Five Keys to Communicating with Athletes During Competition

1. Communications should be simple and to the point. Provide them with simple focus cues. For example, a track coach might tell a sprinter to “stay low” in the start of a race. Or, a baseball coach might remind a hitter to “focus on the pitcher’s release point.”   Often, this is all you need to say. 

2. Be aware of your body language. Remember that your athletes will not hear what you say if your body is saying something different. You can create a fear of failure in some athletes just by a facial expression or throwing up your hands in disgust.  

3. When in doubt about whether you should say something to an athlete, don’t say anything. In crucial situations, our ability to pay attention to many things at once becomes diminished. If you sense that an athlete is already overwhelmed, it might be best to leave him or her alone. When you do give instructions during a timeout, for instance, you should ask athletes to repeat what you said or ask them to tell you what they are supposed to do on the next play or in the next few moments. Many times they will look right at the coach talking in the huddle and not hear a word that is said. At least when they have to repeat it, you will know they heard what you wanted them to hear. It is also a good idea to ask the substitutes what you said or what the ones playing are supposed to do on the next play. This will help your substitutes pay attention and be in tune with what is happening.

4. Avoid using the word "don’t" when giving instructions. When you say things like, "Don’t fumble the ball," "Don’t turn the ball over," or "Don’t swing so hard," you are actually setting your athletes up to do exactly what you are hoping they will not do. By using these phrases, you cause them to focus on what they are not supposed to do. Try to always state instructions in a way that tells athletes what you do want them to do. For example, "Hold on to the ball," "Focus on a fluid and relaxed swing."

5. Many very successful coaches argue it is unproductive to yell and scream at an athlete after he or she has made a mistake.  They say that following a mistake, you should ask your athlete questions like “What did you see out there?” or “What do you think you could have done differently in that situation?” Many times a coach’s first reaction is to yell or scream things like “Why did you do that?” or “I can’t believe you just did that!” Statements like these only put your athletes on the defensive and serve little purpose in correcting the mistake. However, if you ask them what they saw, they will be less likely to tune you out and more likely to remember the proper response in the next situation. If their answer is wrong, you can point out that you saw it differently. Then let them know what you want them to do in the future.

Remembering these five keys will make you a better coach during competition.