Listen More, Speak Less

Every coach wants players to listen to them and the best way to foster that is for the coach to listen to the players. Listening to the players is more than asking “any questions?” at the end of a presentation, waiting 5 seconds and then moving on to the next point.

With their actions players may demonstrate to the coach that they do not understand a particular skill or team concept.

However, it is only through words that they can tell the coach the extent of what they do understand and what they don’t understand and once the coach knows that, they can address the problem.

This is further complicated because sometimes the player may not understand specifically what it is they don’t understand.

Too often though, coaches will observe a “breakdown” and will simply repeat the instruction that they have already given and then observe again only to see the same breakdown occur.

How can the coach break this cycle and actually understand what is causing the breakdown?

Use questions that are open ended

By using questions that are open ended, the coach can have the player identify what it is they don’t understand. Sometimes the player may not consciously know what it is – they were probably doing what they thought was right.

An open ended question is simply one that the player cannot answer with “yes” or “no” and instead the player has to give more information. For example, assume that a player has thrown a pass that was intercepted and the coach believes that the pass contravened team rules

  • The coach asks: “Do you understand our passing rule for 2v1.” The athlete answers: “Yes.”
  • The coach says: “So, I don’t understand why you threw the pass. Couldn’t you see that the defender would get it?” The athlete answers: “I don’t know.”

Here the coach has assumed they know what went wrong (the player passing when their defender was in the “passing lane”) and has no explanation for how the mistake occurred. Nor does the coach have information to help them to correct the mistake.

“Communication isn’t what you said. Communication is what the other person heard.”

Michael Haynes

Alternatively, the coach could use more open ended questions:

  • The coach asks: “What players could you see?” The athlete answers: “I was driving toward the basket and John was running the left lane. There was a defender in front of me.”
  • The coach says: “OK, what did the defender do?” The athlete answers: “They looked at John but stayed in front of me.”
  • The coach asks: “Can you show me on the whiteboard the position the defender was in?”. The athlete draws a picture showing that the defender was around the middle of the court.
  • The coach draws the athlete on the whiteboard, towards the side of the key, and says: “I thought this was your position and the defender hadn’t moved right across to you. If that was the case, what would you do?” The athlete answers: “They didn’t look like that to me, but if that’s where they were I’d take the lay-up.”

The coach has now established that the player does understand the team rule. The coach may plan to do some activities to help the players identify when the defender has “committed” to them, but doesn’t need to repeat the rule.

Often the time constraints of practice
or games mean that coaches do not have time to meaningfully seek feedback from players, however this is ultimately to the detriment of the team. Coaches should include some time in practice
for team discussion and this can be scheduled before or after the team finishes “on court”.

“Coaching on the run” is also an important tool for the coach to use. If the example above occured in practice, the coach could have asked the player to step off the court, but let the activity continue, rather than stopping all players.

Coaches will soon find that it is very valuable to ask players “why?” instead of the coach talking about “what”. For example, a player may have thrown
a bad pass (what). If the coach asks questions like: “Why did you pass to that
player?”, “Where was their defender?”, “Were other passes open?” the coach will begin to understand where the player made the mistake.

Not only can such a session provide an opportunity for the coach to discover areas of uncertainties amongst the group but it also gives the group
the opportunity to learn from each other. The coach can simply start a conversation or that can be delegated to a team captain or leader.

Below are some principles that can be practiced to “speak less”:

  1. Listening isn’t just “not talking”. Actively think about what players are saying or asking.
  2. Let them finish...then pause. Resist the temptation to answer their question before they have finished asking it. Pause for a second or two after they finish talking – to see if they may continue speaking.
  3. Help them find the answer. Rather than simply answering the question, ask the player other questions to help them to discover the answer themselves. It may mean “breaking down” the concept into smaller parts, or asking a question about something similar and then helping them to “apply” it (e.g. ask a question about half court defensive concepts, which then apply to full court).
  4. It’s not about you, it’s about them. Whilst it can help to build a rapport with players for a coach to talk about their own experience, this should not become long and drawn out. If the player has a question, answer it!
  5. Take time if necessary. Before answering a question, take a few seconds to organize your thoughts. And, if there isn’t time at that particular point in practice to answer the question, explain to the player that you will discuss it with them after practice. The coach must then approach the athlete after practice to answer the question – not wait for the player to come to them.
Getting Better, best practices for your best practices, Peter Vint, PhD, United States Olympic Committee