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Sample Chapter from Winning the Mental Way by Karlene Sugarman

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Communication is the Key
Chapter 5

The art of communication is something that tends to be overlooked, and/or taken for granted, in teams - until there is a breakdown in that communication. Then it becomes a hot topic. Teams shouldn't wait until there is a breakdown to address and improve on its communication skills. This chapter will address how to improve communication and listening skills among teams, since communication is a key ingredient in a team working well together and being successful.

We tend to communicate with others in two ways: with words and with body language. You must be consistent in both verbal and behavioral communication. It is said that body language, gestures and facial expressions account for as much as 50-75% of communication (Weinberg, 1988). You constantly need to watch your body language (gestures, facial expressions, voice inflections, posture changes). Many times, how you say something is more significant than what you are actually saying. You must follow through with what is said with the appropriate actions and be consistent with content and emotion. People tend to remember 75% of what they hear and see - so if your actions and words are in sync it will be the most powerful. The foundation for communication is mutual respect and trust for all members of the team. It's not just what you say, but how you say it. It is important for there to be effective 2-way communication between players and coaches and among the players themselves. As a coach, you must have credibility among your team for communication to be most effective.

Game Day Communication

You shouldn't change anything in the way you communicate with your team just because it is game day. Your game approach should be the same as your practice approach. You should stay consistent and never show any signs of panic in either your body language or your voice. Many coaches talk about late game strategy, half-time pep talks, etc. My opinion is that you should communicate in an even tone going over the basics of what needs to be done and, if you deem it appropriate, you can remind them of what they've sacrificed to be here (6:00 am practices, long days, etc.). With regards to time-outs, it is a time to build confidence by being positive, adjust the game plan if necessary, and stress the goals that have been set.

There also needs to be clear communication among the players on the field. If there is lack of communication on the field it can cost you a run, and can contribute to a victory for the other team. "A confused army leads to another's victory" (Tzu, 1963, p. 82). Signs, verbals and cues must be well known so that there isn't any disarray or chaos in the heat of competition. For example, if a catcher is unsure of signs and has to keep starting over, it can disrupt the rhythm of the pitcher.

After a good performance (I don't say after a win, because a team can play great and still lose the game) it is important to give a lot of positive feedback as to what went well and contributed to the exceptional quality performance. It is also just as important to go over a couple of areas where improvements can still be made. After a poor performance (again, you can still win even if the performance wasn't up to par) it is important to find things that were positive, then point out what wasn't executed properly and needs to be worked on, and finish up with something positive to keep them motivated and positive for the next game and/or practice. Also, never reprimand an individual in front of the team, only praise them. Reprimanding them in public can be damaging to their self-esteem. If a player did something that was costly during the game, he knows it, the coach shouldn't make it worse by yelling at him in front of the whole team.

Basically, you should approach both in a similar fashion. Whether it was a win or loss, the approach should be the same. You should praise what they did well, give your critique, and then finish up with something positive and encouraging. Former coach for New Orleans Saints, Bum Phillips, said, "People are human. If you are going to criticize them, compliment them first" (Martin, p. 97).

Ways to improve communication

1.Communicate with each other as individuals - Not as #32, starting shortstop, but by their name. Ask questions about other things besides sports, show an interest in how they are doing, as a person, not just as a player. Say positive things to athletes unrelated to sports as well.

2.Have players give written feedback on coaches in addition to fellow teammates. This can give good information to spur topics at team meetings. This way the coach isn't doing all the talking, the players are saying something as well. Candidly share your point of view and encourage teammates and coaches to do the same. The better the communication, the closer your team will be, and, as a result, the better you will play.

3.You also might want to have players select captains that can best represent their interests and then have weekly meetings with those captains. This will improve the player-coach relationship by gaining the necessary information to keep the team flowing in a positive manner. As a coach, you need to be able to see things from someone else's point of view. Maybe ask your players, "What would you do if you were coach for a week?" Have your captain get written feedback from the players that they can pass on to you - this may give you some insight into your players.

4.It's important to have periodic team meetings as well, which provide the forum for players to give feedback to their teammates as well as get input from coaches. Keep in mind that, if you do have something critical to say, you do it in the best way possible - so the person hears you and doesn't feel like they are being put on the defensive. It's best to follow this simple rule - the "sandwich technique." Start out by saying something positive to the person ("I've noticed you've been working really hard - that's great."); then move on the your constructive criticism ("One thing that might be helpful is if you . . . ."); and, then finish up with another positive statement ("Keep up the good work - I have a lot of confidence in you."). With this technique, the players will be more receptive to what you have to say.

Exercise #3 - Sit in a circle and say one thing you appreciate about the person on your left. This will open up communication and improve team relations. Do this periodically (i.e., every 3rd team meeting, to help keep the environment positive).

5. Be a good listener:

6.Having an open door policy is crucial - Letting the players know that they can come and talk to the coach about whatever is on their mind (basketball, school, social problems) is very important. Having this open communication will establish a norm that will be conducive to optimal performance. They must be encouraged to openly express ideas and opinions. Questions must be welcomed.

7.Potential problems that may get in the way of you being a good listener are: preparing what you are going to say while the other person is still talking; interrupting to give your opinion, rather than waiting for the person to finish their thought; and listening out of obligation rather than with a desire to really understand what that person is saying and where they are coming from.

Effective communication is the life-line for success in all aspects of your life (Brennan). During the 1996 Summer Olympics, AT&T had a commercial saying, "Because when people communicate, there's no limit to what they can do." This statement sums it up perfectly! There must be a good rapport for there to be successful communication, this means you must feel comfortable going to your coaches and teammates when there is something on your mind, and everyone must constantly be aware of what it means to be a good communicator - being able to say the right thing, at the right time, in the right way. This encompasses being a good listener, good problem solver, and good at giving and receiving feedback - all of the things that were talked about in this chapter.

Winning the Mental Way. Copyright © 1999 by Karlene Sugarman. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.

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