A team filled with the best players who communicate poorly will falter to a team of average players who communicate perfectly. Effective communication is a vital trait in any successful sports team, from the players to the coaching staff, everybody must be singing from the same hymn sheet.

During the ongoing global pandemic, communication has become more vital than ever in our day-to-day lives. Think about how many times a day you communicate, and how you do so, the chat with the partner in the morning, to a social media post, to a zoom call with your work. There are so many ways in which we communicate these days, and yet we forget how important effective communication is, and do we even really understand it? In the world of sport, communication is regularly labeled as a key influencer in performance, yet do we even understand what effective communication is? Elite athletes may win or lose because of split-second decisions, these decisions will be rooted in information gained from those around them through communication. In fact, athletes may be better than the average person at decoding communicative cues, because of how integral they are to success. If you want to know more about decision-making and what happens when an athlete makes a mistake, please read my previous article with Liverpool.com.

In this article I look to break down complex theories of communication, and create simple, applied techniques we can use within our sport, whether that be as a coach or a player.

What is communication?

Communication can be defined as the transmission of thoughts, feelings, information or knowledge through the means of verbal or non-verbal messages. Equally, communication has been defined as, any exchange of information between individuals, whether through words or gesture, conscious or not.

The key points to take here are that communication is about both speaking and listening, as well as being both a verbal and non-verbal skill. There are so many ways to communicate today; speech, social media, broadcasting and body language are just some examples of how we communicate with one another in today’s world, each with different pros and cons. It is also important we note that we are always communicating, whether through our body language, or our online presence, we can’t avoid communication.

Verbal v Non-verbal

So, we know about the different types of communication, but how do they differ?

Verbal communication is perhaps what we instantly think of when we imagine communication. It is the most specific and used method of communication between people. The use of language allows us to be specific about what we have to say and allows us to share complex thoughts and ideas. It is also much faster at having meaningful conversations, verbal communication allows for a back and forth dialogue where points can be expressed and debated in a significant way. Verbal communication can also be a powerful tool in persuasion and control, the most effective leaders use verbal communication to get their ideas across to those around them.

Verbal communication also has its limitations. Verbal communication can be untrustworthy, in other words, people can lie. There is no validity to what someone says, and therefore it may be disingenuous or harmful to others. Equally this could mean there is a discrepancy between verbal and non-verbal cues that a person is showing. It is also not convenient to convey long messages orally. It is much more productive to have written instructions for example.

Communication doesn’t just mean talking to one another however, fortunately it also incorporates non-verbal cues. These non-verbal communication techniques are vital in sport as these messages are decoded 4.5 times faster than verbal communication. Whether that be your teammate pointing where he wants the ball, or reading your opposite players movement, non-verbal cues could be the difference between winning and losing. Body language can also demonstrate many different emotions including pride and shame. For example, non-verbal cues can directly distinguish a winner from a loser. The body language of a winner is clear, arms raised, open mouth, open shoulders, head up, all clear signs of triumph. However, the body language of defeat is just as apparent, head down, shoulders in, a sad expression are all signs of defeat. Also, these signs are innate not learned, even blind athletes show these cues, without ever having seen someone else do them. Some more obvious applications of body language in sport will be the classic point to where you want the ball, or eye contact with the player you are passing the ball to.

There are many advantages to non-verbal communication. As already stated, they are decoded much faster than verbal cues, and can compliment any verbal cues, adding meaning or belief. They can also be used in situations where verbal communication is not possible e.g. in a busy stadium, or to aid handicapped individuals who may not have access to verbal communication.

Equally, there are disadvantages to non-verbal communication. Perhaps the biggest problem is that they can be vague and imprecise, the message sent is not always the message received. You may believe someone to be giving you a ‘death stare’, when in fact they were just zoned out, likewise, how often on social media do people post things that are taken out of context or not the way intended. Similarly, non-verbal cues are continuous, you can’t stop communicating. How you stand, how you have your arms, how you have your feet, all give away cues to those around you.

As shown both verbal and non-verbal communication have pros and cons. Therefore, it is vital within sport and life, that both are used in tandem. Each compliments the other with its advantages and disadvantages, and therefore in the world of sport we can successfully communicate with one another if both are used cooperatively.

Communication and its influence

Communication has been shown to influence many different aspects of sport. Effective communication can influence; performance, team cohesion, team dynamics, player relationships, co-operation, decision making, and much more. For example, poor communication is the number one reason for burnout in youth football players. The importance of social support and communication is evident across every aspect of sport psychology. For any coach or player to be successful they must fundamentally have excellent communication skills. So, what does good communication look like? And how can we improve our own?

Applied techniques

As stated at the start of this article, I aim to break down this complex subject and supply 10 easily applicable techniques for both players and coaches to use within their practice.

  • Open the Dialogue – The first and perhaps most important point. Always have an open dialogue with those around you. Allow others to speak and express their opinions. Whether it is about your game, or from a player about their game, allow others to speak.
  • Actively Listen – Communication is not just about talking; it is all about listening as well. Ensure that the conversation goes both ways, whether through eye contact or nods of appreciation, allow the sender to know you are listening. Active listening is all about showing the sender you are interested in what they share.
  • Ask, Ask and Ask – Ask those around you how they like to be communicated with. Do they prefer fast snappy points, or more in-depth discussion? Use your knowledge of the player/coach to understand their favourite style, everyone is different.
  • Demonstrate – Use the non-verbal communication styles we spoke about earlier. If someone doesn’t understand what you are trying to say, show them. Remember to talk whilst you are demonstrating, this will help to get the message across and will master the use of both types of communication.
  • Positioning – Positioning is key when giving instructions, ensure everyone can see you, and there are limited distractions around you.
  • Think about your body language – As we said, you are always communicating. Remember this and ensure you are giving off the correct vibes. Whether that be through eye contact, or just keeping your head up after missing a chance, your body language can influence everyone around you.
  • Be Concise – Be concise in what you have to say. People will remember a key message much easier if it is concise. Think about what you want to say and ensure the receiver understands. Remember, if the point is extremely simple e.g. where you want the ball, use non-verbal signals as they are much faster.
  • Clarity ­– Know what you are going to say before you say it. There is no harm in taking a second to think. If you are not clear in what you want to say, then others will feel the same. Keep ideas to a minimum at a time, don’t change everything at once and complicate things for the receiver.
  • Variety – Use all the different communication techniques mentioned in this article when possible. Learn how to effectively use verbal and non-verbal techniques. Take time to use different forms of communication with different people, whether that be through social media or meeting for a chat. All forms of communication can be useful in their own way.
  • Be prepared to learn – Be prepared to learn from other people. Everyone will have their specialty, and everyone can teach you something. Whether that be other players showing you their best skill, or a coach showing you their new idea, allow yourself to learn something new every day.

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