The Individuality of Coaching

Beyond the Diamond
By Dr. Anne Shadle

As someone who loves psychology and finds the intricacies of human interaction fascinating, it is easy to see why I would be drawn to the topic of the individuality of coaching. Most of us would agree that the psychology of each person is quite fascinating. We might also agree that understanding the unique psychology and communication needed in coaching someone would prove to be important in helping our athletes achieve their fullest potential.

Each of our personalities, along with life experiences and the environment in which we live and learn plays a huge part in how we socialize, communicate and interact with others. The ability to relate to others is a key topic in effective communication and coaching.

- How do effective coaches build relationships and trust with their athletes?

- What are some keys to effective communication?

- How does effective communication help us to teach sport skills and evaluate progress in performance?

3 Keys to Effective Communication
• Cues
• Feedback
• Personal Coaching style

In the world of athletics, one of the most important sport skills is the mental ability to focus one’s attention. Previous research in the field of sport psychology has shown that successful athletes have honed their ability to use visual, verbal and kinesthetic cues to intentionally focus their attention. When distracted or not focused on the task at hand, these athletes also use visual, verbal and kinesthetic cues to refocus their attention. Research conducted with Olympic Medals winners indicates that cue systems were most successful when the cues had been established and used by the coach and the athlete in the weeks and months leading up to the Olympic finals (McGuire, Shadle, Zuleger, & Low, 2014). Both coaches and athletes reported that this type of communication was one of the factors that significantly helped the coach-athlete duo to win an Olympic Medal.

As expected, the actual cues a coach uses with athletes depends on both the coach and athlete and their preferences. It is important to understand the individual’s learning style and tailor your cues to that style. Listed below are some of the benefits, of using cues systems, for athletes as well as for coaches.

Cues from the coach help the athletes to:
1. Focus their attention on specifically what the coach considers to be most important in that exact moment – i.e., cues connect the coach with the athlete and are able to provide immediate guidance and attention to the athlete. Cues tell the athlete what they need to do, how to do it, and when to do it.

2. Immediate feedback, learning, and direction - these cues are especially important during practice because they tell the athlete about their progress. Loaded with information, these cues enable the athlete to make decisions about where to focus their time and effort; e.g., on perfecting technique, or developing strength or how to improve footwork/stance.

3. Feel supported psychologically - cues can give the athlete energy, reassurances, inspiration and have a calming effect.

Cues help the coaches to:
1. Direct the athlete’s focus and attention. By using a cue system coaches can provide specific feedback to athletes during practice as well as during competition in a very efficient and precise manner (Keep cue language short and to the point. Can you say it in 3 words vs. 10?) When a coach needs to communicate with an athlete and time is limited, such as in the heat of competition, a cues system can be especially valuable.

2. Immediate feedback, learning, and direction- these cues are especially important during practice because they enable coaches to teach athletes exactly what to do “next” or when they find themselves in a specific situation. Thus, cues help coaches process the information through their eyes, digest it and then teach athletes what to do next.

3. Provide psychological support to athletes and to maintain own emotional balance and mental fortitude - cues help the coach manage their own energy and composure while also helping to support the energy and composure of their athlete(s).

Effective ways to establish and use cues:
Use results from the individual communication style and preferences inventory to create a mutually acceptable plan for improving the efficacy of communication between the coach and the athletes.

How to give cues:
Cue from the ground up: verb body part direction
(Example: Lift your elbow up).

We know for an athlete to learn a skill, the skill must first be performed and programmed into their body’s motor learning. Skill is defined as, “the capability to bring about some desired end result with maximum certainty and minimum time and energy,” (Schmidt and Lee, 2014). A few of the different components involved in the process of learning and performing a skill are the perceptual or sensory processes, along with decision making, and finally the movement. Taking the time to explain why you are doing something and connecting it to the end goal for the athlete helps to strengthen not only trust with the athlete but also understanding the learning that is occurring.

When giving feedback, it might feel like you are saying the same thing over and over. This is part of the learning process. When you teach, you often repeat the same thing, but it helps to vary how you say the same thing until the athlete gets it. This is when you know a cue works. A cue that works for one athlete might not make sense to another and vice versa. The great John Wooden has a book entitled, You Haven’t Taught Until They Have Learned: John Wooden’s Teaching Principles and Practices. This is a great book to further dive in and learn more about the individuality of coaching individuals as well as a team.

How much feedback is too much?
It has been found with a group of elite Olympic athletes that one correction was enough for the athlete when learning a new skill. Coaches must prioritize, from their own coaching style, what is most important. This will help guide which corrections are most important and need to be made first. Some athletes can handle two corrections but for most one correction was enough when learning a new skill. Once the athlete has mastered and made the first correction, you can move on to another.

The issue we often see is that coaches give too much information with their feedback which can often overwhelm the athlete (it is also too much information for the brain to process-thus why the athlete feels overwhelmed). It is best to take it slow when coaching/teaching new skills or correcting/breaking bad habits. Some athletes will adapt and learn quicker, others are less flexible and thus take more time to learn new skills. This is where the psychology of the individual comes into play and understanding how your athlete learns and the style in which they best absorb the information being communicated.

One final note: I would caution learning a new skill or changing the way an athlete does something too close to championship competitions. We want the athlete to feel confident going into major competitions. If this is a new skill you are working on and it is early in the season, I would say go ahead and work at that new skill. Be sure to communicate that information and the learning process to your athlete. For example, “I know we are working on this new batting stance. I want you to stick with this during the next game.”

Dr. Anne Shadle, Ph.D., is a certified consultant in Sport Psychology CC-AASP, a member of the United States Olympic Committee’s Sport Psychology registry and is currently the Senior Research Psychologist for the United States Air Force Research Laboratory.  She also serves on the Athlete Advisory Committee for USA Track and Field (USATF) and currently is the President-appointed committee chair for Psychological Services for USATF. She is heavily involved with coaching education and certification for the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) and USATF. Shadle received her Bachelor of Science in Education and Human Sciences from the University of Nebraska, where she also ran track and field. She was a two-time National Champion in the mile and 1500 meter distances before going on to run professionally for Reebok and compete in the 2008 Olympic Trials.