Tactical Pointers

4 Coach Communication Dos and Don'ts

Živa Dvoršak

Aug 4, 2023

In the world of sports, the relationship between a coach and an athlete is one of the most critical factors influencing an athlete’s performance. The coach represents one of the main pillars in the overall story acting as a mentor, motivator, and strategist, guiding the athletes through their training, and preparing them for competition. Therefore, finding the right balance in communication with their athlete before a competition can significantly impact the athlete’s mindset and ultimately affect their performance. Read on to find more about a conversation that I witnessed before a recent competition – it shocked me but also encouraged me to share it with you.

Around half an hour before the call to the line, I was dry-firing in a dressing room when a few younger shooters entered and started getting ready. Based on their conversation, it was clear that this was their first international match, and they openly shared each other’s feelings of jitters and intense anxiety. A few minutes later, their coach entered. The shooter who felt the most nervous started a conversation.

Athlete: At what time is the call to the line?

Coach: Don’t ask me that, didn’t you check it yourself like I told you? Plus, we went through everything at the last training session. At 11.05 the match starts, so go and get ready.

Athlete: Should I do some dry-firing now, or will I have enough time on the line?

Coach: What kind of a question is that? You know you have 10 minutes of preparation and 15 minutes of sighting time, so you should have plenty of time. Now stop talking and get ready.

Athlete: Can we leave the rifle case somewhere behind the line or do we bring it back to the dressing room?

Coach: That is enough now. Don’t ask such stupid questions! All these questions of yours are stupid! Just like in practice, you’ll go on the line and shoot. You are stupid with your behaviour and your questions.

#1: There is no such thing as a stupid question

Before a competition, anxiety starts kicking in and an athlete’s brain works under a different chemistry. A coach should be aware of the athlete’s mental and emotional state. Ignoring signs of stress, anxiety, or fear can harm their performance. Be empathetic and offer support to help the athlete manage their emotions effectively. Even if everything was covered in the last training session, there is now anxiety going through the body and asking questions usually comes from seeking support and extra security. Politely and warmly answer them as many times as needed. Instead of commenting (or even rolling your eyes), ask if they need something, and, in this way, show them that you’re there. You can also be the one that initiates conversation and tells them about the times and their next moves of preparation; suggest deep breaths or visualizing their shot process. This will help them to calm down and turn their attention to shooting.

On the right, athlete Živa Dvoršak, Slovenia, in a discussion with her coach Polona Sladič. Coach communication.

#2: Avoid introducing any last-minute technical changes

There will almost always be something that needed more work during practice. However, introducing new techniques or major changes in the athlete’s routine seconds before a competition will only confuse them and increase their insecurity about their current readiness. Instead, ask the athlete what they focused on in the last few training sessions and pick two or three things to continue working on during the competition. Pointing out the hard work and effort put into practice sessions can instil a sense of readiness and assurance in the athlete. In this way, you will also both clearly state your expectations; they will be about the shooter’s skills and not outside the domain of the uncontrollable. This will focus on their progress and not on the long road that is still ahead of them, which can invoke feelings of failure.

Jaka Umek, an SH2 para athlete being coached by Sonja Benčina. He is sitting, holding a rifle and explaining something; Sonja is sitting on the counter listening.

#3: Commenting on any outcome is a no-go

The time spent preparing before going on the line is a time that needs to be all about the athlete. Even if you have more shooters getting ready at the same time, make sure to approach each one individually and make it about them. Commenting openly about scores, other shooters, and outcome expectations or giving negative criticism should be avoided at all costs. Instead of demoralizing, ask them about their game plan and how they will react if things start going south. Being familiar with the plan will keep the athlete focused and enable them to make quick decisions during the competition. This, in turn, will help them to recover faster and thus prevent things from going from bad to worse. Do not dwell on the negatives, however; ensure that the shooters know that they have a solid strategy, which will help reduce pre-competition jitters.

Živa Dvoršak coaching a junior shooter; they are engaged in a coach communication, smiling.

#4: Be Concrete

Statements such as “Just have fun” or “Just like in practice” are too vague and too general. Instead, remind the athlete about the attitude and give straightforward suggestions about their reactions. Research has shown that the way we act and react with our postures and facial expressions impacts our overall performance. Even if we hit a bad shot, we’ll recover faster and continue better if we imagine ourselves standing tall with a focused look on our face and continuing with the mission of working on our shot process. The athlete’s performance starts long before they are called to the line. Instead of slouching over their phones, make them stand tall, breathe deeply, and bring focus to their performance.

Shooting Academy 2022: a group of youngsters with their Shooting Notes and their three coaches

Good communication between a coach and an athlete is the cornerstone of success. The harsh truth is that in most countries, shooting is not one of the most supported and funded sports. Most of the work, both by shooters and coaches, is voluntary, so the little time that they can devote is put towards actual shooting. There is not enough time for additional activities and approaches to help shooters progress. In the above example, the coach was also a shooter who had to prepare herself for the match, not just her juniors. She probably unknowingly put her pre-competition stress on the younger shooters. I don’t know how their match ended. I only remember that we waited until the last second for the coach to fire her last shot. Her face and body (still) showed many signs of tension for the last few minutes of shooting. None of these two roles are easy; I cannot imagine being in both at the same time. However, with a little awareness, we can at least act in a way that we don’t inflict on others what we wouldn’t want to be imposed onto us. By doing so, we can help to bring down the anxiety on both sides, act from a better place, and reinforce our best possible performance.

Like everything else, communication also takes practice. Try working on it every day, during every practice with your shooters – get to know what calms them down and makes them focus. Don’t pull out some last-minute psychological tricks moments before the match. Talk to them while you are driving to the competition, setting things up, eating lunch, and just be present. A coach who only shows up when it’s time to carry the gear to the line, has already lost their athlete’s trust.

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2 thoughts on “4 Coach Communication Dos and Don’ts”

  1. Thanks for compiling that. I agree with it all and particularly the introduction of anything new whether it be technical or psychological. The entire mindset is one of process and dealing with anomalies, to introduce change is madness unless it has been prepared for on a match plan. Responding to something unforseen or a break down is something different but can be used as a motivator and method to refocus or intensify the action if used as an opportunity. Thanks for sharing

    1. Thank you for your feedback, Craig!
      Responding to unforeseen situations is a good point as there will often be things we haven’t practiced for. Thanks for bringing this up and expanding on it!

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