand the most effective way to communicate with them. They may like clear and concise information delivered quickly, or they may enjoy having deep discussions around the intricacies of sports performance. You’ll discover a common language that will have you both on the same page and you’ll come up with an efficient way to communicate in order to put the team first.

All coaching starts and ends with relationships, so I’d recommend you begin to think more deeply about how you interact with both your athletes and other coaches.

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