Dr Matt Long and Dr Ross Lorimer look at the importance of communication to coaches and athletes and how technology changes how we interact with each other.
In 2011, a very public row between British Athletics head coach Charles Van Commenee and former world triple jump champion Phillips Idowu hit the headlines. Van Commenee reportedly said that those who embraced 'Twitter' were "clowns and attention seekers", and Idowu took this criticism personally. The latter felt this was a direct criticism by the Dutchman of his decision to announce withdrawal from the European team championships in Sweden on that very same social networking site.
This incident raises the very pertinent issue of modern technologies such as mobile phones, texts, emails, Facebook and Skype, on athlete-coach communication. In Athletics Weekly, in August 2011, Dr Ross Lorimer articulated the importance of reliable communication between both parties as a precursor to success. The part that modern technologies play in facilitating or hindering this communication is paramount and worthy of consideration due to massive developments in the accessibility of mediated technologies over the last two decades.
When we talk about mediated technologies, such as Facebook and texting, we refer to how the communication between the coach and their athletes is transmitted, the mediating factor between communicators. This mediator can change how communication is received and interpreted. Think about how you would feel about information whispered to you, and then think about it being shouted at you!
When coaches and athletes communicate, we encode our message in the language (e.g. our choice of words). It is then transmitted via a medium (e.g. speech, texting, or email). Finally, it is decoded from this medium and interpreted by the individual we communicat to (DeVito, 1994). Some people have difficulty decoding the meaning behind a communication depending on the means or language used to transmit it. Individuals may use different words or terminology, or others may not understand the 'tone' of an email or text message. This can be because we are not familiar with the slang being used or are not comfortable with the communication used.
Lorimer and Jowett (2011) have stated that coaches and athletes need to have 'shared meaning' to communicate and interact effectively. Hence, differences, perhaps caused by age, the generation gap, and unfamiliarity with technology, create the opportunity for miscommunication and conflict. Coaches and athletes also need to remember that they provide more information than what they say or type when they communicate. How they communicate is a form of communication in itself. So, texting someone could send the message that they do not have the time or desire to call them and talk to them, or maybe emailing athletes suggests that they are not as valued as athletes a coach sees at training.
DeVito (1994) suggests that communication between individuals, such as coaches and athletes, has both a 'what' (the content) and a 'how' (the means of communicating). It has been argued that in sport, most coaches and athletes focus on the importance of the 'what' such as technical knowledge, tactics, interactions about goals, and developing skills. However, the often-overlooked 'how' of communication is vital in achieving trust, respect, understanding. The importance of how we communicate with each other cannot be overestimated and plays a crucial role in how well relationships form between coaches and their athletes. This relationship has been cited as a centre of athlete development and success.
Importance of communication to coach-athlete relationships
Jowett and Poczwardowski (2007) have said that the relationship between the coach and an athlete is like the layers of a cake. The first layer includes the factors impacting the relationship, such as age, personality, roles, and expectations. The second layer is the quality of the actual relationship itself, the nature and content of their partnership. The final layer gives the outcomes of the relationship, such as personal satisfaction and sport performance accomplishments.
As can be seen from Diagram 2, the quality of the relationship is sandwiched between layers of communication. Jowett and Poczwardowski (2007) suggest that this communication (the what and the how) is the glue that binds the coach and athlete's relationship. Essentially, the quantity and type of communication used are central to either bringing them together or pushing them apart and bridging that relationship and their desired outcomes, such as personal performance.
Negatives of electronic media in the athlete-coach context
1. The synoptic effect
Mathieson (1997) referred to the 'synoptic' society as one in which the many have the opportunity to watch the few in a 'Big Brother' style voyeuristic context. The specific medium of Facebook was censured by the majority of the coaches interviewed because it was 'too public'.
2. Over responsibilisation of the athlete
The use of mediated technologies means that the communication skills of the athlete have to be sound. According to Stanley, "There is a greater onus on the athlete to communicate instantly and succinctly. Initial thoughts can go off the boil in terms of communication after they have showered, eaten, and changed and decided to contact you two hours later".
3. Demographics of utilisation
Mediated technologies have only become widely accessible in the last fifteen years, and their utilisation by both athlete and coach depends on the variables of social class, income, and age of both athlete and coach. They are increasingly popular but far from universal modes of communication.
Positives of electronic media in the athlete-coach context
1. Time-space distanciation
Giddens (1981) coined this notion to explain how electronic media can instantaneously cut across time and space. Most of the coaches interviewed felt that text messaging was a great way of didactic or instructional communication in terms of communicating updates to the scheduling of training sessions.
2. Data capture and retention
Reference was made during the research to the ability of athletes using Garmin technology to upload performance-related data and send it to their coaches and for the use of computers to avoid the duplication in producing training schedules which inevitably spawned a reliance on pen and paper.
3. Visual technologies
Morris pointed to the Internet-based video conferencing system 'Skype' as offering a medium whereby genuine two-way interaction between athlete and coach can be facilitated. He mentioned this about his athlete Emma Jackson, who represented Great Britain at the 2011 world championships in Korea. It was because of the visual as well as the audio facility provided by Skype that Morris was able to conduct half-hour sessions with Jackson, who was in Daegu whereby race tactics could be discussed. To endorse this point, Stanley mentioned his long-distance coaching of the Brazilian triple jump record holder, Jadel Gregorio, when the latter is in Brazil.
4. The panoptic effect
We mentioned earlier that the very public medium of Facebook exerts a 'synoptic' effect where the many can watch the few. Conversely, Foucault (1975) wrote about the growth of the 'panoptic' society whereby the few can watch the many as with CCTV cameras. For all its dangers, Hadley mentioned that utilisation of Facebook offered the coach an increasing opportunity to monitor the potentially inappropriate activities of athletes. "Facebook reveals character and personality. If there are lifestyle concerns about the athlete, they reveal themselves to the coach. If young athletes are using it too late at night, for instance, you can mention this to parents who can try and ensure that they are getting enough rest".
Differences between athletic disciplines
Although sprinting and field events place a high degree on biomechanics in their performance, Morris and Rush dismissed the assumption that face-to-face interaction was less critical for middle distance and endurance coaches because they overlooked the myth that their events had less of a technical component. Significantly Morris cited the example of needing to challenge an athlete about over-striding. The mythology can be expressed as follows:
Diagram 3. The myth of remote coaching opportunity by event type (Long & Lorimer, 2012)
Baudrillard (1983) argued that we increasingly live in a postmodern world of 'hyper-reality' whereby illusion could easily be presented as reality. It was suggested that athletes using these social media sometimes did so to play 'mind games to psyche out other athletes. Hadley passed the comment that "Facebook is part of the game. Athletes have to be savvy in terms of how they use it. It is foolish to broadcast to others that you have had a poor session at the track. On the other hand, 'beefing up' yourself is not always smart because ultimately you are going to get found out on race day".
While acknowledging the obvious benefits of mediated technologies, the coaches interviewed concluded that there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction regardless of the event type. Their preference was to be both geographically proximate and time-bound, stressing that it is vital to read the athlete's body language during the session to perceive levels of intensity of effort.
"Whilst modern technology has its uses, there is no substitute for visual and oral feedback". Martin Rush
"There is no substitute for the coach being there in real-time because there are times when you need to intervene". Peter Stanley.
In this postmodern world, mediated technologies are here to stay, and healthy coach-athlete relationships will employ a range of modes of communication. Mediated technologies can be used and not abused in facilitating interaction between the two.
The findings of this article were drawn from a series of semi-structured telephone interviews with the following athletics coaches and coach educators, all of whom have worked with Team GB athletes:
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About the Authors
Dr Matt Long works for British Athletics in coach education, having delivered work at the national high-performance centre at Loughborough University.
Dr Ross Lorimer is the Sports Science Programme Leader at the University of Abertay Dundee. Previously he was a researcher at Loughborough University and has provided consultancy to Olympic level coaches and athletes.