Excellence in Coaching Communication


The following article taken from an eBook entitled Coaching Volleyball: Insights and Strategies edited by Kinda S Lenberg. The entire eBookmay be found at the Coaches Choice Volleyball Coaching Library

Excellence in Coaching Communication

By Peter Greenhill


Effective communication is at the heart of effective coaching. All the volleyball knowledge and understanding in the world is rendered meaningless if you cannot convey that knowledge and understanding to your players. As a coach, you want your players to execute skills and tactics in certain specific ways. Chances are far greater that they will execute what you want if you make your expectations as clear as possible. The key to excellence in communication can be captured in two principles:

• use concrete language (avoid abstract language)

• use the word “do” (avoid the word “don’t”)

Using Concrete Language

Coaches who use mostly concrete language rather than abstract language are rare. They are invariably consistent winners. Concrete language is clear and specific; it expresses things in terms that appeal to the senses, thus making it possible for players to form vivid mental images. Abstract language is vague, general, and unclear. Most coaches fall into the trap of using vague, abstract language and clichés, making expectations unclear to players. Terry Liskevych, former USA women’s national team head coach, once used the following example to illustrate the problem with vague, abstract language.

“You tell your players to concentrate,” he said. “What exactly does that mean to a player? Do this?” At that point, Liskevych furrowed his brow, grimaced, and appeared to be straining. He made his point very well that way. What was the player actually supposed to be doing?

Concentration has a variety of meanings depending upon the skill a player is executing at a given moment. If you tell a server to concentrate, perhaps you really mean “look at the ball when you serve.” If you tell a passer to concentrate, perhaps you really mean “watch the ball until it strikes your arms.” These phrases are concrete and specific. On the other hand, if you merely use the word “concentrate,” you don’t actually help the athlete know what you specifically want to be done. Use concrete and specific words that describe what you want the athlete to do.

An infinite number of applications of this concrete-versus-abstract principle is available to most coaches. It’s recommended that you examine closely and conscientiously every word or phrase you are accustomed to using in your coaching to see if your language passes the concrete versus abstract test. As you begin using more concrete language, you will see noticeable improvements in your coaching results almost immediately. To help you with your own communication analysis, consider the following selected list of abstract phrases transformed into concrete communication.

Common Abstract Language                                               Improved Concrete Language

Get a good toss on your serve                                               Toss the ball in line with your serving shoulder

Pass high and not too tight                                                    Pass 20 ft up and 3 ft off the net

Don’t drift on the block                                                          Land in the same spot from which you took off

Block the line                                                                           Line your inside arm up with the ball

Block Angle                                                                              Line your outside arm up with the ball

Penetrate                                                                                  Reach over the net and grab the ball

Get low on defense                                                                 Bend your ankles and get your shoulders in front of your knees

Square up on your sets                                                          Face where you want to set the ball

Move up on Free Ball                                                           On a Free Ball go to serve receive position

Hit smart                                                                                 Hit the deep cross court corner

Play Deeper                                                                             Stand only 3 ft in front of the back line


The important point from these examples is the power of language that is concrete and specific. Such language takes conscious effort and practice because it does not come naturally to most people. Make your own list of the words you typically use, and then write out improved, concrete alternatives.

Using Positive Language

An important principle in coaching communication, which is intimately related to the principle of concrete versus abstract, is the principle of do versus don’t. John Kessel of USA Volleyball told a story once to coaches and players at the U.S. Olympic Training Center that illustrated this principle brilliantly. Kessel told the coaches about an experience he had playing professional volleyball in Italy many years earlier. In an important match, three of his Italian teammates had consecutively served into the net, making the coach irate. He explained that his coach was always furious, which yielded poor results, and alienated the players. Kessel was next to serve and his coach screamed, “Don’t serve into the net!” Kessel went back to serve, tossed the ball in front of him, and then with an underhand motion, struck the ball as hard as he could backwards up into the stands behind him.

“I did just what the coach told me,” he explained. Kessel’s point was that to become an effective coach, you need to tell your players what to do, not what not to do. If you tell players what not to do, all you have done is eliminate only one of the countless possible actions that players might perform that you do not want them to perform. Again, an infinite number of examples of this principle occur every day in coaching. How often have you told a hitter, “Don’t drop your shoulder when you are hitting”? Why not say, “Hit the ball with your arm fully extended”? In the former instruction, the player could still be wondering what to do. Consider some of the following examples of positive language adjustment.

Inadequate “Don’t ”                                                                   Much Better “Do”

Don’t telegraph our backsets                                               Keep your back straight on your backsets

Don’t let the hitter use on the block                                   Reach over the net towards middle back

Don’t tip short over the block                                              Tip deep down the line or short crosscourt

Don’t be late to hit the “1” in the middle                           Leave the floor just before the ball reaches the setter’s hand

Sports psychologists who have worked with major league baseball players have pointed out that the human mind cannot form an image based on the word “don’t.” If you tell a player “don’t hit out,” the image you have actually communicated to the player’s mind is the image of hitting the ball out. The mind cannot see “don’t.” Thus, you would actually be communicating the opposite of your intended message, resulting in significant adverse consequences for team performance.

Unfortunately, most coaches use “don’t” much more than they use “do” or its equivalent. Walk into almost any practice and you will hear it repeatedly. Not only does this language create a negative, critical coaching and playing atmosphere, but also it does not tell players what they are supposed to do. Players want to know what to do, and they rely on you as the coach to provide that knowledge. At Kessel’s coaching clinic, he challenged the coaching staff to go the rest of the training period without using the word “don’t.” It’s recommended that you challenge yourself in the same way. It will force you to be ingenious, creative, and inventive with your words while making your communication more effective.

The two principles examined in this chapter are among the most important in coaching. They cannot be overemphasized, and they can make a huge difference in the results you get. Unless you clearly teach your players what to do, the fault for poor performance lies with you and not with the players. Move from mediocrity to excellence in coaching by moving your communication from the vague and abstract to the specific and concrete, and from “don’t” to “do.” In the end, you will get better results on the court, and create a more positive learning atmosphere for your players.




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