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Communication and Athletic Groups II

By Paul Schienberg, PhD

If a group of any kind is to function, its members must be able to communicate easily and efficiently. In successful teams, coaches and athletes talk openly about interpersonal and task-related issues that affect them directly. Interpersonal conflict is often the result of misunderstanding and miscommunication of feelings. Learning how to express oneself in a constructive manner and communicate effectively is an important initial step in preventing and solving problems. Part II will review one framework to examine communication processes in athletic teams.

Coach-Team Cmmunications

Athletes unite behind common goals, so it is important to get athletes to think in terms of the philosophy, operating procedures, and values that govern the team. Similar attitudes and beliefs, shared ideals and covenants to live by are also required. It is very important to obtain consensus and commitment from the team. It can be helpful to get input from the team members regarding the achievement of team cohesiveness.

To achieve these goals, a coach may find the following principles useful:

  1. Impart relevant information regarding the team rules, expectations, operating procedures and goals the group is striving to achieve. In addition, clarification of the team’s mission, strategies and action plans to reach goals, and involve staff and athletes in decisions that effect them directly are critical issues.
  2. Inspire athletes to reach for their best by communicating with a sense of enthusiasm, honesty, sincerity, pride and team spirit.
  3. Set up a goal-setting program, monitor progress, give athletes feedback, and challenge everyone to become better.
  4. Reinforce behaviors that you want the athletes to repeat and correct mistakes in a positive manner.

Coach-Athlete Communications

Coaches should take the time to get to know their athletes as unique goal-oriented individuals and find out what their strengths, interests, and needs are. It is important to inform athletes about what is expected.

Another area coaches should address with team members is communication at the competition site. Recognize differences in how individuals prepare and respond to competition. For example, some athletes might like to be left alone; others appreciate a word of encouragement. The same idea holds true for post-competition feedback.

Athletes need feedback as to where they stand and how they are progressing in relation to individual and team goals. Not providing effective feedback can lead to a decrease in motivation and performance instability.

Many athletes seek out their coach to talk about things outside of sport that may be affecting their lives and self-esteem. Some of these issues might be transition and adjustment concerns, homesickness, relationship struggles, and academic matriculation. It is important for the lines of communication be open, trusting and safe.

Some athletes may not feel confident approaching a coach if they do not respect or trust him/her. If the athlete thinks there is a hidden agenda, or not really interested, he may not be able to walk through the coach’s door. Instead of honesty, the athlete will tend, in these cases, to give the coach what he thinks the coach wants to hear.

Sometimes situations arise during the course of a season that can cause communication problems (losing, poor performance, lack of playing time, personality clash and injury). The coach can be perceived as being insensitive, unappreciative, unapproachable or uninterested. The athlete may need some help coming to the coach in an assertive manner.

Here are some helpful hints to improving coach-athlete communications: each person has had different life experiences; use a communication style that is comfortable to you; notice that different people interpret the same message differently; never underestimate the power of positive feedback; be a good role model; emotional control is critical; strive for empathic communications.

Athlete-Athlete Communications

It is important that athletes show each other concern and respect both on and off the field. Some of the best teams seem to take special time to be together – creating bonding together feeling. Athletic teams are very much like families. Tension, frustration and conflict are inevitable. Roommate problems (incompatibility, intolerance, general needs not being met), interpersonal jealousies within the team, dating problems and freshman adjustment issues will surface. Underneath these issues are misunderstandings, insensitivities, a sense of betrayal, distrust and athletes feeling not heard by teammates.

When the team is made up of people from different racial, ethnic, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds, intercultural communication styles may cause misunderstandings. Often mistakes are made when athletes from varied histories think they understand what is going on in another’s mind with speaking (mind reading). Sub-grouping on a team can create dissention, reduction in cohesion and performance.


Communication is a multifaceted process that includes transmission or exchange of thoughts, ideas, feelings or information through both verbal and non-verbal means. Mutual sharing and understanding is necessary. The foundation of good communication is trust and mutual respect. Open communication channels can go a long way to solving most organization problems.