Coaching is both part-science and part-application. Most folks tend to miss the boat on this. However, the key piece that truly encompasses all aspects of coaching and allows science and application to meet in the middle is communication.
Citizen Athletics embodies this notion of using proper language and communication as effective coaching strategies in the field of sports medicine and athletic performance. Ultimately, strategic communication can be applied across many walks of life and is not exclusive to our field.
The career of any professional in this field will likely see them work, intern and learn in a variety of settings and environments, and with many different athletes from varying backgrounds.
My career path has had me follow a similar progression with several stints in both the Strength & Conditioning and Physical Therapy worlds, while ultimately planting my feet into the S&C field working in conjunction with great sports medicine pros.
The past 12 years in this field has seen me trip up, stumble, fail and make many mistakes while learning how to properly coach athletes in a variety of situations.
Communication is a skill that you must build, and quite frankly, it was pretty difficult for me early on. However, my many failures have been key to my success for learning the soft skills in coaching via interpersonal skills, intrapersonal skills, social awareness and emotional intelligence.
Failing provides you with two opportunities: learn from the mistake and apply the new knowledge – or – keep making the same mistake over and over again. If you choose to adhere to the former, you will incrementally become better over time.
Of course, learning how to properly coach ultimately begins with a textbook of some sort as you dive into the science. No one is knocking on science; you need to master this information first and foremost. But, that’s only the beginning.
The next step is to figure out how to take that information and properly communicate it to your athletes. Remember, it’s important to know your personnel and who you will be speaking to. Hence, the common acronym: KYP. This is what dictates many things such as discussion entry point, type or form of handshake, tone of voice, demeanor, body language, relatable talking points, etc.
Speaking to colleagues and friends in the field? Sure, ramble off the science, but make sure to speak to them and not at them.
Speaking to your athletes on how to perform a deadlift with great technique and form? Attack the low-hanging fruit(s) first, keep it simple and most importantly, make it relatable so that they can understand you.
In order to expand on these points, let’s take a closer look at 10 key items that have helped me develop my communication skills over the years.
1. Listen More, Talk Less
The fact of the matter is that you need to actually LISTEN to your athletes and not just HEAR them.
To hear is to allow words to go into one ear and then out the other, while knowing the entire time that you had an automated thought-bubble of what to respond back with without first taking what someone else said into account. This reminds me of what most people do during text messaging. Don’t be that person.
To listen is to actively use your listening skills, which means to take in what someone has to say, take a moment and give it all some critical thought, and then respond back by using your own thoughts in addition to applying the new information just spoken to you.
Listening to your athletes is crucial for finding ways to better understand them, their goals and what they seek to achieve.
2. “I Don’t Know” Sometimes is the Answer
There’s no need to pretend to be an expert.
Quite frankly, I find it very difficult to truly call anyone an expert. I consider myself a rookie and someone who constantly desires opportunities to learn each day. This helps me to keep an open mind toward growth, as opposed to a fixed mindset.
Saying “I don’t know” is certainly not a cop-out response. Rather, it allows you to demonstrate vulnerability (a skill we will discuss later) to your athletes. “I don’t know” allows you to go learn the information you are seeking, whether on your own or through a colleague, and then hand-deliver that new information to your athlete.
Your athletes will trust you, respect you and appreciate you more when you keep it real and avoid being the “know-it-all.”
3. Understand the Athlete; Not Just the Goal
Scenario 1: “I want to build strength in my right knee.”
Scenario 2: “I want to overcome the ACL tear in my right knee from a year ago. It’s been a tough ride for me, even after finishing the rehab process and getting back into training. I don’t feel confident in my right knee when I land, jump, cut and push-off. It’s constantly on my mind.”
Both scenarios above are examples of what an athlete might say to you during the initial assessment process, or even after a phase of training during check-ins.
Obviously, we can gather much more context from scenario 2, since it provides more information to work with. However, more often than not, you will likely only receive the information from scenario 1, unless you refine your communication skills and build a strong relationship with this athlete over time.
Understanding the goal means you’ll only receive the information from scenario 1, since you haven’t built buy-in or trust yet. However, if you slowly develop the coach-to-athlete relationship over time, I can assure you that you will eventually receive the information from scenario 2, which means you will have begun to better understand the athlete.
Understanding the athlete means you truly know why they are here to train with you, what their intrinsic motivational factors are and what helps them to set the wheels in motion. Knowing this helps you communicate and coach them better, which in turn, drives home better results.
4. Audible When Needed
It’s important to be flexible to help avoid a “one-size-fits-all” approach.
Being a bamboo stick allows you to bend but not break.
Understanding that even the most well-written training program in the world will likely undergo changes and modifications at some point is pivotal. This comes down to swallowing your pride, checking your ego at the door, taking a deep breath and realizing that the most important variable you will ever work with is the human right in front of you.
Change is constant, which means that you have to come to terms with having several back-up plans and options in place within your model. Otherwise, it will be difficult to find success for your athletes.
Stuff happens. Injuries happen. People trip, fall, get hit, take a hit, land awkwardly, participate in physical activities that their body isn’t prepared for and the like.
None of this stuff should be surprising.
However, it would be surprising to see a coach or practitioner who lacks the ability to audible and be flexible, make changes on the fly. Perfection is not what we’re seeking. Rather, we want to find the minimum effective dose for the maximum effective outcome.
What does that look like?
Well, you have an athlete who comes in on Monday after succumbing to a low-level ankle sprain over the weekend from playing pick-up basketball with friends. Nothing major. No discoloration or bruising. No swelling. Just some minor range of motion deficit and general stiffness.
He tells you this right when he arrives at his 3pm training session.
What do you do now?
Take a moment to think about how you can do no harm, while still keeping the training session enjoyable for this athlete.
One route might be to remove all single leg exercises, plyometrics and balance/stability exercises for the day to see how the ankle responds. Be sure to keep in bilateral exercises and maybe even trim off some of the weight to ensure that the athlete still gets a training effect, while keeping safety at the forefront.
The above scenario isn’t perfect. You would also need MUCH more context to better understand the situation. But overall, it serves as an example of how to audible when needed.
5. Empower with Room for Growth
We want our athletes to build skills over time that will help them succeed not only in the weight room, but more importantly, in life.
In order to help them as coaches, it’s vital that we coach and communicate at a high level, while also leaving room for them to continue to grow, learn and develop. Using the right words at the right time will help in this regard.
It’s not about trying to motivate or inspire; this should happen naturally and not artificially. It’s more about showing them how strong they are, how awesome they are and how capable they are of achieving great things as it pertains to their health and performance.
Over time, the hope is that your athletes will ultimately buy into this process, believe in themselves, build strong levels of self-efficacy and attack each and every goal with a positive mindset.
6. Involve the Athlete in the Process
The majority of your training program or exercise protocol should undoubtedly come from a mixture of evidence-based, research-backed and in-the-trenches knowledge. Point blank: we want to put our athletes in a position to become successful.
However, what if your athlete wants to toss in some bicep curls, because summer is right around the corner? What if he or she wants to build in some aesthetic goals like building a bigger pair of glutes?
Are you really going to flat out say “no” to your athlete? Probably not.
Why? Because, you and I both know that you can still deliver safe and effective results by keeping 95% of the program backed by evidence and experience, while adding in a couple of exercises to make them happy.
Involve each athlete IN the process; don’t make them THE process.
7. Keep it a Team Effort
Let’s go ahead and drop the “coach-knows-all” mentality straight out of the gate.
Collaboration over competition; that’s the key.
Once we’re past that, we can better understand the fact that the training process is a team effort. Furthermore, it really comes down to a multi-pronged approach:
Athlete + Coach
Sports Medicine Professional + Coach
These two avenues ultimately serve as the “team effort” collaborative mold we are after.
Firstly, you as the coach must team up with your athlete to work toward a common goal of achieving each individual goal and remaining healthy along the way.
Secondly, you as the coach must team up and collaborate with the sports medicine professional (i.e. Physical Therapist, Chiropractor, Athletic Trainer, Medical Doctor, etc.) to ensure that you both are on the same page, while working toward the common goal of helping the athlete achieve results and remain healthy.
All of the aforementioned items work well when there are wide open lines of communication for clarity and a mutual understanding of the direction you are all going in.
8. Body Language is a Language
Crossing your arms in front of your chest is not inherently a “bad thing”. However, crossing your arms in front of your chest, avoiding to smile at all costs, slouching forward and aggressively leaning into one hip may not give off the best message to your athletes. It could potentially tell them that you’re disinterested and that you really don’t care.
Conversely, placing your hands down by your pockets (not in them) or even crossed behind your back by your hips may give off more of a vulnerable look toward your athletes, which may allow them to feel more comfortable in placing trust in you as their coach. More trust equals better opportunities to communicate and coach effectively.
Making eye contact to ensure that your message is being delivered. Avoiding to lean on equipment or sit down during a training session. Ensuring that you keep positive energy and remain engaged in what the athlete needs. All of these aforementioned items are focal points to key in on as the coach.
Overall, these are the types of things that will help to build buy-in and rapport with your athletes through positive body language.
9. Stick Tight to the Details
Context is key.
Understanding the information behind each athlete’s injury history, training goals and exercise protocol will put you in a MUCH better position to then be able to coach them.
Communication starts with understanding and listening. In doing so, you will be one step ahead to having several relatable points to check in with to ensure that you’re hitting your marks as a coach with each individual athlete.
10. Show Them How Much You Care
Demonstrate compassion, empathy, care and vulnerability on a regular basis to your athletes.
Don’t talk about it. Show your athletes how much you truly care about them, their goals and their health.
I promise you that your ability to coach, develop trust and build buy-in with each individual athlete will skyrocket once you enhance the soft skills of language through effective communication strategies.
Matthew Ibrahim is the Co-Owner, Director of Strength & Conditioning and Internship Coordinator at TD Athletes Edge in Salem, MA. Throughout his career, he has been an invited guest speaker nationally in over 10 U.S. states, highlighted by his presentations at Google Headquarters, Stanford University, Equinox and Lululemon, in addition to guest speaking internationally in Milan, Italy. His professional work has been featured in some of the world’s largest publications, like Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness. Currently, he is a PhD student at Rocky Mountain University in the Human and Sport Performance program. Matthew also serves as an Adjunct Professor of Exercise Science at Maryville University and Endicott College. Connect with him on Instagram for training, performance and professional development: @matthewibrahim_