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Coaching, Communication and the Athlete's Perception

January 2, 2018

It goes without saying that communication with your athletes is imperative; trust and open, honest communication is the backbone for any relationship including that of player and coach. It also goes without saying that athletes, given an appropriate amount of time, can have a decent “radar” for how a coach typically communicates (think back to your playing days and when you could quite literally feel when your head coach was on edge, then think back to how that impacted you, your mood, and your subsequent performance). But, modern day coaching has evolved in ways that may be foreign to some athletes and the accompanying relationship, trust and communication with them may be hindered if they fail to understand certain methods coaches are beginning to employ.


Specifically as it relates to this article, I am referring to modern day coaching as coaching that implements tools and techniques that are viewed to create more informed and effective sport coaching. In many ways, gone are the days of parents forking down money for a pitching lesson with coach simply sitting on a bucket and shouting mechanical cues; we have evolved. There is a litany of research on the topic, including information on FEEDBACK and the BENEFITS OF USING EXTERNAL CUES. This research has begun to transform our industry as the coach’s responsibility has shifted from micromanaging to setting up the environment, granting the athlete more control and freedom in their process. However, it is my contention that while many of our coaching philosophies have changed, one thing has remained constant; the importance of the athletes perception. Nothing we say and nothing we do matters unless it is ultimately beneficial to the athlete (and hopefully, their performance), or at the very least perceived beneficial by the athlete.


As coaches, it has been documented that less feedback may grant the athlete more freedom and that when feedback is given, external feedback allows for improved motor learning and performance. However, what about the athletes’ perception of this change in the coaching setting? While our process may have evolved, that does not mean the athletes’ process or perception has evolved. An outstanding example of this is contained within the research study entitled “Focus of Attention Instructions During Baseball Pitching Training” (van der Graaff, et al.). In the discussion portion of the study, it was stated that “a gap still exists between sports practice and sports science in that results obtained in scientific research are not (yet) implemented in practice. Because coaches still give instructions invoking an internal focus of attention, players prefer such instructions since they are used to them and assume that they are effective.” (van der Graaff, et al., 6) Special attention needs to be paid to the statement that “players prefer such instructions since they are used to them and assume that they are effective.” The athlete’s perception is that the internal-centered instructions are the most effective for sport coaching. As the athlete cannot know what he does not know, the science is almost irrelevant.


Speaking in generalities and as proven in the example above, many athletes have become accustomed to being overcoached and overcued; it has become what they believe coaching to be. If we merely implement what sports science has been telling us, creating an environment allowing for self-awareness and self-discovery, our athletes may become confused while we, as coaches, take a step back and remove ourselves more from the process. “Why isn’t Coach _______ talking to me?” spirals into “Coach _______ doesn’t like me.” This does not occur because we don’t want to talk to the athlete and not because we don’t actually like the athlete, but because we are doing what we believe to be the most effective and most informed version of sport coaching. The only problem? The athlete didn’t perceive it to be the most effective and most informed version of sport coaching; your lack of feedback may actually be perceived as indifference, laziness, or worse.

This might sound like an excuse to simply revert to directive-based coaching with internal cueing and internal feedback, but it is actually more reason to create a dialogue with your athlete. If a player’s expectation of a top coach is consistent and internal feedback, we can help to reshape his expectation by simply explaining our reasoning. An athlete may be shocked when you actually ask them what their expectation is, and you may be shocked when they actually tell you.


Analyze the following:

  • How much time have you spent refining your knowledge of sport/skill enhancement?

  • How much time have you spent refining your knowledge of communication/relationship-building?


Chances are, you’ve spent far more time refining your knowledge of sport/skill enhancement such as training programs or mechanics rather than working on improving how you create relationships, coach and lead with your athletes. Invest in yourself just as you invest in your athletes!

This subject is one of the many reasons that we cannot paint with a broad stroke when it comes to coaching; just as athletes are individual in their anatomy and physiology as it relates to biomechanics, athletes are also individual in their personality and psychology as it relates to how they can be most effectively coached. No two coaching situations or coaching conversations are alike and the ability to adjust and adapt coaching strategies becomes the true art of coaching.


Jono Armold (@24Jono) is a Minor League Pitching Coach with the Texas Rangers.

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