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Communication Keys for Coaching Youth Basketball

Coaching, at base, is all about communication. This chapter will help you learn to communicate effectively with parents, players, and officials with a focus on coaching for basketball.
This chapter is from the book

In this chapter

  • 10 Keys to being a good communicator

  • Communicating with parents

  • Communicating with league administrators

  • Communicating with opponents and referees

As a coach, you're called on to do a lot of communicating. You address players, parents, other coaches, league administrators, and referees. You communicate in person, on the phone, in writing, one on one, and within group settings. How well you communicate with these groups significantly influences how successful your season is, how enjoyable it is, and how much your players learn.

Of course, you've been communicating all your life. It can't be that hard, right?

Right and wrong. If you haven't coached or taught before, and if you aren't used to instructing and leading youngsters, you are entering uncharted territory.

Consider this chapter your roadmap to help you chart that territory.

The 10 keys, presented first, will help you hone your communication skills as a coach. These keys are written with players in mind, but they apply to all groups with which you will communicate. Following the keys, we'll focus on the specifics of communicating with parents, league administrators, opponents, and referees.

10 Keys to Being a Good Communicator

Most people tend to think only of the verbal side of communication. That’s important, but there’s so much more to being a good communicator. Here are 10 keys to good communication:

  1. Know your message.

  2. Make sure you are understood.

  3. Deliver your message in the proper context.

  4. Use appropriate emotions and tones.

  5. Adopt a healthy communication style.

  6. Be receptive.

  7. Provide helpful feedback.

  8. Be a good nonverbal communicator.

  9. Be consistent.

  10. Be positive.

Know Your Message

Coach Caravelli gathers his players near a basket at the practice court and says, "All right, guys, today we’re going to learn how to box out." He tells David to help him demonstrate, and asks Alex to put up a shot. Alex shoots, and as he does, Coach Caravelli spreads his legs and arms wide and sticks his rear out, trying to find David, but he keeps his eyes on the ball and the basket. David easily slips by him, untouched, and grabs the rebound.

"Just a lucky bounce," Coach mutters.

"But Coach, my dad says you’re just supposed to find your man first, and then box out," one player says.

Coach Caravelli considers this a moment before saying, "Actually, let’s just focus on shooting today. You guys like to shoot, right? Who wants to box out, anyway?"

The player was right; Coach Caravelli didn’t know the technique for boxing out. He didn’t really know his message.

Three issues are involved in knowing your message. You need to

  • Know the skills and rules you need to teach.

  • Read situations and respond appropriately.

  • Provide accurate and clear information.

Know the Skills and Rules

Coach Caravelli didn’t know how to teach the skill of boxing out. He might be a smooth, coherent, and clear speaker, but that’s not going to help his players learn how to box out. Smoothness doesn’t make up for lack of knowledge. You have to know the skills and rules.

Read the Situation

As Coach Caravelli teaches his players how to correctly execute screens, Kenny and Sam are quietly goofing off, not paying attention. But Coach Caravelli doesn’t address the situation because they’re not really disrupting his instruction and he’s a little behind schedule. As his players begin to practice screens, Kenny and Sam are not executing as instructed. Kenny is not stationary when he sets screens, and Sam leaves a wide berth when running by the screener.

So Coach Caravelli stops the action and tells them how to properly execute screens. Then he lets them proceed.

Coach Caravelli delivered an important part of the message—Kenny and Sam need to know how to execute screens—but that was only part of the message he should have delivered. The real issue here was that the players weren’t paying attention, and Coach Caravelli didn’t correct the situation when it was occurring. He should have corrected that on the spot. Barring that, he should have told Kenny and Sam that the reason they didn’t know how to execute a screen was because they weren’t listening when he was teaching how to do so, and that they need to listen to his instruction the first time around.

Sometimes knowing your message goes beyond understanding the content. You have to read the situation as well and tailor your message accordingly.

Provide Accurate and Clear Information

Knowing the content of your message isn’t enough. You need to be able to deliver that content clearly and accurately.

Imagine a portion of a coach’s preseason letter to parents reading like this:

    "I’m really looking forward to coaching your child this season. Our first practice is next Monday at 6 p.m. See you then!"

Too bad the coach didn’t remember to note where the first practice is being held. As a result of not being clear in his letter, he’ll have to spend a lot of time on the phone calling parents to deliver the information.

The same goes for teaching skills. Perhaps you know the proper technique for shooting, but your instruction is so technical and confusing that your players are worse off than if they had received no instruction at all! They’re confused, you’re frustrated, and no one learns how to shoot.

Know what information you need to deliver, and deliver it clearly so that all concerned understand. That’s sometimes easier said than done.

Make Sure You Are Understood

As you can imagine, if you are not clear with your directives, you can create a lot of confusion. Take the following example:

    "Okay, Dion," Coach Hagan says, "the next time you’re in that situation, make a crossover dribble and you’ll shoot right past your defender. All right? Let’s try it again."

Dion gives Coach Hagan a puzzled look, but Coach Hagan, in the midst of conducting a drill, doesn’t notice. He’s already getting the drill going again. Dion just hopes he’s not in that same situation, because he has no idea what a crossover dribble is.

Just because something is clear to you doesn’t mean it is clear to whomever you’re delivering your message to, be it a player, a parent, an administrator, or anyone else. You need to watch for understanding and be ready to clarify your message if the person on the receiving end is confused.

When you state your message clearly and simply, you increase your chances of being understood. But don’t count on that; instead, watch your players’ facial expressions and read their body language. If they look confused or unsure of what to do, state your instruction again, making sure you use language they understand.

And watch how you say things: When you tell a player to "move to the vacated spot," she might not know that you mean to rotate to the open area that her teammate just left. Likewise, shouting out "Pick and roll! Pick and roll!" doesn’t help if your players don’t know what a pick and roll is.

Speak in language your players understand, and watch for their understanding.

Deliver Your Message in the Proper Context

In the first game of the season, Karim has just put up an awkward shot, using poor form. The ball is rebounded by the opponents, and a foul is called. As Karim moves downcourt before the ball is inbounded, Coach Grantham cups his hands to his mouth.

    "Hey, Karim! Use your fingers, not your palm! And square up your shoulders and hips to the basket! Remember to bend your knees to get a little momentum for your shot! And bend your shooting arm elbow to 45°. Don’t forget to follow through!"

What’s wrong with this? First, it’s probably humiliating for Karim to have everyone in the gym witness his coach trying to instruct him on how to shoot. Second, it’s not the time or place to give such detailed instruction. That should come in practice, not in games. The instruction itself wasn’t incorrect; the timing of it was.

Consider your context for delivering your message. Give brief reminders of tactical or skill execution during games, but save the teaching for practices.

Use Appropriate Emotions and Tones

Emotions are a natural part of basketball. Both you and your players (and their parents) can expect to experience a range of emotions throughout the season. In terms of communicating with others, your emotions can significantly affect your message.

How? Let’s look at a few examples:

    Situation: Devon, your point guard, is stationary, dribbling near the top of the key as his teammates are moving and cutting to get open. Jeff cuts toward the basket and is wide open for a moment. Devon is late with his pass, though, and the ball is knocked away and stolen.

    Response #1: "Come on, Devon! Jeff was wide open! You can’t fall asleep out there!"

    Response #2: "That’s all right! Let’s get back on defense! Hold them, now. Let’s get it back!"

Don’t ever berate a player, publicly or privately. Remember that even National Basketball Association players make plenty of mistakes. Your players are going to make mistakes; what they need is instruction if they’re not sure how to make a play, and encouragement, regardless. Help them to keep their focus on the game, not on how well they’re pleasing you.

    Situation: You are moments away from beginning the game that will decide your league championship.

    Response #1: "All right, this is it, guys! There’s no tomorrow. We’ve been playing to get to this game all year long. Show them what you’re made of. I want to feel that championship trophy in my hands at the end of the game. How about you? Are you ready to go out and win?"

    Response #2: "Okay, let’s play basketball like we know how. Keep your focus on the fundamentals. Let’s move the ball around, look for the open guy, play tough defense, and box out on the boards. Let’s go have some fun, all right?"

Pep talks are better saved for the movies. Such talks often backfire because they get kids so sky high that they can’t perform well. Your players need to focus on playing sound, fundamental basketball.

    Situation: While practicing free throws, Terrell awkwardly slings the ball toward the basket, not using his legs at all.

    Response #1: "Hey, Terrell, you look like you’re shot-putting the ball up there! This isn’t track and field, this is basketball!"

    Response #2: "Use your legs, Terrell. Bend your knees to get a little momentum and strength. You can do it."

Sarcasm will get you nowhere. Terrell doesn’t need sarcasm, or any type of humor. He needs instruction and encouragement.

Adopt a Healthy Communication Style

A lot of what you’ve been reading has to do with your communication style—whether you over-coach during games, offering too much instruction; whether you keep your emotions in check, or are too excitable or high-strung; what your tone is as you communicate; and so on. But there is more to consider concerning your communication style. It has to do with the bigger picture, with how you communicate on a daily basis. It has more to do with personality, outlook, and attitude than with reacting to a specific moment. And some styles are more effective than others.

Here are a few of the less-effective styles some coaches fall into:

  • Always talking, never listening—Some coaches feel if they’re not constantly talking, they’re not providing the proper instruction their players need. Carried to the extreme, some feel that their players have nothing to say. Coaches who always talk and never listen tend to have players who stand around more in practice because their coach is talking, and those coaches don’t get to know their players, thus missing out on one of the real joys of coaching basketball. Deliver the messages you need to deliver, but don’t feel you have to be talking throughout the entire practice.

  • Always in control, too directive—Some coaches run practices like drill sergeants, snapping orders at players, exerting their authority, and squelching fun wherever it begins to appear. When practice doesn’t go exactly as they have choreographed it, they become irked. When players don’t progress according to schedule, it drives them crazy. Be in control of practice, yes, but don’t squelch the fun and don’t obsess over things you can’t control.

  • Not in control, too passive—Other coaches take the opposite tack, either because they’re unsure of themselves or they’re too laid-back and give the impression that no one is in charge. They don’t provide the guidance or discipline players need. Not comfortable in the spotlight, they avoid it, and discipline problems begin to crop up. If you’re a quiet or laid-back person, don’t change your personality but do exert your authority as coach. You can be in charge and provide instruction without being loud and obnoxious.

  • Seeking perfection—There’s a fine line between seeking to improve and seeking perfection. When coaches cross over the line into perfectionism, they are rarely satisfied with anything. Their forwards get rebounds, but their blocking out is not quite right. Shots go down, but there are flaws in the shooting mechanics. Even the gyms are not adequately lit or swept, at least in these coaches’ eyes. Players are on edge when they play for a perfectionist coach; their focus turns from playing the game to pleasing the coach. Help your players improve their skills, but allow them margin for mistakes. You can strive for improvement without putting added stress on the kids. Celebrate improvement even if it’s still not picture-perfect.

  • Not in control of emotions—Some coaches throw up their hands in frustration when players are trying hard but having difficulty learning a skill. They shout in anger at a questionable call made by a volunteer referee. Their voices drip with sarcasm when players ask them something they feel the players should know. They respond with overzealous enthusiasm when their team scores a basket late in a game they are in control of, and this response is interpreted by all as unsporting behavior. The point is not to suppress all your emotions, but to be in control of them. Consider the message you send with the emotion you show. Do suppress any urge to show your frustration toward kids who are trying to learn the skills, as well as any desire to express your anger on the court. Maintain your respect for the people involved in all situations. Your players need you to be steady and need to know what to expect from you.

  • Not aware of nonverbal communication—Some coaches watch what they say but not what they do. They express their frustration or anger nonverbally, and if someone confronts them about that expression, they likely will say, "What? I didn’t say anything." Remember that you’re communicating every second, whether verbally or nonverbally. Keep your nonverbal communication in line with your verbal communication, and make sure that both are positive, instructive, and encouraging.

  • Buddy-buddy with the players—It’s good to be friendly with players, but it’s inappropriate to try to be their friend. Coaches who do this show a lack of maturity as they try to impress their players with how cool they are. Have fun with your players, but maintain the coach-player relationship. You’re there to help them become better ballplayers, not to become their pal.

So, what should be your communication style?

You should provide the instruction your players need in a way that helps them improve their skills. To do this, you need good listening skills as well as good speaking skills, and you need to be encouraging and positive as you instruct and correct. Maintain respect for your players as you communicate with them. Be friendly and open with them, but don’t try to become their friend. Create an enjoyable learning environment, maintain control over your emotions, and watch your nonverbal communication.

When you adopt this type of communication style, you’re paving the way for your players to learn the game, improve their skills, and enjoy the season.

Be Receptive

A common mistake of new coaches is to assume that their sole role in communicating is to talk. Athletes are there to receive instruction, to be coached. Their focus should be on listening to you, on soaking in your instruction, on carrying out your commands.

There’s plenty of truth in those statements, but they don’t reflect the whole truth. Give your players room to speak, to ask questions, to voice opinions or concerns. In doing so, you can get to know them better and are better tuned in to their needs. Thus, you are more likely to pick up on issues and problems you need to deal with; see the following sidebar, "Dealing with Issues As They Arise."

Work at not only sending messages, but receiving them as well. As you talk to players, if you notice that their eyes are wandering or their bodies are turned partially away from you, they’re sending you a message ("We’re not really listening"). If their shoulders are slumped, their heads are down, or they’re dragging their feet, they’re sending one or more messages ("I’m tired"; "I’m discouraged"; "I’m bored"). If they’re giving you a blank stare or have a dazed look, they’re telling you they are tuning you out or are confused.

Don’t ignore these signals. Handle them on a case-by-case basis. Each player will respond differently. Tune in, address the issues that need to be addressed, clarify instruction, and provide encouragement as needed, and keep your players on as even a keel as possible.

Provide Helpful Feedback

Tyler has been having trouble learning how to be a good defender. He tends to lunge for the ball, wanting to make a steal every time, and as a result he commits a lot of fouls. After one such foul, Tyler and his teammates return to the bench during a timeout.

    "Tyler, you need to stay on your man and play good defense," Coach Dixon says.

Is Coach Dixon telling Tyler something he doesn’t already know? Hardly. Is he helping Tyler improve his defensive abilities? No. His feedback isn’t helpful at all; if anything, it just adds to the pressure Tyler undoubtedly already feels.

Coach Dixon should focus on giving specific, practical feedback that will help Tyler improve his defense. You’ll learn about this type of feedback in Chapter 6, "Player Development." For now, know that such feedback is one of your duties in communicating with your players, and when it’s given properly, it can reap great dividends in terms of player improvement.

Be a Good Nonverbal Communicator

Studies have shown that up to 70% of communication is accomplished nonverbally. You just read about the importance of reading nonverbal cues—watching facial expressions and body language. You also have to pay attention to the nonverbal cues you send:

    "Way to go, Alex!" Coach Dintiman says, clapping his hands and smiling.

    "Way to go, Alex!" Coach Garner says, arms crossed tightly across his chest and a scowl on his face.

The same words were used, but Coach Garner sent a vastly different message than Coach Dintiman.

Nonverbal messages are being sent constantly—both with and without words. Consider your facial expressions during practices and games. Sometimes it’s appropriate to show that you’re frustrated—for example, when kids are goofing off. But when kids are exerting themselves on the court and not executing well, keep your frustration in check. Consider what messages your expressions and body language are sending, and make sure those messages are what you want to be sending.

Be Consistent

Your players need consistency from you in three ways. They need consistency

  • In the messages you send

  • In how you treat them

  • In your temperament and style

Consistent Messages

If you hear different messages from the same person on the same topic, what happens? You begin not to trust that person. The same happens if one week your players hear you say, "We’re hurrying our shots! I want to see at least three passes each time before we put up a shot," only to hear you follow that the next week with, "Terry, you were wide open for that shot! You’ve got to take that opportunity when you get it!" (This latter advice came after Terry received the first pass and was dutifully looking to pass.)

Confusing? You bet. If you do this often, the players will not know what to believe, no matter what you say. Be sure you send consistent messages.

Consistent Treatment

Make sure you treat all your players in similar fashion. If Dan breaks a team rule one week and you discipline him accordingly, and the next week Zach breaks the same rule but you overlook it because he’s one of your best players, what message does that send to your team? That it’s okay to break the rules if you’re good enough?

Likewise, if you spend more of your time with your average and good players in hopes of turning them into good and great players, respectively, what does that say to the lesser-skilled players? That they don’t matter because they can’t shoot or defend as well as their teammates?

All your players need your attention and guidance to improve. They need to adhere to the same team rules and be treated the same way if they break those rules. And they all need to know that they are equally valued by you, regardless of their playing abilities.

Know that after your season starts and you name your starters, players (and parents) will feel that the substitutes are not quite as valued as the starters. At the younger levels, you might rotate starting responsibilities from game to game and thus avoid this dilemma, but at older levels, you’ll be starting your best players.

So how do you handle this? First, make sure you give equal attention and help to all your players in practice. They not only deserve this attention, but they need it to contribute in their substitute roles. It helps your team when everyone improves, not just your starters.

Second, let players know how the middle and end of the game is just as important as the beginning. If you have 5 or 10 or 15 minutes to play, no matter what segments of the game those minutes come in, the team needs every player to contribute.

Third, emphasize that not everyone is going to be a scoring machine, and reward players for all the other things—big and small—that contribute to wins: rebounds, tough defense, steals, assists, and so on. Find ways to tangibly reward substitutes who play well, doing the "little things" that often go unnoticed. Don’t let them go unnoticed on your team!

Consistent Style

They also need to know what to expect from you. If you are patient and encouraging one practice and moody or volatile the next, the learning environment suffers (as do the players). We all have mood swings, and we’re not robots. But do strive to be even-keeled and consistent in your approach from practice to practice, setting aside any personal issues that might affect your mood and your communication with your players on any given day.

Be Positive

Kids learn best in a positive environment. Give them sound instruction, consistent encouragement, and plenty of understanding. Note, however, that being positive doesn’t mean letting kids run all over you, and it doesn’t mean having a Pollyanna attitude where you falsely praise a player for almost getting a rebound if, by using good technique, she should have easily gotten the rebound. It means you instruct and guide your players as they learn and practice skills and give them the sincere encouragement and praise they need as they work to hone their abilities. You’ll learn more about how to use praise in Chapter 6.

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