When it comes to coaching, we are too often judged by our ability to talk. We believe that we need to take the knowledge out of our head, give it to our athletes, and watch them improve. We talk about about team selection, athletes, tactics and strategies, what we would do in a certain situation, what others are doing wrong… as coaches, we talk and talk and talk because too many of our coach education systems (and too many pundits) imply that we need to.


Should we not be teaching coaches how to listen rather than to talk? When it comes to coaching, perhaps the ability to listen separates the good from the great.
People appreciate a conversation in which the feel acknowledged, heard and respected, and athletes are no different. If our coach education systems acknowledged this, and supported coaches to develop these skills, an outcome might be an improvement in athlete / coach relationships, which is important for long-term performance.  Wonderful things can happen with people feel listen to, when they feel like they have been seen.


The strength of an athlete / coach relationship correlates with how much trust there is. How much an athlete tells the coach depends on their perception of the coach’s listening skills. We often don’t divulge things to those closest to us because we fear their judgement and unkindness or because we have experience of their superficial, fault-finding listening. If we want to develop trust between our coaches and athletes, we need to help them to develop their listening skills.


We don’t make athletes feel valued by telling them what to do. We make them feel valued by listening to them, paying attention, and making sure they feel heard. And as coaches, we should all want our athletes to feel valued.


Good listening is not simply staying quiet while the other person speaks, although that is a good start. In The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle describes the organisation with a good listening culture as being like trampolines, rather than passive sponges. Paraphrasing back to the speaker what we think we have heard – with no added judgement – can help to deepen our understanding of their perspective and develop rapport.
We need to listen for explanations, not excuses. Listening well is to understand what’s on the other person’s mind. To understand their thoughts, feelings and emotions. We all crave to be understood in this way. Surely, this is what we should be doing for our athletes?


Unfortunately, from a young age we are trained only to react to people’s words, not their non-verbal cues. By doing so we are only developing a very small part of our social skills. Some professions, such as police, psychologists and journalists, are trained to recognise non-verbal cues that give an insight into what people are thinking or feeling. 


As coaches, developing these skills are in our interest. During competition, we may not get the time to have long conversations with our athletes, but need to have an understanding of what they are experiencing if we are to give them the correct support. 


“Listening with the eyes” is a term used by Frank Sesno (former CNN correspondent) to describe this skill of recognising tell-tale signs in body language that help us understand what the other person is experiencing. Developing these skills will help us to build rapport and strengthen the relationship we have with our athletes.


Learning how to listen – really listen – is tough because the human tongue is a beast few can master. However, when it comes to coaching, fewer words are stronger than more. Talking too much suggests nervousness whereas less words suggests preparedness, clarity of purpose and confidence. The more we say, the less powerful our words become. Good listeners don’t fill gaps or silences because it prevents the speaker from saying what they might be struggling to say.


When coaching, perhaps listening more and talking less is a strength, because:

  • helps to restrain thoughts so no thoughtless words are spoken (good)
  • the message isn’t lost in the noise (good)
  • it stops proneness to exaggerate (good – plenty of coaches could do with stopping this practice)

Here’s to listening – more, and better.

Published by Blair Cremin

Club Development Manager at Scottish Fencing. I use sport as a vehicle to help others become healthier and happier.

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