CLARIFYING THE CONCEPT: POWERFUL COMMUNICATION TOOLS FOR COACHES
CLARIFYING THE CONCEPT
The success of any coach, regardless of sport, is determined by his or her ability to enable the athlete to learn the requisite skills of their domain, and translate that learning into performance. As coaches, perhaps the biggest factor that enables us to facilitate athletic performance is our ability to communicate. However, in the golf world, our communication skills often fall by the wayside in favor of explicit, technical, cause and effect knowledge. We’re not suggesting that technical knowledge and the ability to diagnose are unimportant (completely foolish idea), that information obviously plays a key role in coaching. It doesn’t make sense to be a great communicator of information that isn’t accurate or relevant to the person in front of you and their unique needs. Rather, we are merely choosing to focus on the need to be an expert communicator of the right knowledge, at the right time, delivered in the right way. Ultimately, athletic performance doesn’t entirely hinge on our concepts – many athletes with idiosyncratic style compete at the highest levels on the world’s biggest stages. It is the athlete’s level of understanding and their ability to decode the message and turn it into something that works for them, coupled with the right amount of desire and motivation that get them to where they want to be. What we have compiled below are two tools that we (and others) have found to be successful in facilitating learning, enabling action, and in maximizing athletic performance.
ENABLING ACTION: THE SOCRATIC METHOD
When comparing the training habits of good players and not so good players, there is one single thing that stands out – engagement. Specifically, the athlete that trains at a higher level, or closer to their ‘sweetspot’, is far more ‘into’ what they are doing. In essence, their level of cognitive engagement and physical participation, is markedly different – they are actively trying to match what happened with what they did. This cognitive process of error detection is what helps coaches and players ‘tease out’ variability in performance and refine skill sets. As a player’s ability to correctly identify the causal factors behind a given result, so too does their understanding of their own performance, and consequently, they become more confident, self-reliant, and ultimately, skilled.
So, how can we help athletes begin to develop their error detection sense and connect an outcome to a process? Simple. Ask them to.
As coaches, we can take two different paths. We can provide knowledge or we can use a means of communication that is in direct contrast to the former – facilitation. Rather than tell an athlete something about their performance, take a more facilitative approach and ask the athlete to reflect. The use of effective questioning helps the student ‘peel the onion’ and draw the necessary connections. This teaching method, more widely known as the ‘Socratic Method’, was key to many of scientific and philosophical revelations that emerged out of Athens.
“(The Socratic Method)….A pedagogical technique in which a teacher does not give information directly, but instead, asks a series of questions, with the result being that the students comes either to the desired knowledge by answering the questions, or to a deeper awareness of the limits of their knowledge.”
Let’s take the following example. If a player’s ball flies off to the right, and they don’t know why, what do you think they will try to do next? Will you tell them what to do? Or, will you guide the student to the desired knowledge by asking them why the ball flew the way it did, or challenge their limits by asking them to make the ball go the other direction? Regardless, by asking a player to reflect, we are testing their conceptual understanding and forcing them to connect the outcome to the process behind it, creating an awareness of how to make the necessary adjustments in their movements to correct the pattern. This process begins to build their capacity for self-coaching and expands their confidence.
Teach, don’t tell. Make sure you engage the student with open-ended questions that challenge their understanding of what they’re doing. This tightens the gap between what actually happened and what they think happened, thereby giving them the ability to self-coach, and putting them on a path that enables both performance improvement and the expansion of their confidence.
LEVERAGE THE POWER OF ANALOGIES & IMAGES
Coaches walk a fine line. Our role is to ensure that an athlete is supported in a fashion such that they can achieve their goals, or in plain speak, move from point A to point B in their development. However, we are often required (at least in the context of golf), to make adjustments to an athlete’s technique for the purpose of improving their ball-control skills under pressure. However, when we make the athlete aware of the explicit processes they need to undertake, there is significant research that supports the notion that their performance can degrade as a result of the shift in attention from relatively unconscious control, to a state of hyper awareness wherein ‘what’ they are doing becomes a central focus. However, there are ways that we as coaches can somewhat bypass this step, or at least shorten it, by becoming more aware of how we present information to athletes
Ultimately, our job hinges on our ability to foster understanding. The easiest way to do that, in our experience, is by making the concepts relevant to the learner. How? Analogies and images.
Analogies and images are incredibly powerful communication tools for coaches. In addition to being simple for learners to latch onto and accessible given their roots in everyday life, they have a number of significant learning benefits from the perspective of motor performance.
- They tend to focus on whole, rather than part movements.
- They tend to facilitate a more external focus of attention.
- They enable athletes to learn movements more implicitly.
- They promote the self-discovery and exploration of one’s movements.
Ultimately, all of these added learning benefits enhance retention and performance, thereby helping to shape a positive experience with the game for many.
How would you move this brush if you were to create a uniform stripe on a blank canvas? It seems like a silly question, because it is so obvious. However, to a novice golfer, the concept of moving a putter with good rhythm and the learning appropriate swing length, can be quite confusing – and daunting. To make the information actionable, make it accessible by relating it to something they experience.
A classic example of this comes from one of the greats: Mr. Harvey Penick and the picture below.
How would you hit a ball underneath the bench? In looking at the bench, work backwards to impact – how would the club need to look to create the requisite trajectory to complete the task? From there, how would the body need to move the club to make it happen? With a little thought, we begin to see ourselves swinging with functional technique and hitting good shots – without the explicit, declarative knowledge that can hinder performance under pressure. Good images and analogies do this for us.
Chris Como gives the slicer a great image and cue – ‘give the ball an uppercut’ – to get the club and body moving in a fashion such that they can create a more powerful swing with the club traveling on a more effective path for improved ball control. The learner might not be completely aware of how they changed their patterns and ball-flight; however, with some additional inquiry on the part of the coach, the learner can create a system of understanding the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’.
- Communicate on the same level, or in a fashion, that is relevant to the learner. Analogies are powerful vehicles for learning and performance. Use them – ‘know it like Homer, say it like Harvey’ – we couldn’t agree more.
In closing, it can be helpful to view coaching as ‘artistic science’. It is of critical importance to understand the inner workings of the sport, but equally, or perhaps more important to one’s proficiency, is their ability to relay the message to the athlete, such that they can understand it, and apply it. Give these two communication techniques a try (if you aren’t already using them) and see what happens. We’re confident that you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
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