Improving verbal communication

One of the major components of leading in football is communication. If you as a coach have a clear reference for your communication and take the game and the action that takes place within it as a starting point, the chance that everyone understands you increases. In the posts Being a role model and Leading by example the importance of what your body language, behavior and actions communicate to your players and staff was highlighted with some examples. The importance of verbal communication to players and staff where highlighted in the posts How do you communicate with your players and How do you communicate with your staff. In these posts some suggestions for practical application like  using a common (football) language and defining words and the terminology that is used are made. Doing this together with the players and staff regularly will increase the chance that everyone understands what you are talking about. However, even though you have done this there might still be room to improve your communication.

When you want to improve as a coach and execute better leading, one integral part is to increase the quality of your verbal communication with your surroundings. Imagine that you come to the office and are leading your staff through a short meeting. When you leave you do so with a feeling of certainty that everyone on your staff knows what to do next. Even better, when some of your staff leaves the meeting you overhear a comment that confirms that they really got it and feel motivated to work. One of the consequences of a higher quality in verbal communication is that your time spent in meetings will decrease. However, it can of course also improve your relationship with your staff, players and external stakeholders in an array of different ways. But how do you improve the quality of your verbal communication?

The first step is to increase your level of your self-awareness of verbal communication, meaning that you have to get an idea of the what and how of your current level of verbal communication. The What being the knowledge and content that you are communicating and the How being your application of your knowledge verbally. Maybe your theoretical knowledge of verbal communication and your content is very good and it’s your application that need improving. Or perhaps it’s the other way around, that you need to acquire the theoretical knowledge or improve the content that you are delivering verbally. But how do you know what it is you need to improve, or in different words, how do you increase your self-awareness of verbal communication?

There are several different ways to reach a higher level of self-awareness when it comes to your verbal communication. One is to reflect on what you say, how you say it and what the response of the person or persons your are communicating with is. You do this by taking notes of your verbal interactions during the day and take time to reflect and summarize your reflections into learning points and/or action points before going to bed. You can also ask the people that you are verbally interacting with to give you feedback in different ways. Maybe you have a mentor or someone you trust in the club or on your staff that you ask for immediate feedback after for example a team meeting or press conference. Another way of receiving feedback from the people you interact with is to use a questionnaire that can easily be distributed and answered anonymously online. Both of these methods have their advantages and will help you raise your self-awareness of your verbal communication. However, there is a third method that is probably the most effective one of them all.

You should, if practically possible, film your verbal interactions as often as possible to review yourself afterwards. Ideally you should also have two angles, one of yourself and one of the person(s) you are interacting with. That way it is possible for you to see the effect of your words on the receivers of your communication in realtime. Now, this ideal situation is of course very difficult for most to achieve, but something almost everyone can arrange is filming of a lecture, press conference, team meeting, staff meeting and even one on ones with staff and players. Maybe you are thinking that it’s a crazy  idea to film a ’personal conversation’ with a staff member or player. However, if you explain the reason for doing so, most staff and players would probably say yes given that the nature of the conversation is not perceived as a threatening or difficult for the participant.

Seeing yourself on video is as real as you can get it and something that will raise your level of self-awareness to another level. Use your newly found knowledge about yourself to identify what it is you need to improve and act on it.

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How do you know you’re doing a good job?

When you’re in the everyday of your coaching you are working hard and doing everything you can to help your players improve and your team to win games day in and day out. Sometimes it’s difficult to judge the quality of your efforts objectively and you know that if your team wins on Sunday ’everyone’ is happy anyway. You get pats on the back from fans and people surrounding the club that serves as a recognition of a job well done. That might feel good at the moment, but imagine that you know that the only reason you won on Sunday was luck. Your opponent weren’t able to score on their ten chances and you scored on the wrongly appointed penalty shot. Now, on your way home from the game you might ask yourself the question ’am I really doing a good job or am I just lucky?’. By the way, if you are asking yourself this question, congratulations, it means that you are reflecting upon your practice as a coach which in turn means that you probably are or have the chance to develop into, a good coach and leader.

You know that you keep a high standard for yourself when it comes to the coaching and leading of your team. Your standards are probably higher than the ones for everyone else around you, at least that might be your perception. However, in your daily work it may be difficult to know if you are really keeping yourself to your own high standards all the time. But that not the worst thing, there is actually one thing that is worse than not knowing how you are doing. It could be that the other coaches you are working with don’t regard your perceived high standards as high standards for them. That seams strange right? High standards are high standards right? Not necessarily.

The expectations from those you lead, and their standards, might differ from yours for different reasons. Maybe the club culture has installed a certain set of standards for coaching and leading that the coaches in your staff has become accustomed to and follow. It could also be that since the coaches you are leading have a different personal background they may interpret things in a different way. That can make what you think of as a high standard be something that they don’t understand or it may be so uncomfortably different for them that it doesn’t register on their scales of standards. Regardless of the reason for a perceived difference in standards, you need to know that there are differences and that your high standards may need a revision. Now the question becomes, how can you find out what the other coaches standards are and if you as a leader are doing a good job?

Ask them. Sit down with your coaches and ask them if you are performing up to their standards in different areas of your leading and coaching. Are their expectations of you as their leader in different areas being met? Don’t panic if there are differences in perception, think of it as a good thing that you get to know what they expect from you and how they perceive your actions in correlation to your high standards. A difference in perception is the perfect opportunity for a learning experience for both parties. For you as their leader you get to see yourself from the outside through their eyes and you get a chance to explain and educate your coaches on the what, why and how of your leading and coaching.

Instead of counting the pats on the back after the victory and take them as a measure of the quality of your job as a leaders, ask the people you lead if you are living up to their (and your) standards and expectations.

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Get to know your players

Imagine you are coaching a game and your team is losing 2-0 after two giveaways by your centre back. He is normally one of the best players on the team and this performance is very uncharacteristic. The centre back rarely makes any mistakes, but in this game he’s made several and two of them has ended up in your net. You cannot believe it, this rock of a player that you have depended upon for so many games and who always has been a leader on the pitch now looks like he’s tanking the game voluntary. A lot of different thoughts start going through your head while you are watching this debacle that is unveiling before your eyes.

After the game you sit down with your coaching staff and try to make sense of this mess of a game that has just happened. There are a lot of comments from the other coaches about how bad certain players where today and they come up with different explanations of what may have been the reason for this loss. After a while the focus from the coaches in the room turn to the centre back who made the mistakes that cost you the game. The consensus from the coaches is that if he didn’t make these mistakes, you would at least salvaged a point from this game. ”It looked like he didn’t care” says one coach, another says ”I think he’s been bribed, because he never makes those kinds of mistakes”, ”maybe he’s working against us to get us fired” is another comment in the room. All these comments in themselves make sense to you after watching the performance of your centre back, but you can’t quite believe it.

Assumptions like this are made after every game by disappointed supporters and all to often also by football coaches who are searching for explanations after a poor performance. However there is one big problem with these assumptions, and that is that your players are human beings and not robots. You do not know what the player was thinking when he played the game or how he was feeling and why. The only way to find out why certain things happen in training or in the game is to get to know you players. You have to communicate one-on-one with them and maybe not only about what happens on the pitch. As a leader you should also get to know how their family situation is, know about what they like doing outside of the football environment, what kind of culture they come from and if there is anything you can do to help them focus on football.

Now imagine that before the game that you lost 2-0 after the two horrible mistakes by your centre back he had just found out that his father was in the hospital in critical condition treated for a heart attack. Where do you think his thinking was in that game? And if you as the leader have not been able to create a culture where it is natural for the players to come to you when things happen outside of the pitch and inform you, who’s fault is it that these mistakes happened? If you have never shown interest in the players personal life or their general wellbeing, is it the centre backs fault that you lost the game or could you as a leader have prevented it?

Remember that your players are human beings that go through a lot of different things outside of football that can have consequences for how they perform in the game of football. Everyone of your players are different and you have to communicate with them accordingly. As the leader of these human beings, is it not your responsibility to get to know your players and build a relationship that let you know how to?

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Uncomfortable receiving feedback?

As a coach and as a leader you are constantly giving your players and staff members feedback for their work every day. That’s part of being a good leader, to always help guide the process by providing relevant feedback. You received some of your training in giving feedback when you did your coach education courses. There you hopefully received extensive training in how you are supposed to supply feedback to the players and it’s something that you’ve done so often in your career that you feel it’s relatively easy for you.

However, there are still a lot of coaches out there who struggle with providing good and specific feedback. But there are probably even more coaches who struggle with receiving feedback. Imagine that you are giving feedback to another coach and you see that the coach in question starts to turn slightly away from you, twist and shrink a little bit before regressing into a shell of protection and comfort. When the coach emerges from this shell, the response from your feedback is excuses or ’explanations’ that emancipates this coach from any responsibility connected to the area you are providing feedback. Or, even worse, the coach arises from the shell with authoritative behavior as cutting you off or using language to put you down and to show you who is the boss. Maybe you have also experienced being on the receiving end of feedback and feeling a strange uncomfortable and something that resembles a nervous feeling because you feel that the coach giving you feedback is ’questioning your ability’.

This uncomfortable situation you may experience when you receive feedback is not unique for football coaches but something that is the same for most human beings regardless of position. When you take big pride in the work you do and are happy to be in a certain position, you might feel challenged and almost threatened when another person says that you could do something differently. But why is that? As a player you didn’t feel threatened when the coach gave you feedback, so what is different now when you are coaching?

Maybe you are worried about what the other coaches think of you and that receiving feedback or making mistakes will ’look bad’ since you are supposed to know it all. Or maybe you think that the coach who is providing feedback is out ’to get you’ and trying to take your position. It could also be that your knowledge in the particular field of the feedback is low so it’s easier to make something up, like a good excuse, than to say ’thank you’ and take the feedback on board. However, it could also be that you have this uncomfortable, nervous feeling because you are insecure of yourself and you have a low feeling of self-esteem.

All of the issues above are perfectly normal, and if you do not recognize yourself, you probably recognize some of your fellow coaches who get kind of squeaky when you provide them with feedback. But whatever the reason is for you or them having this uncomfortable feeling when receiving feedback, you need to remember that people who are providing you with feedback are actually investing their time in you. Of course this investment can be conscious or unconscious from people, but it’s still an investment that contain valuable information for you and your development in coaching and leading. So instead of making up an excuse or blaming the referee, next time say thank you for the feedback. Then you reflect upon the feedback and decide if there is something in it that you can learn from or if it’s only nonsense. You choose.

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Protect your players

The only way to be successful as a coach is to have players that execute the plan you have devised to achieve your common goal. Whether that is winning the league or developing players for a higher level, your players are the conduit to reach your goal. You are the leader and therefore the one that players and staff look to for guidance when the going gets tough and the storm has arrived. Imagine for example that you loose the first three games of the season when everyone expected you to be fighting for the title and winning these games comfortably. The media and fans start to ask critical questions after the games and you are suddenly in a very uncomfortable situation.

When the outside world is criticizing your players you as a leader have two choices. Either you protect your players by taking responsibility and letting the blame fall on you, or you can deflect the criticism and hang your player out to dry. When you look through the media outlets after a team has lost it is all to common to see comments from coaches that are publicly criticizing their own players. These comments are made by coaches who, per definition are not leaders and who will struggle to get players performing to their potential.

Imagine you are working as a teacher at a high school where the grade average one year is the worst in the state. When your principal is interviewed by the media and asked the question of why the grade average is the lowest in the state, the principal answers: ”The students doesn’t work hard enough. They need to look themselves in the mirror and take responsibility”. The principal is blaming 15-18 year olds for failing classes and receiving poor grades instead of taking responsibility and look for ways to improve the school system. How crazy would that be? Everyone understands that children and young adults wants to succeed and improve if they are given the right environment to do so. But why is this not the case when talking about football players?

The reason for these coaches to blame their players publicly can be a number of different things. For example the coach can feel pressure from the press, the fans of the club or even the board because of the poor results. Or maybe the coach does not know how to be a leader because he or she went straight from a playing career to the position of head coach without receiving proper education. Regardless of the reason for blaming the players instead of taking responsibility, the action in itself can only be explained by the coaches trying to protect their position and to keep their jobs.

As you know, the statement of the principal in the example above is a statement that you can read in the press after every weekend when you look through interviews of coaches all over the world. These coaches are not leaders since they do not take responsibility and instead blame their players. If you as a coach want to be a leader you must protect your players and staff from the outside world no matter what in the same way that the principal must protect the students and the teachers of the high school regardless of the grade average.


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How do you communicate with your staff?

We have already established that there are a lot of miscommunication in the football world between coaches and players [link to post]. Too many coaches use words that are non-contextual and without meaning and then expect the players to understand what they are talking about. The only logical conclusion to fix this problem is for you as the coach to start saying what you really mean. Most of you will agree to this and have already started saying what you mean to your players on the pitch which is very good. But how do you communicate with your staff?

Imagine that you are in a staff meeting for hours and when you leave the room you ask yourself what everyone was talking about? How many times have that happened to you in your coaching career? Now, imagine that you are part of a coaching staff and your head coach talk to you in general non-contextual terms, saying for example ”be sharp in your coaching today” in the staff meeting before the training session. What does that mean? How will you be able to deliver a high-quality training session when you do not know what the head coach wants? This problem is only made worse by the difference in coach education between countries and the terminology that can differ even between coach educators in the same federation. The consequence is that when you have received your coaching license and arrive at the staff meeting you have the same amount of different interpretations of the same word as there are coaches in the room.

You probably recognize this situation and understand that something has to be done to reduce the miscommunication and increase the efficiency of your communication within your staff or club. But how do you change this culture of saying things that no one understands to a culture where everyone knows exactly what they are talking about? Depending on your role in the coaching staff there are different ways to proceed. If you are not the head coach it could be challenging to change the culture of a staff and a whole club on your own, so the first thing you do is to make your colleagues understand that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. After you have at least one more person who agrees with you and understand that there is a communication problem you request a staff meeting. In this meeting you demonstrate to the other coaches what the problem is and how it affects the performance of the coaches negatively, and in the end, the results of the team and the club.

If you are a head coach you should start every season by sitting down with your staff and discuss how you should communicate within your team of coaches and within your club. In this meeting you as the head coach set the rules or guidelines of your communication in the staff. These guidelines can be things as making sure everyone speaks action language, only use terminology that has already been explained and understood by everyone, and most importantly say what you really mean all the time. Make sure to repeat this process a number of times during the season to keep everyone  of your coaches on the same page. Being clear and concise in your language as a staff will make you more effective, limit the miscommunication that is all to common in the football world and drastically increase the performance of your coaching staff.

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Preseason goal setting

At the moment the preseason is well on it’s way in the US and in Scandinavia with players enduring the hardship of starting up again after a relaxing vacation time away from football. The players are facing a new season with high hopes of improving themselves and their team. When they come in to training camp their enthusiasm and motivation is top and they can’t wait to get the season going. These weeks or months are spent learning and improving the style of play, team building on and off the pitch and general work to be as ready as possible for the upcoming season.

At some point during the preseason it is usual for the club or coaching staff to call the players to a team-meeting where different themes are discussed. Themes can range from a common set of rules that the players on team has to follow, guidelines from the club to even parts of the training method or the style of play. These themes will be up for discussion among the players in this team-meeting. But there is one theme of this team-meeting that is a certainty to come up in most teams. And maybe this theme has been decided by the club on beforehand, however, it is common that the players get their say in this process, often guided by the coaches or the directors of the club. This theme is of course the goal setting discussion for the season.

In these goal setting discussions all around the football world there are players talking about season objectives such as ”staying up”, ”mid-table”, ”top 5” and only a select few teams that say ”win”. Football players that started playing football for the same reason that any human play games of different kinds, namely winning, say that they want to lose a number of games during the upcoming season. Young children playing football and adults playing a game of tag have one thing in common, and that’s the will to win. The point and meaning of any game, per definition, is to win. For some people the reason of a game could arguably be ’not to lose’. But it’s never, ever anyone who plays a game to lose. Yet, in these team-meeting going on in the football world, there are young players, old players, amateurs and professional players who sit in a room and discuss how many games they are going to lose this upcoming season. How crazy is that?

As a player I could never understand my team-mates or coaches who sat around the table and talked about finishing mid-table with a straight face. I wanted to win, every game, always, and I still do. Even though I also understood that we would probably not be able to win every game, the thought of not giving absolutely everything I had to win every game was one that I did not understand. As a football player and as a coach your goal is to win every game. Without winning the existence of a game is not possible. No one has ever invented a game to lose.

When you gather your players in this preseason for your team-meeting and the subject of goal setting comes up, you will end the discussion in 30 seconds by saying: WIN EVERY GAME. After these 30 seconds and the goal of the season has been established you can now spend your time on the question that really matters. The difficult question that holds the key to your success this season is not goal setting, what you really need to discuss is: HOW?

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Using a mentor to improve

Maybe you are a young coach that have just started and want to learn as much as possible as fast as possible. Or maybe you’re a coach who wants to move on to a higher level or a coaching job with more responsibility. If you’ve read books about leadership your reason for wanting a mentor could be because that’s what it says in the book. You could also be one of those people who want to be an ”overnight success” story and use a mentor to hack the process and make that elusive step to the spotlight tomorrow. As you understand the reasons for wanting and/or needing a mentor can differ.

However, having a mentor does not mean that you don’t have to do the work. If you are lucky to find a good mentor it will probably be the opposite. A mentor inspires you to do more, influences you to do better while avoiding the mistakes that your mentor has already made for you. This mentor thing sounds pretty good right? But now the question that might be going through your brain is ’how on earth do I get a mentor?’.

There are basically two ways to be mentored. The traditional way is to have a more experienced coach as a mentor that you can talk to, someone who gives you advice and asks you high quality questions that makes you reflect upon your own practice. However, there are only so many experienced coaches that have the quality you are looking for and have the time to be a mentor for a coach as your self. In addition the really good mentors are already very busy since they are good at what they do. If you are lucky enough to find an experienced coach who is willing to help you by being your mentor this is of course the best way to go.

But, if you don’t have the possibility to find this mentor, should you just give up on the thought of using a mentor to improve yourself? No, absolutely not. You have mentors all around you every day on every level of coaching, but you may not be aware of it. Let your horrible head coach and that obnoxious coach on the other team be your mentors. Take note of what these coaches do and observe what the consequence of their actions are. Listen to what they say in meetings and interactions with players, coaches and other people while observing the response of those who they interact with, and take note. If what they say or do works according to your observations, then you have received advice from your (unintentional) mentor. If it doesn’t, it’s equally valuable for you since you now know what not to do in that situation. Let other peoples mistakes help your learning process by avoiding to make the same mistakes.

So don’t get discouraged if you do not have access to an experienced coach to mentor you. Make someone else in your surrounding your unintentional mentor by observing their actions and behavior while you take notes. Analyze those notes and take away important learning points that can help you improve as a coach. Let them make the mistakes so that you don’t have to. This unintentional mentor could turn out to be your biggest source of learning, so start observing, take notes and analyze today.

P.S If you are a young coach looking for someone to help you out, send me an e-mail and I’ll see what I can do for you. D.S

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Are you a good role model?

No matter what position you hold in your club, if you are in a leadership position or if you are furthest down on the ladder of your organization, it’s the same question that should be going through your head. The only way for an organization to be truly successful is to acknowledge that every contribution from e v e r y o n e matters. That means that you, regardless of your position in the organization should ask yourself if you are a good role model for your players, coaches, staff, fans and even for your bosses.

The question that you may be asking yourself right now is ’why does it matter what I do?’.
Now, if you are a coach at the top level then it should, without a doubt be the starting point of your leadership to be a good role model. But even if you’re chipping away at the bottom end of the ladder you can be a leader among your fellow staff members and set a positive example. And there is no more powerful way of leadership than leading by example. This will influence the culture in the team and the organization in a powerful way and it will show to the fans and/or parents that ultimately pay your salary. Being a good role model is what should be the starting point for all leaders, to do the same things that you ask from your players may seam obvious to you. Unfortunately the world is full of people who call themselves leaders and ask the people under them to keep to a high standard while not living up to it themselves.

Being a good role model sounds easy enough, but if it’s that easy why aren’t every leader a good role model? There are probably not a lot of people who would say that parenting is easy, and that is the essence of being a role model 24/7. Everything you do influences your child and you know that even though you say ’no’, odds are your child will end up doing exactly the same thing as you. It’s the same thing when you are coaching your team on the pitch or leading a team-meeting before a game. The ones that you are responsible for as a leader, your ”children”, are looking at your every move, listening to every word you say and unconsciously mimic your behavior in varying degrees.

So when you ask yourself ’am I a good role model?’ the answer should come from the context of your personal and organizational goals. Are you behaving in a way that is helping to install the culture that you want in the organization? Are your actions helping the people around you grow and to achieve your common goals? You are the one who is most capable of answering these questions, so take the time and reflect upon your daily practice by taking a good hard look in the mirror. Perhaps you see a reflection of someone who already is a good role model, or maybe, the reflection is of a person who sometimes says one thing and does another. The good news is that it’s not too late to change and to become a better leader, start today by being a good role model!

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Super Bowl comeback

I am still in chock after the massive comeback from the Patriots yesterday. How can a team that is down by 25 points with only one quarter remaining not give up? What is it that makes them keep going and believe in themselves to make that comeback real? How come it looked like the Patriots knew exactly what they where doing when they found themselves in that position?

The final drive in the first overtime in the history of the Super Bowl that won the game for the Pats was a statement of power. There seamed to be nothing between Brady and the end zone, only time and a string of plays. But this team was 25 points behind, Brady had thrown an interception earlier in the game and they had conceded 14 points from turnovers in the first half. Why didn’t they pack it in? Many teams of many different sports has been in the same situation, coming to the championship game, being down by 3 scores with only a quarter left and folded. So what is it that made the Patriots withstand that inclination of packing it in and instead fight through to the end and turn the game around?

The coaching of Bill Belichick and his reputation for always being prepared for every scenario could be one answer. During a long season the coaching staff has prepared the players for different scenarios in different games. Although this was no ordinary game, there was a feeling when the last drive of the game started, that this was somehow a scenario that they had practised, they knew what they where doing, they’ve been here before, albeit only in practice.

Combining the preparation of great coaching with the quality on-field leadership of the worlds greatest quarterback of all time does not hurt. To observe the composure and clarity in the play calling and execution in yesterdays comeback was very impressive. However, one could argue that it’s impossible to achieve that comeback without an enormous amount of preparation from the coaching staff and all the players .

So the answers to the questions of what and how this enormous comeback is possible could be as simple as; quality coaching, great leadership and detailed preparation for all game-scenarios imaginable. Now the question for you as a coach in your sport is how you can learn from the worlds best football team and incorporate this culture in your team and your organization.

Are there other things that you think made the comeback possible or do you disagree with some of the stuff above? Leave a comment and let me know!

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