We all know the power of words. They are our primary form of communication. They have always been, once we got past the weird grunts and hand gestures of Neanderthal days.
For ages, we transmitted our societal values and beliefs through word alone. We connected with others through words. We set rules, managed civilizations, and changed the world with words. Poems, songs, stories, plays, and constitutions are all crafted to communicate our values, beliefs, rules, theories, feelings, and more. Whether spoken or written, it is undeniable that words are the WAY we communicate. (if you know me, I do not like talking on the phone, but will text all day long…it’s the introvert in me, but it is still words)
However, words are not the only means of communication that coaches use with players. They are certainly the most prevalent and the most obvious. They are not the most effective. We speak so much more to our players than through mere words, and sometimes the other ways we speak can be more effective in the moment. The words may echo for years, but the other two forms of communication can immediately set behaviors.
When you coach your players, think about the following 3 ways you communicate and take care to align them properly for maximum effect with your players. Trust me, they are always “listening” to what you “say”.
- Words. This should actually be called voice/written, but it does not sound as cool as a bullet point. There is no doubt our players listen to what we say or write and that this causes an effect not only today but for years to come. We know our words teach, motivate, elevate, change the brain and remain for years. Even when you don’t think a child is listening, he or she is. “Little pitchers, big ears” exists as an idiom for a reason. How many stories have you heard of the child repeating something said at home that mom and dad thought they said privately? Oh, the laughter we get when we tell about little Johnny interrupting a business phone call to say something utterly inappropriate but cute. Just be aware your players are little pitchers too. They listen to everything. Be sure what you say when you think no one is listening lines up with what you said when they were supposed to be listening. Also know that when you scream at a ref, it will be repeated. Let me give two examples of the lasting power of words:
- In 1998 I watched a child lose a game for his team because he failed to take a risk and shoot what would have been the game winning goal. As he walked off the field, clearly dejected because he lost the game, his coach said to him “I believe in you. I know you can score that goal. I need you to believe in you and take that risk next time”. What do you think that did for the child? Did it elevate him above this singular moment of failure and propel him to continue to take risks in life? Did it create daring, hope, belief? Do you think those words stoked a fire deep inside that child that would burn well beyond any game? I do. Telling a child you believe in him forges deep, wide, clear pathways in the brain. It motivates them, gives them hope, builds trust, and creates a deep sense of self. That coach’s words left a legacy.
- On the flip side, a few years back I watched a child mess up in a game and cause what led to a corner kick for the other team. Chew on that for a moment. An error led to a corner kick. No goal, no game lost. No harm, no foul, right? Guess what his coach yelled at him. “Idiot! What are you doing? If that is how you are going to play you can spend the rest of the game on my bench. You are useless!” The child was 10 years old. So what do you think those words did? Did they reduce any further risk behaviors? Did they cause fear in that child? Did they destroy brain pathways because of the secretion of dozens of stress hormones in the brain? Yes, yes, yes. Those may seem like words, but they tore that child’s self-esteem apart, prevented him from ever wanting to risk again, and will be the echoes he hears when he is alone and dreaming of who he will become. That coach definitely left a legacy.
- Behavior. This is a lot less overt, but still very well known. We all have heard the saying “actions speak louder than words.” It rings true in sports maybe more than anywhere else because a coach’s sphere of influence on a child is huge. Children emulate their coaches more than anyone else. They not only listen to coaches, but try to act like them. Here is the confusing part to a child. If you say one thing, but do another it really causes some issues with those players. They experience a stress reaction because they are not sure if they should listen to you or do as you did. They freeze in fear, they become disengaged, they hesitate in decision-making. Or worse, they choose the more effective vehicle, and in that moment, actions are more effective. They act like you. If your actions are not what you are preaching, you may end up with some behavioral issues that you “are not sure where this came from”. I have two examples again (go figure).
- What happens when a coach tries to teach his players to respect the ref, ignore the mistakes in games and play for the next touch rather than dwell in the past? They will try to follow that philosophy because they trust you. What if a ref makes a terrible call. I mean, a game changing, blatantly wrong call against your team? If you are the coach who leans back in his chair, calmly says “Unlucky” and acts as if nothing happened, your players just had your philosophy deeply ingrained. You practiced what you preached! They will see that regardless of the outcome, a ref deserves respect. They will learn they cannot control that aspect of the game, only they way they react. They will learn to be professionals and classy beyond the game. Well played, coach!
- What if, in that same situation, you jump up out of your seat and scream at the ref. You carry on for 20 minutes calling him names, insulting his family, and doing your very best impression of Melissa McCarthy in that famous Saturday Night Live sketch. Chairs kicked, water bottles thrown, balls punted. What do your players do now? “Coach said to respect the ref, control what you can, don’t dwell, but geesh, he is really living this one out. The game ended 22 minutes ago and he is throwing corner flags like darts against the trees. I guess we are supposed to throw a fit every time things don’t go our way, right?” (Full disclosure: in my younger days, I was prone to toss a hat or two when I got angry…I apologize to all those players for the bad example. It was wrong). I think we see how behavior can transmit values to children as well.
- Implied Values. This is the murky one. Hard to define, harder to see. It exists as a form of communication, though, lurking beneath the surface, waiting to undermine all we are trying to teach. Implied values are those values you transmit via very subtle situations that you are sure your players do not perceive, but sadly, they do. People say “Character is what you are when no one is looking”. Implied values are “what people perceive when you think there is no harm done”. Guess what? I have examples to help define this for you.
- A team shows up to play its league game short of players. The game does not have any bearing on standings, trophies, pride. It is just another Sunday afternoon game. Your team has a full roster and a full bench. The other team is 1 player short on the field and has no subs. You decide that you will play the other team with the same number of players to make it a fair game and show mercy for those 14 year old players who will have to run around for 50 minutes in the searing August heat. You never say a word to your players about it. You just make the decision and stand by it the entire game. Of course, given the circumstances your team still wins (but does that really matter?) As you walk across the field after the game, you overhear one of the fathers who tends to live a little too much through his child’s career say, “what the heck was that? We could have lost that game because he decided to play down a player. What kind of lesson is that? Kids need to learn to slit their opponents throat when they can.” Lucy, you have some splainin’ to do! At the moment you turn to say something, the son speaks up and says “Dad, coach always talks about respect for the game and the other team. He says it is important to be professionals, to show class, and to realize there is more to this than a game. I learned today that he really believes that. I learned that showing mercy and having respect for others should supersede any game. Coach lives what he says.” Good on you! You just implied some very important values when you thought it wouldn’t matter.
- Let’s juxtapose that with this example: You enter your team in a local tournament and decide it is time to bring home some hardware, so you have them placed in the lowest bracket of the tournament. We call this sandbagging, and it happens more often than you would think. Now in this tournament, you breeze through every game 7 or 8 to nothing and in the finals, the other team barely crosses midfield. You praise your players for being so dominant and for being champions. Surely they now have a higher self esteem. The issues is you implied another more damaging value on them. They saw the level of competition. They know they were playing well below their station as a team and they know they were not challenged. That weekend didn’t help them get better as players and was demeaning to the other teams they played. The value implied was “win at all costs”. It doesn’t matter if you get better as long as you bring home the hardware. Oh, and why not humiliate some other kids in the process. Not sure you meant that, but it was certainly implied, coach. Worse, your players may now think it is okay to boost their morale at the expense of another’s. If I feel good, who cares if I embarrassed someone else. Be very careful about what happens when you think it doesn’t matter, because you may imply a value that you never intended.
Those are the 3 ways coaches communicate with their players. I hope you begin to evaluate your words, your actions, and the underlying implications of what you do as a coach every time you take the field. In the end, most will leave the game, and your obligation is to send them on their way with the tools to succeed in life. If they stay in the game, you will have built an unbreakable athlete physically, emotionally, and mentally. That’s a win-win for the 99% and for the 1%.