“What were you thinking?” A coach queries a young athlete after having observed a mistake made by the athlete. The athlete shrugs and does not reply. The coach then continues to explain what happened and possibly suggest some ways to avoid future mistakes.
What is really meant by the coach? Was the coach truly interested in what the athlete was thinking? Was the question meant to be rhetorical? What was the athlete really thinking? The latter question often disappears into a fog of defensiveness and apprehension. The tone of the coach’s voice speaks volumes. The timing of the question (immediately after a play, or after the game) will also bring to light an important context for athlete understanding.
In sport, mistakes occur.
We are expected to learn from them and improve. In team sports, a mistake may cost the team a goal/point or possession, and this frustrates more than just the coach; it may increase the frustrations of the player along with her teammates. The player may believe she has two choices: 1. Show remorse or 2. Demonstrate mental toughness and show her teammates she is still focused on the outcome?
Perhaps her teammate walks quickly past her on the pitch and yells “C’mon, focus!” This expression of emotion is also predicated on the tone of voice and the previous relationship the player has held with her peer. A positive or negative expression may result in the player feeling as though she has let her teammate down. Her focus may now shift to avoiding disappointing her teammate, rather than on her own performance; but no one knows this. So, when the next mistake happens the coach asks the same question: “What were you thinking?” It is highly unlikely the player discloses that she is trying to avoid disappointing her teammate. So, she chooses to shrug and remain quiet.
All of these dynamics are at play in team sports. Depending on others for performance is a skill to be developed, the same as any other. However, what is often implied on teams, rather than intentionally practiced, are skills of communication. Coaches place a great deal of importance on team cohesion and create social opportunities for athletes to “bond”. Organically, these bonds will form based on proximity and outcome interests (i.e., win a championship). However, in a manner similar to strength training or skill development, coaches rarely leave the progression of these important athletic traits to chance. Coaches are therefore encouraged to be as intentional with communication and relationship development, as they would be with strength and conditioning, and skill development.
Coaches use terms like “We” instead of “I or They” in order to identify when team players have shifted their attention toward team outcomes. Individual achievements, while important, are emphasized less in favour of team outcomes and team members “fully participate in group activities” (Estabrooks & Dennis, 2003, p. 100). Coaches communicate the importance of these behaviors and facilitate the desire for cohesion by using activities such as white water rafting, rope games, team dinners, and various other methods that implore athletes to see outside of themselves and raise the importance of others on their team. Estabrooks and Dennis (2003) state the importance of “talking freely” as the first trait listed. However, communication is often implied; after all, we all know how to talk. But a critical question must be asked of each athlete and coach before this important outcome can be achieved: Are you speaking to be heard or are you speaking to understand?
Referring back to the question from the coach, or the emotional plea from the teammate, adds a strong context to the goal of being able to talk freely: Some players and coaches take team sport as an opportunity to merely voice their opinion, and when players do not respond as imagined, they rationalize these responses as player-specific outcomes (i.e., can’t take the feedback, head case, too sensitive, etc.). At the same time, players and coaches both frequently use the psychological expression; “control the controllables”. So, if this is the case, how well do coaches and players heed their own advice? Is it possible to find alternatives to how communication is expressed? What if some of the skills required (e.g. emotional regulation) for high performance can be applied to this situation? If talking freely is so important then perhaps the methods of team building should take on a more intentional approach? After all, talking freely implies trust and respect, and not just saying whatever is on one’s mind.
Like any goal, the process of intentional communication, must be explicitly outlined, clearly understood, and contributed to equally by all members of the team. This step ensures that all members of the staff and team understand what is being sought and the purposes of doing so. Any team goal should connect to the overall team philosophy and each individual athlete should strive to establish an individual goal in order to meet the team goals themselves. For example, coaches often suggest respect as part of the team philosophy. As such, a team goal for communication would be to establish what respectful communication might mean and why it might be important to achieving the teams’ ultimate season goals (i.e., winning).
Create teaching and learning opportunities to establish effective outcomes and aid those who may require some work in the area. A key is respectful experiential activities (which double as team building opportunities) since practicing at lower intensities with less risk will encourage buy-in from those athletes who may struggle with the concepts early on. This may be in practice, in sessions with the coaching staff, or facilitated by a mental performance consultant. The important part to remember is that these activities should connect to the greater outcomes sought by the team.
Develop reflection. This means drawing attention to malleable traits such as attitudes, knowledge, and beliefs and helping players recognize how these traits can change, and encouraging athletes to appreciate traits that may be less malleable such as culture or gender. An important point to make, is that assumptions and stereotypes should not be made if players are going to be able to recognize heterogeneous features of others and respect these differences. Understanding incongruent attitudes with a team goal can assist in reducing frustration and dissatisfaction and increase effort to improve cohesion during the season and beyond.
Athletes reflect on existing skillsets, acknowledge opportunities to improve (i.e., during specific drills, during team travel, etc.), share methods for achieving these goals, receive feedback from respected members of the team and staff, and notice when performance has improved. This step is no different than other goal setting suggestions, since best practices in goal setting include having specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-sensitive (SMART) goals, sharing these goals with respectful others, receiving feedback regarding goals, and evaluating upon achievement.
A goal of good communication is not speaking to be heard but instead, speaking to understand and appreciate others' perspective.
Being intentional in a manner similar to strength training will increase the importance of effective communication, strengthen team culture, and meet the overall goals of respecting ones-self and ones teammates.
Having team members contribute to what the communication goal looks like and how it will be achieved, will greatly increase the chances of success. Most importantly, as with any goal, all members of the program need adherence to the goal process. If coaches merely suggest that players must respect one another and yet do little to respect players through effective communication then the goal will fail. A coach who suggests that hard work and dedication are the most important traits for athletes to have, and then turns around and over-emphasizes winning, will lose credibility quickly with the players.
Communication is the glue between members of a team.
Effective communication increases cohesion between these members. Leaving this important step to chance or other organic processes is not enough. Being intentional is primary to the development of effective communication. Carron, Hausenblas and Eys (2005) suggest: “It seems intuitive that developing team members’ abilities to communicate in an accepting, positive fashion, while promoting distinctiveness and reducing negative interaction will result in greater integration of athletes and better team performance” (p. 295). Practice creates opportunities to learn and increase performance. Everyone knows how to speak, and not everyone knows how to communicate. Help improve this skill as well.
By Matt Bain
Carron, A.V., Hausenblas, H.A., & Eys, M.A. (2005). Group dynamics in sport (3rd ed.). Morgantown, WV. Fitness Information Technology.
Eastabrooks, P.A., & Dennis, P.W. (2003). The principles of team building and their application to sport teams. In R. Lidor, & K.P. Henschen (Eds.), The Psychology of Team Sports (pp. 99-113). Morgantown, WV; Fitness Information Technology.