‘Taint what you do (it’s the way that you do it)’

As coaches, teachers, managers, parents, employees we are constantly delivering messages. I’m not referring to text messages or tweets or emails or even that ancient practice of posting a letter with a stamp on it. I’m talking more about those times when we are actually present with another person or a group of people (although there is still relevance to those other methods also), when we are physically communicating. When we communicate with others in person there is so much more going on than just a verbal exchange. Our body language, our tone of voice, our presentation, our focus, even the way we approach and leave a conversation is sending messages.

Although I am interested in all types of professions I am particularly interested in sports coaching and teaching. This is probably because that is where I have had most of my experience over the years. Like many of us, I’ve had a formal education in good schools with some good, some great and some not so good teachers. I’ve played numerous sports and had many coaches, some good, some great and some not so good. I’ve also been privileged enough to be an actual sports coach myself. I’ll leave it to the people I have coached to decide which category I would fall into. I was even sneaky enough to ensure my sports coaching was delivered in schools during curriculum time which meant I had the added benefit of observing teachers in their own environment. I’ve observed some good, some great and some not so good teachers. I could observe people all day. It drives my wife insane. If we are at a restaurant she knows that I’ll automatically look for a seat with the best view of the rest of the tables. I then have to make that strategic decision whether to share with her my observations of all the happenings amongst all the other couples and groups. Who’s having a subtle argument? Who isn’t satisfied with the service? Who is a regular and on first name terms with the waiters? Which kids are about to be told for the tenth time that they’ll go to the car if they don’t sit still and behave? So many messages from all of these people. It can be hard work observing all of this as well as maintaining conversation with my wife. To be honest I rarely get the balance right. That’s the risk I take! I should also clarify that my interest in these observations isn’t driven by a desire to know everyone else’s business but more a fascination with how people interact!

Whilst I have no idea where this fascination with observing people over the years has come from, what I do know is that I have become acutely aware of the importance of the WAY we communicate. In fact I sometimes think that HOW we communicate is often more important than WHAT we communicate. This is pretty thought provoking particularly when one reflects on the quote by Maya Angelou:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
When I look back at all of the coaches, teachers and people of influence in my life I can’t remember all of their actual words. I’ve reflected on this quite a bit and when I first read that quote above things started to make sense. The memories I have of earlier coaches and teachers must be made up of feelings. Feelings that these people have generated in me through the way they have communicated with me, the way they have presented their sessions and the environment they have created. In other words, all the messages that flowed from these people to me have left lasting impressions and feelings both good and bad. I understand there are other factors involved to make up these feelings such as my own personal circumstances, my ability to receive all of these messages and also the actual content of the messages. However, I really believe that the HOW they coached and taught had a bigger impact than WHAT they coached and taught.

So what are the things that make such a difference to How we deliver the messages that we deliver all the time? Well, I’ll direct my thoughts to coaches for the time being.

There is a huge community for teachers to exchange this type of thing especially on social media but I don’t think it is as big for sports coaches.
How we do what we do is actually pretty personal. Many coaches think it is a direct reflection of their personality and for many this may be the case, but I don’t believe it has to be for everyone. The moment you put your ‘coaches’ hat on, that is what you are, a coach. Your ‘manager at work’ hat or your ‘house husband/wife’ hat comes off and all the baggage that may or may not come with those roles stays with that hat. Once that coaches hat goes on whether it is the moment you arrive at training or a match or in fact even on your way there, you are sending messages!

What impression am I giving the players as I walk towards them with a face like thunder due to that bloke who cut me off on the road just now?
What impression am I giving the parents who saw ME drive like a lunatic on the way to training?
Do I look like I want to be there? If I don’t, then how will that make my players feel? How will that make the player’s parents feel (if junior players)?
When I am addressing the players have I got their attention? ALL of their attention?
Are my arms crossed and am I speaking down to smaller kids?
Am I varying the tone and volume of my voice depending on the nature of what I am saying?
Have I been talking for too long and have the players switched off?
Am I setting the right example with my appearance?
Is my behavior (from the moment I am visible to players, parents, supporters) in accordance with the standards that I expect of my players?
How do I react if a player continuously gets the drill wrong? Do I ask myself whether I have explained it in such a way to make it easier to understand? Do I blame the player? Do I ignore it and concentrate on the rest of the team?

These are just a few of the many, many questions that a coach can ask themselves. Quite often it is very difficult to get all of the answers on your own. That is when getting feedback is very useful. Actually seeking feedback and not shying away from that feedback. This might come from a mentor or a fellow coach or just as usefully the players themselves.

Being aware of the messages we send as a coach doesn’t have to be something to cause concern ie always worrying about what the people around us are thinking of us. Just having awareness that we are always sending a message can make the real difference between being a good, great or not so good coach.

As Ella Fitzgerald sings in the 1939 Jazz hit ‘Taint what you do (it’s the way that you do it)’!

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