Communication is a crucial element of effective coaching. In this article, Professor Stephen Rollnick challenges traditional methods of coach communication and offers some practical solutions for coaches to improve player relationships.

I went on this 4-year journey through sport to get a feel for how people communicate.  Giving feedback and advice to players sprang out at me from all corners of football. From having a quiet word, to looking at technical data, conducting player reviews, having heated exchanges in the dressing room and beyond, I got to wonder whether the secret wish of all coaches must surely be to invent a telepathic connection that allows them to dispense their knowledge directly into the players’ brains and by so doing feel 100% sure that it sticks.  That’s a joyless vision of coaching to be sure, but I swear I sensed this yearning for a quick fix.

I came to football with a background in training and research in how to make the best of difficult conversations in healthcare, criminal justice, social care and mental health.  What was refreshing about football was the pure physicality of offering feedback, even during the action, let alone seeing a coach who “clicked” with a group of players and seemed to get the best out of them.  Then there was the other side, when it didn’t go so well.  One day while standing next to a coach in an academy in England, she shouts out to a midfielder, “When you receive the ball from the wing, pass it back and then run out wide yourself…, OK?”.  Midfielder shoots her a nod.  The chance comes again, and the midfielder doesn’t move wide, so the coach yells even louder.  No luck.  When they stopped the action the midfielder had that downhearted look of a dog about to be scolded, which she was.  Then the coach turns to me and says almost word-for-word what I hear so many times in healthcare, “I get to feel like I am hitting my head against a brick wall. You tell them, once, you tell them twice, and it makes no difference”.

So then I got to wonder, how much energy is wasted in trying to get players to change their game?  Where should the bright ideas come from, the coach, the player, other players, a constructive conversation?  I never asked that coach, but I got the impression that not only was this drive to give advice putting her under strain, but that she had received little or no training in what is often called, with a patronizing nod, “soft skills” – communicating with skill and compassion. Yet here coaches are, day in and day out, feeling obliged to give advice and feedback in high demand circumstances, often when emotion is running seriously high, with both individuals and teams. No wonder things sometimes get a bit out of hand, like when I saw a coach in an elite club order an entire squad onto the field for punishment drills.  When we chatted afterwards, he suggested, “Sometimes there is no other way of getting through to these guys”.  Had he ever talked with colleagues or mentors about how to communicate with players to address challenges on and off the field, let alone what the difference is between encouragement and bullying?

Football coaches are not alone here.  Threatening and bullying people into changing are rife in healthcare and criminal justice, let alone at home, and this is precisely the spark that fuelled the development of motivational interviewing (MI), of which I am co-founder. We discovered that if we held back from cajoling, persuading and confronting our clients, and instead created a conversation infused with compassion and empathy, we could guide them to face change and work out for themselves why and how this might come about.  We pay attention to what we call evocative questions and especially the use of reflective listening statements when people try to answer them. The language they use, and especially what we call “change talk”, positive things they say about improvement, turns out to predict actual behaviour change.

If familiar bells ring here with football coaching, it is probably because a style like motivational interviewing is based so firmly in what we know a skilful teacher, parent or coach often does: work with, respect and elicit the wisdom and evolving knowledge from the person, as opposed to thinking of advice and feedback like it’s a substance that needs somehow to be drummed into their heads. What motivational interviewing offers is the technical skills for realising the goal of bringing the best out of people.

How then might that coach have helped the midfielder learn the benefit of running wide onto the wing?  Intervention from the sideline during the action might be limited in impact, although I can imagine an evocative question possibly being more helpful than giving an instruction. A coach from Northern England wrote to me about how he had replaced his use of praise from the touchline with a skill called affirmation. He noticed an immediate impact, and reports that other players seek to model the behaviour he has affirmed. With the midfielder there could be considerable benefit to a very brief conversation during a break in play, lasting just a minute or so, in which an evocative question forms the basis for helping the player clarify for herself what the benefit might be. The listening that follows the use of such a question is when you will notice learning and change happening in front of your eyes. We call this the ASK-OFFER-ASK strategy.

That’s the theory anyway. It’s only by practising this shift in attitude, and learning from the response of the players themselves, that we are likely to improve ourselves as coaches. To view players as our best teachers might be quite a shift, but I suspect it would have helped that coach enjoy her work with the midfielder much more.  If there’s one thing we have learned on the frontline of healthcare it is this: hard outcomes are often best achieved by practising the gentle art of connecting and drawing out the wisdom from people you work with.  Put another way, as the famous psychologist Abraham Maslow apparently said, “If you only have a hammer you tend to see every problem as a nail”.

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