Coaching Advice: Failed Communication

Seeing as we do it every day, most people consider themselves experts in communication.

But, here lies the problem with instructional communication. It’s not just about what you see or hear – it’s what you remember.

The greatest problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished

This is of significant importance to coaches – only the information that our athletes retain is of any use to them.

The best way to get retention is:

A) Repetition

B) Giving information in digestible chunks

C) Having the athlete think for themselves

D) Give the same message in a variety of different ways.

We want to achieve learning that’s ‘sticky’.

If you’ve ever driven near a school in the UK or through construction areas, you’ll notice a variety of different ways of communicating that you should be driving at an appropriate speed. These are often emotive and frightening, and as a result, stick with you.

Here are some examples:

‘My Daddy works here, please slow down.’

‘Kill your speed before your speed kills.’

’50 accidents were reported here in the last 12 months.’

‘Children play here. Slow down.’

‘There’s no need for speed.’

These communications coupled with other deterrents such as flashing lights, speed bumps and speed cameras make for an effective way of enforcing and communicating your message.

Unfortunately, though, these deterrents only work for a limited time. Once the threat they warned of is gone, their messages leave our minds.

That’s not to say we forget the rules – we always know them – but once they are no longer relevant to us we don’t think of them until they are present again.

Therefore, this raises the important question: what percentage of communication do athletes retain?

Consider the factors below:

You Aren’t Heard

In busy, loud gyms, this is more common than we might think. Or, perhaps, you don’t have the athlete’s attention at all.

Information Isn’t Remembered

This often occurs when coaches give multiple bits of feedback in the same instance or too much information in general. Most information is not retained.

The short-term memory, on average, can only retain seven new pieces of information at a time. Therefore, if an athlete is given more than this they will not remember it. This is worsened if they are distracted too.

You Aren’t Understood

By giving feedback in language and terminology that is not appropriate to the athlete’s age, technical understanding or ability, they will not retain it due to a lack of understanding.

You’re Ignored

You’d like to think this happens the least, but there are times when this does, sadly, occur.

This can occur when athletes are tired of hearing the same message repeatedly.

If the information has been heard and understood, it is down to the coach to help the athlete discover new ways of understanding and applying it.

Sometimes the athlete just can’t ‘feel’ the error, or the way in which they can resolve it. In which case, a ‘diversion’ is often appropriate.

If an athlete is struggling to learn something new after a period of time despite being given the correct advice, consider changing the way you communicate the information:

Enforce the message: make it clear what you are trying to convey.

Change the Language: try an alternative way of ensuring the message is understood.

Create a Diversion: find an alternative approach to the skills methodology.

One of the greatest qualities a coach can have is their ability to communicate and enforce a message correctly.

We should all strive to achieve communication that is heard, understood and retained – without all achieving all these components we have failed.


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Article by Nick Ruddock – resident coaching expert and former Team GB Coach.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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