In my view as a professional coach there are some key characteristics that are critical to effective high performance coaching. Two of these for example are emotional intelligence and communication. In this post I will focus on the topic of communication and what it means to communicate really well to the people you coach.
Before we think about some of the specifics of how we physically communicate with others we need to have first understood the foundation from which this interaction is constructed. The initial framework for effective communication begins with understanding the situation that we are in at the time. The time of the day, the location, the environmental factors, the emotional state of the subject and equally importantly, our emotional state. Once we’ve accounted for these we may need to formulate our communication style to either be in tune with them or to account for them. In a regular weekly coaching session with an athlete, I will talk to that athlete very differently if they came to the session highly stressed from a long work day than I would if they came to the session very relaxed on a day off. For me what I term situational intelligence combines an awareness of what is happening around you, with a knowledge of how to socialise, with an understanding and appreciation of other peoples emotions.
Much of this happens subconsciously and extremely quickly in our minds and comes more naturally to those that already have an innate gift for it. That said, in a more mechanical sense what I think about when opening up a dialogue with the person I’m coaching is: Where is this person at right now in terms of energy and emotion and focus? And where do we need this person to be in order to have a really great session? With this basic foundation established you can then figure out how to communicate effectively to get the person to where they need to be.
Most of the coaches I’ve seen at work up close in the last 10 years haven’t actively considered the way that they talk to the people they are coaching. And maybe for them in the coaching situations that they specifically deal with, they can try to argue that it isn’t of critical relevance. But actually behind what we say on reflex to others, there is subtle nuance, whether we realise what’s happening or not. And if we aspire to communicate better when we coach we can leverage those nuances to make our communication even more effective. Here are some of the key factors involved in talking that we can optimise.
Register: Where do you speak from? Your nose, your throat or your chest?
Timbre: Is there a distinct quality of tone and resonance to your voice that gets attention?
Prosody: Does the flow and rhythm of your speech optimally accentuate the important points of what you are saying?
Pace: How fast your you talking? Are you trying to convey immediate action or a relaxed effort?
Pitch: Are you adopting a higher tone or a deeper tone, and why? Do you change tone effectively in a statement?
Volume: Do you need to grab attention by being loud or grab attention by being very quite with your words?
Cuing can be a really powerful tool for a performance coach who is trying to help someone acquire and refine new skills that eventually lead to an enhanced performance. Using cue words or phrases that can direct the persons attention and focus is nothing short of an art. Rather than explaining or describing tasks and goals to a subject in a lengthy way, it’s about distilling down the key cue points that will help with performing the task at hand. Timing is critical when using cuing. Good timing is the difference between distracting or confusing the person versus tuning them in and switching them on. Cuing words and phrases can be broken into 2 broad categories, internal focus cues or external focus cues.
Internal vs External Cuing
From my experience of 11 years of helping people in a wide variety of different sports and workplace environments I believe that both internal and external cuing are equally valid. The question is whether you are coaching a new skill or perfecting an overall performance where learned skills are executed. I believe that internal cuing can be highly effective to use when people are learning novel skills particularly when that task needs to be broken down into its components. Such internal cuing in this context directs the subjects attention toward observation of sensations felt internally within their bodies. In the early stages of the learning process I have seen this be a great approach. An example of internal cuing for coaching a distance runner would be telling the runner to focus on squeezing their butt when performing glute bridges.
When coaching people to bring learned skills together in unison in order to execute a partial or complete performance then less observation and feeling is required and the brain will most likely just need a cue to trigger a chain reaction of processing to initiate action. Hence in this situation I believe external cuing gets better results. Such external cuing directs the subjects attention externally toward how they interact with the environment immediately around them. Commonly this is done using analogies that vividly and immediately convey the essence of the action required. An example for external cuing when coaching a distance runner during the performance of an A-skip drill would be to tell them to hammer a nail into the ground as they strike the ground.
Whilst basic models of cuing application are useful to understand, as coaches we also have to take account of the individual and their personality and learning style. Some people will just naturally be more comfortable with one or the other type of cuing. Certainly I have coached athletes who have genuinely surprised me with how well they responded to internal cuing no matter the task put in front of them.
Up until now I have described ideas around verbal communication but we also know that sometimes the most powerful communication between people, especially in close quarters can be non-verbal. When coaching I have found this to be incredibly important. Sometimes silence can be a way to bring awareness or concentration to a subject. Sometimes eye contact can be used as a way to engage a person that isn’t focusing during a session. Often when working in the gym I will deliberately control whether I appear concerned or not or attentive or not in order to affect whether the athlete is feeling at ease or not. I can use talk to tell the athlete they are doing a great job but I can also do this with my posture and mannerism too. The athlete can see me out of the corner of their eye and immediately just know they are doing great or immediately know they made an error.
To finish with here are 3 concepts that I have re-enforced to me in my coaching week in week out:
- Be cognoscente of over coaching. Sometimes silence is golden. When a person is cognitively maxed out for example, the last thing they can process and make sense of is unnecessary communication being directed at them.
- If it ain’t broke don’t try to fix it. Once an athlete gets a flow, just let them keep going in that state of consciousness, don’t break it unless its really necessary.
- Be prepared to let people figure things out for themselves sometimes. At some points in motor learning for example a principle we call self organisation will take over and a person will just figure things out themselves intuitively as they try to adhere to certain context specific foundational needs or attractor states.