Communicating with children is a fundamental part of youth coaching. How we interact and connect with our players underpins everything else we do, making it vital that we learn to communicate effectively and form positive relationships. In this article, we explain why it’s so important to connect with our players, discuss the value of empowerment in learning, and consider some effective strategies for communicating with children.
In This Article
- The Importance of Connecting
- Knowing When to Intervene
- Effective Communication Strategies
- Empowering Our Players
- Communicating With Children: The Key Points
The Importance of Connecting
Good communication and an ability to build relationships with our players are key to being an effective coach. We need kids to feel comfortable expressing themselves, trying new things, and failing within their learning environment, and this requires us to connect with them and earn their trust.
In forging these connections, being a good listener is arguably more important than being a good talker; we should endeavour to learn about our players as people, not just footballers, understand the personal and socio-cultural factors that influence them, and then talk to them on their own terms, being considerate of their own language, experiences, interests, and values. We must also be honest and consistent in our messaging and behaviour, and unconditional in offering support.
Knowing When to Intervene
A corollary of listening well is not talking too much. Kids are inundated with messages and stimuli in their everyday lives, and the most effective communication with children is often made concisely.
According to Reed Maltbie, Founder of the Raising Excellence coaching platform and holder of Masters Degrees in Early Childhood Education and Sports Psychology, this means keeping our messages brief, powerful, and memorable: “Focus on the immediate (the next touch or play), stay aligned with the team’s mission or values, and keep it upbeat.”
“Aim to keep coaching interventions to one minute or less,” adds Arthur Brammer, U15 Coach at Brighton & Hove Albion. “I think it’s realistic to achieve 70% ball-rolling time in every session. And when we do bring the players in, try to let them talk first. They don’t need to hear our voices all the time.”
As PDP Co-Founder Dave Wright explains, making fewer direct interventions also creates room for more player-led initiatives: “If you’re constantly telling kids what to do and how to do it, are you developing decision-makers and critical thinkers? I don’t think so,” says Wright. “Good coach communication is often about stepping out of the picture and letting the players step in.”
Effective Communication Strategies
Understand Body Language
As coaches, we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of non-verbal communication. Things like facial expressions, gestures, posture, and eye contact are often more perceptible to young players than we realise. We should strive to be aware of our own body language, and sensitive to the messages we may be sending.
Use Positive Affirmation
Unlike praise, which we might define as a compliment or a judgement based on a particular action or outcome, affirmation acknowledges qualities that the individual possesses, can take ownership of, and derive pride from. For instance, while praise might be complimenting a player for making a great pass, affirmation could mean commenting that they often look to take risks and be brave with their pass selection.
The difference is subtle, but research suggests that the use of affirmation over praise can positively impact the self-esteem, motivation, and even the creativity of young players.
Ask, Don’t Tell
Communicating effectively means knowing how to ask meaningful questions. “It’s a really difficult skill,” says Brammer. “You can easily fall into the habit of simply asking one question after another. But the best coaches are great at identifying just one or two points and using their questions to draw them out.”
If we give kids all of the answers, we essentially take the essence of learning from them and risk damaging their motivation. But when we ask questions, they’re more inclined to search for the answers themselves. This is not only better for their long-term development — it’s likely to engage them more in the learning process.
“Asking kids questions, rather than giving them directions and answers, also demonstrates that you value their input,” explains Dan Cooke, Coaching Advisor at PDP. “It offers them authentic opportunities to contribute to what they’re participating in. It can sometimes be challenging for coaches, but it’s a great way to show our players that we truly value them.”
“Enthusiasm is contagious,” says Cooke. “Kids are always looking to us to demonstrate the correct behaviour in the environment, so when the coach is smiling and enjoying themself, the kids are likelier to do that too.”
“Sometimes coaching is a performance,” adds Wright. “Not in the sense that we’re trying to be the centre of attention, but that we have to be energetic, be a big voice, and frequently adapt our tone. Our enthusiasm can be crucial to keeping players engaged.”
Empowering Our Players
The importance of empowering players is a thread that runs through all aspects of coaching, including the way we communicate. If we want our players to take ownership of their developmental journey, feel intrinsically motivated to learn, and possess a positive sense of self, it’s vital that we’re constructive and collaborative in our messaging.
“For me, that’s the first part of communicating with children,” says Cooke. “We need to value their input into our environment, so that they’re not just seen as buckets to be filled with our knowledge, but rather as people who can bring great value to the conversation.”
According to Professor Stephen Rollnick, a psychologist and trainer in the fields of sport and healthcare, this approach should coincide with shifting from cajoling or persuading towards conversations based on compassion and empathy — to an approach where we guide our players towards discovering solutions on their own.
“I advocate using evocative questions and reflective listening statements,” says Rollnick. “Skillful teachers work with, respect, and elicit the wisdom and evolving knowledge from the student, rather than attempting to drum advice and feedback into them. It’s a collaboration; a conversation in which you connect first, and then encourage the player to say why and how they might, could, or should change.
“Ultimately, our aim is to be a guide on the side; not a sage on the stage.”
Communicating With Children: The Key Points
- Connecting with players is essential to being an effective coach.
- We should keep our interventions concise and meaningful, and maximise ball-rolling time in our sessions.
- Our body language can have a big impact on how players perceive our messaging.
- Positive affirmation is often a more appropriate form of feedback than praise.
- Where possible, we should ask questions instead of telling — guiding our players to discover answers on their own.
- Good communication will empower our players and encourage them to take ownership of their own developmental journey.
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