Communication tips for sports coaches

As a beginner coach, I would spend substantial time talking to players and carefully explaining my coaching strategy. Post-game talks would last 10 to 15 minutes as I reviewed all the important plays and situations.

More than once, the park manager turned off the field lights after a late game to end the conversation. My eyes were opened when my son began playing for other coaches. After an especially lengthy post game player meeting, I asked my son what the coach talked about. “He said we need to play better”, was the reply.

On another occasion the coach had angrily called a time out and was shouting at the players. When when I asked my son after the game why he was so upset all he could relate was “we let a run score.”

Children's attention spans are short and with all the distractions and stimulation in modern life they are getting even shorter. There is a tendency for players to remember only the most obvious points in a communication, translated into terms they can easily understand.

Use short phrases

Clear communication is often difficult, but not impossible. It just takes patience, an understanding of how kids think, and effective drills in practice. Starting with the first practice, try to apply short phrases to critical skills or plays and then support with drills. If possible, reinforce the phrase with a visual cue.

For example, young outfielders have a tendency to try and make the catch away from their body and this often limits how fast they get to the ball. I would explain how getting under the ball is the most important thing and demonstrate how quickly you can move the glove to the ball by using a succession of rapid hand movements.

Support this in practice with a drill, have the players turn their back, then you throw the ball in the air and say the phrase “get under it”, or “get there” as a cue for them to turn around, find the ball in the air, and make the catch. Long ball to center in a game? “Get there center” encourages the appropriate fielder to run to the ball first without thinking about glove position.

If he misses because he was trying to run with his arm extended to catch the ball away from his body, remind him with the rapid hand movements and encourage him to get there first. A bad relay from the outfield can mean extra bases.

I drill the relay encouraging the infielders to learn the outfielders arm strength and “set up” at a distance where the outfielder can easily get the ball to him without excessive effort that could decrease accuracy. I'd also have infielder raise his arms so outfielder could locate him.

Liner to the outfield? “Set up, go four” encourages the infielder to think about the outfielders arm strength and instructs him where to relay the ball. There are short phrases which can apply to most situations and skills in most sports. Players have them committed to memory and if drilled properly they associate them with the correct physical movements.

Keep their attention

When communicating with players, using short familiar phrases helps keep their attention and simplifies explanations. They can also have a calming effect in a close game. It is also important that the coach have the right frame of mind.

Mentalist believe that positive or negative thought vibrations can be transmitted non-verbally between individuals. Whether you agree or not, we have all seen good teams suddenly fall apart, errors spread like a contagious disease, and momentum inexplicably swing to the other team.

As a coach, your players will certainly relate to your mental state. If you are upset they will get rattled and if you are calm it helps maintain their focus. Before you call a time out in the heat of competition, take a moment to calm yourself, clear your head and think about what you want to communicate.

Use familiar phrases, be short and concise and ask one or more of the players to repeat to you the most important points, as players have a tendency to be more attentive to their peers than adults. How well does this work?

Consider a situation – your team is up by a run with one out in the bottom of the final inning and a runner is on second. Big hitter is up. At the mound meeting, tell the cutoffs to “set up” and “go four” and ask them to remind the outfielders to “get under it” as they raise their hands. You have quickly covered the most likely scenario and have several minutes to address other possibilities and offer assurance and encouragement to keep the positive vibes going.

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Randy Harrell

Freelance sportswriter from Savannah GA and a youth baseball, softball and basketball c... View Full Bio

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