As coaches, we try to impart some sort of wisdom or knowledge to our swimmers on a daily basis. The impact of that message will depend on the frequency and accuracy the message is received. Many a set, practice, or race has been ruined by communication that was poorly constructed or poorly received.
While it can be tempting to blame individuals for failing to receive a message, we can’t control their reception, so our only option is to work to improve our effectiveness in clear communication.
Here are some simple ideas about how to do so.
Know EXACTLY What You Want to Accomplish
Fundamentally, what do you wish to communicate? What outcome do you desire? Clarity will improve your message and streamline it to the essentials. Further, outcome clarity will help you quickly and accurately evaluate whether the message was received. Was there a change?
Know Who You Are Dealing With
Study the impact of your communication on each swimmer. Pay attention. Be aware of how your ‘standard’ message is received by each swimmer. What are the trends? Who responds to what? When communicating to a group, present the message in multiple ways to ensure it reaches everyone. When speaking to an individual, shape the message to enhance their reception. Some swimmers will need different styles. It is a coaching skill to mold your style to complement theirs.
Watch Body Language
How to swimmers respond? If they act confidently, they know what to do and the message was probably received. Individuals who understand instructions act with confidence. Do they seem hesitant? They’re probably unsure. Be preemptive and communicate again, preferably in a manner complementary to the original message.
Ask If They Understood
As with body language, hesitancy implies a lack of understanding. No one wants to look stupid, so most would rather pretend to know what’s going on and hope they can figure it out than admit they don’t get it. If they seem unsure, communicate again.
Ask Swimmers to Repeat the Message
Simple enough, if they can formulate it in their own words, or repeat your words, they have at least heard your message, and hopefully understood it as well. It may seem tedious.
Be absolutely unambiguous about what you want and keep the message as simple and direct as possible. Leave no room for misinterpretation. If you do, it someone will misinterpret the message.
Say as Little as Possible
As with above, the more you speak the greater the opportunity for misleading or useless information to be communicated. Unfortunately, it is typically the misleading and useless information that registers. Be clear and concise.
Speak in Their Context
Use their lingo. Use their expressions. If you communicate in their style, the message is more likely to be understood.
Anticipate Opportunities for Misinterpretation
If you know your message is complicated, or if you know there are opportunities for misinterpretation, willful or otherwise, anticipate these issues and communicate appropriately. Forethought on the front end will solve a lot of problems on the backend. Be prepared and be clear.
As with all aspects of coaching, we constantly face novel situations and we constantly make mistakes. Be aware that opportunity for errors in communication are rampant and we need to evolve our communication with each error. As with all aspects of coaching, be reflective, learn fast, and find a solution.
While we can only control how our message is sent, and not how it is received, we must still expect that our swimmers are honestly attempting to understand. When individuals choose to behave counter to our intentions due to semantics as opposed to understanding, be clear that this is unacceptable. When individuals understand, and choose to act differently, we need to appreciate the error was not a lack of understanding, but a lack of willingness. Let swimmers know that we know.
Communication is an art. The above suggestions are simply some tools that I have found to be useful over time. The more clearly we can communicate as coaches, the easier and more efficiently we’ll be able to help swimmers move closer to their goals. If there is a communication gap, it is up to us to refine our message to increase that the likelihood that it is received accurately. As leaders and role models, poor communication is an ‘us’ problem, not a ‘they’ problem. We need to refine our approach and our messaging to ensure that everyone is moving in the same direction.