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Communication, Beliefs, and Tone

An underappreciated skill in coaching is managing tone when communicating with swimmers.

While what you say certainly matters, and swimmers arelistening, HOW you communicate says more about your intentions and beliefs than your words do. The biggest challenge is that we are often unaware of what we are communicating through our tone, beyond our words.

The first step to improving tone is to being observing what follows after you communicate. How do swimmers react? Do their facial expressions change? What about body language? Does it reflect what you would expect based upon what you were trying to communicate?

From a behavioral standpoint, what happens in the pool following the interaction? Is the change what you were looking for? You usually get what you ask for, so behavior is a good indicator how the communication was received.

Most importantly, do these changes reflect what you were trying to communicate? If not, there may have been a mismatch between the intended message and the tone in which it was delivered and received.

The responses to your communication will not always be obvious. You have to pay attention and observe. Once you’re in tune aware of how swimmers are reacting to your communication, it’s possible to use that feedback to discover where you may be making mistakes. With awareness of how your tone may be affecting communication, it’s typically easy to make adjustments.

Your tone will often be a result of your intention and your beliefs. Change your intention and beliefs and you will change your tone.

As such, it’s critical to be aware of what your beliefs are. If you don’t believe someone will be successful, that belief is probably being communicated through your tone. If you hate watching kick sets, that attitude will be included in the tone of your communication.

To make these concepts more concrete, let’s consider how tone affects the outcomes we’re looking for when setting expectations and providing feedback. The challenge here is that tone is mostly nonverbal and this is a written piece. While some of the nuance may be lost, consider how each statement might sound different when presented differently to swimmers.

Consider the following instruction, ‘We are going to take 5 under kicks every wall for these 100’s.’

While it might seem straightforward, there are many ways to communicate underlying beliefs that do or do not serve our purpose. With awareness and a strategy, we can make a change.

  • Particularly when we are not in a good mood, it’s easy to communicate instructions as warnings. In this case, the message might be you better take 5 dolphin kicks…or else. Fear is not particularly useful in a training environment and is not a sustainable approach to soliciting performance. Training should be an opportunity. How can your tone present it as such? How can you provide positivity?

  • It’s also very easy to communicate to a swimmer that you DON’T believe they’ll be able to do it. This often is paired with the warning above. The warning itself implies that there is doubt that the task will be completed successfully, and that is coupled with the implication that there are consequences for failure. You have to believe that swimmers will be successful and you have to communicate that belief when you give a set. The swimmers will believe if you believe. How can you communicate that belief?

  • A particularly dangerous tone is one of condescension. In this case, the coach is talking AT the swimmers as opposed to talking TO the swimmers. It is more of a lecture than an interaction. Who are you looking at when you speak? Are you trying to engage with the swimmers, or just reading off a set? How can you make that communication direct and personal?

  • Swimmers are going to be as excited to train as you are to coach them. What does your tone communicate? Are you looking forward to the challenge and excitement of the practice? Your tone will communicate your excitement and the swimmers will pick up on it. They will react correspondingly with their level of engagement. How excited are you for the opportunity to work on dolphin kicking? Show it.

Setting expectations goes beyond the words used. HOW those instructions are delivered communicates if YOU believe it’s possible as well, as how much energy you’re willing to contribute to the challenge. Swimmers will rise, or fall, to your expectations. Non-verbal communication speaks louder than words.

Now consider the following feedback, ‘Suzy, that was only 3 dolphin kicks on that last wall. Let’s get back to 5 on every wall.’

Many times, feedback is often the response to a failure. How we perceive failure can be communicated in our tone, and that communication can work for us or against us as swimmers will begin to adopt our beliefs over time.

  • When providing constructive feedback, we can choose to express our frustration over errors or we can express our support of the swimmer’s struggle. When considering the above example, we can demonstrate how annoyed we are by their failure, or we can communicate our belief that the next repetition will be better. What does that sound like? Which approach will get the better response in the long term and enhance motivation? While it’s a lot easier to get frustrated, swimmers need support not hostility.

  • When swimmers make mistakes, we can express disappoint in their failure, or we can express the belief that they can improve. Our response is teaching swimmers how to approach failure. Do we get disappointed or get better? Which will be more effective in the long term? While it’s a lot easier to get disappointed, swimmers need support not guilt. How do the two approaches sound differently?

  • When swimmers err, we can meet that failure with acceptance or enthusiasm. Using the quote above, it can be delivered with disinterest, or it can be delivered with enthusiasm. How would those statements sound differently? In which situation is the swimmer more likely to try to make a change? They will match your level of energy and enthusiasm.

These ideas can be extended beyond 5 dolphin kicks to any situation where a swimmer fails, in and out of the pool. How do we approach the situation? Is it a chance or the opportunity to learn? I am not advocating a lack of warranted consequences. Even when imposing significant consequences, we can choose to demean or we can choose to communicate that better is possible. What will have a better long-term impact?

The best coaches communicate effectively not just through their words, but through how those words are delivered. The tone is what makes the difference. It is often a reflection of what the coach believes and their intentions in conducting a practice.

If we want to take our coaching to the next level, we must be aware of our beliefs and attitudes as we move into interactions with swimmers. For better or worse, swimmers will believe what we believe and perform to our expectations. Managing those beliefs and ensuring accurate communication will help swimmers perform to their potential, which is what great coaching is all about.


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