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Talk the athlete's language if you wish to communicate effectively

Brian Mackenzie explains how to communicate effectively with athletes.

Communication is the art of successfully sharing meaningful information with people using an interchange of experiences. Coaches wish to motivate the athletes they work with and to provide them with information that will allow them to train effectively and improve performance. Communication from the coach to the athlete will initiate appropriate actions. This, however, requires the athlete to not only receive the information from the coach but also to understand and accept it.

Coaches need to ask themselves:

  • Do I have the athlete's attention?
  • Am I explaining myself in an easily understood manner?
  • Has the athlete understood?
  • Does the athlete believe what I am telling them?
  • Does the athlete accept what I am saying?

Non-verbal messages

At first, face-to-face communication may consist of taking in turns to speak. While the coach is speaking the athlete is expected to listen and wait patiently until the coach finishes. On closer examination, it can be seen that people resort to a variety of verbal and non-verbal behaviour to maintain a smooth flow of communication. Such behaviour includes head-nods, smiles, frowns, bodily contact, eye movements, laughter, body posture, language, and many other actions. The facial expressions of athletes provide feedback to the coach. Glazed or downturned eyes indicate boredom or disinterest, as does fidgeting. Fully raised eyebrows signal disbelief and half raised indicate puzzlement. The posture of the group provides a means by which their attitude to the coach may be judged and act as a pointer to their mood. Control of a group demands that a coach should be sensitive to the signals being transmitted by the athletes. Their faces usually give a good indication of how they feel, and a good working knowledge of the meaning of non-verbal cues will prove invaluable to the coach.

Communication blocks

Difficulties in communicating with an athlete may be due to many issues, including the following:

  • The athlete's perception of something is different from yours
  • The athlete may jump to a conclusion instead of working through the process of hearing, understanding, and accepting
  • The athlete may lack the knowledge needed to understand what you are trying to communicate
  • The athlete may lack the motivation to listen to you or to convert the information given into action
  • The coach may have difficulty in expressing what she/he wishes to say to the athlete
  • Emotions may interfere in the communication process
  • There may be a clash of personality between you and the athlete

These blocks to communication work both ways and coaches need to consider the process of communication carefully.

Effective Communication

Before communicating with an athlete, coaches should consider:

  • WHY they want to communicate
  • WHO they wish to communicate with
  • WHERE and WHEN the message could best be delivered
  • WHAT is it that they want to communicate
  • HOW they are going to communicate the information

Effective communication contains six elements:

  Clear Ensure that the information is presented clearly
  Concise Be concise, do not lose the message by being long-winded
  Correct Be accurate, avoid giving misleading information
  Complete Give all the information and not just part of it
  Courteous Be polite and non-threatening, avoid conflict
  Constructive Be positive, avoid being critical and negative

Be Positive

When coaches provide information to the athlete, which will allow them to take action to effect change, they must provide the information positively. Look for something positive to say first and then provide the information that will allow the athlete to effect a change of behaviour or action.


Coaches should:

  • Develop their verbal and non-verbal communication skills
  • Ensure that they provide positive feedback during coaching sessions
  • Give all athletes in their training groups equal attention
  • Ensure that they not only talk to their athletes, but also listen to them as well

Improved communication skills will enable both the athlete and coach to gain much more from their coaching relationship

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (2003) Talk the athlete's language if you wish to communicate effectively. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 5 / September), p. 1-2

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (2003) Talk the athlete's language if you wish to communicate effectively [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Brian Mackenzie is a British Athletics level 4 performance coach and a coach tutor/assessor. He has been coaching sprint, middle distance, and combined event athletes for the past 30+ years and has 45+ years of experience as an endurance athlete.