Communication Keys for Coaching Youth Baseball
In this chapter
- 10 keys to being a good communicator
- Communicating with parents
- Communicating with league administrators
- Communicating with opponents and umpires
As a coach, you're called on to do a lot of communicating. You address players, parents, other coaches, league administrators, and umpires. 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, then 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 you will communicate with. Following the keys, we'll focus on the specifics of communicating with parents, league administrators, opponents, and umpires.
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:
Know your message.
Make sure you are understood.
Deliver your message in the proper context.
Use appropriate emotions and tones.
Adopt a healthy communication style.
Provide helpful feedback.
Be a good nonverbal communicator.
Know Your Message
Coach Caravelli gathers his players at the practice field and says, "Alright, guys, today we’re going to learn how to bunt." With a bat in his hands, he stands in the batter’s box and mimics a bunter. "What you want to do is wait for the pitch to come to you and then push your bat toward the ball, like this." He makes an exaggerated pushing motion with the bat.
"But Coach, my dad says you’re just supposed to let the ball meet the bat, almost like you’re trying to catch it with the bat," one player says.
Coach Caravelli considers this a moment before saying, "Actually, let’s just focus on swinging away today. You guys like to hit, right? Who wants to bunt, anyway?"
The player was right; Coach Caravelli didn’t know the technique for bunting. 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 bunting. He might be a smooth, coherent, and clear speaker, but that’s not going to help his players learn how to bunt. 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 a rundown situation on the base paths, 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 rundowns, Kenny and Sam are not executing as instructed. They are not running the runner back to the previous base, and they are making too many throws.
So, Coach Caravelli stops the action and tells them how to properly execute a rundown. Then he lets them proceed.
Coach Caravelli delivered an important part of the message—Kenny and Sam need to know how to execute a rundown—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 that 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 rundown 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. Please make sure your child remembers to bring a glove!"
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 swinging a bat, but your instruction is so technical and confusing that your players are worse off than if they’d received no instruction at all! They’re confused, you’re frustrated, and no one learns how to hit.
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 on a throw like that from the outfield, take a crow hop to give you a little momentum and power. All right? Let’s try it again."
Dion gives Coach Hagan a puzzled look, but Coach Hagan, in the midst of conducting a fielding drill, doesn’t notice. He’s already preparing to hit the ball again. Dion just hopes it’s not to him because he has no idea what a "crow hop" 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 encourage a runner to "take an extra base," he might not understand that you mean to advance to the next base. Likewise, "hit the cutoff man" doesn’t help your right fielder if he doesn’t know what a cutoff man is.
Speak in language your players understand, and watch for their understanding.
Deliver Your Message in the Proper Context
Karim, playing second base in the first game of the season, has just botched what Coach Grantham felt was a perfect double-play ball. Though he had time to get in front of the ball, he tried to backhand it and began his flip to the shortstop before he had control of the ball. No outs were recorded.
Coach Grantham takes a few steps out of the dugout and cups his hands to his mouth. "Hey, Karim! Get in front of the ball! Get down on it and watch it into your glove, like this!" Coach Grantham models the proper technique to field a ground ball. "Then make the snap throw, like this!" He makes a phantom toss to a make-believe shortstop.
What’s wrong with this? First, it’s probably humiliating for Karim to have everyone in the park witness his coach trying to instruct him on how to field a ground ball. Second, it’s not the time or place to give detailed instruction—that should be done in practice, not in games. The instruction itself wasn’t incorrect; the timing of it was.
So, 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 baseball. 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: The opposing team has a runner on third with one out. The batter lofts a fly ball to medium center field. Janet, your center fielder, camps under the ball but drops it in her haste to make a quick throw to the plate. The runner scores and the batter is safe at first base.
Response #1: "Come on, Janet! That was a can of corn! You should have had that easily!"
Response #2: "That’s okay, guys! Let’s get this next out, now. Infield, there’s a force at second."
Don’t ever berate a player, publicly or privately. Remember that even major league players make plenty of errors. Your players are going to make errors; 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 baseball like we know how. Keep your focus on the fundamentals. Take good cuts, don’t swing at bad pitches, and watch that ball into your glove before you try to throw it. Let’s go out and 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 baseball. Remind them of that and tell them to have fun:
Situation: In batting practice, Terrell keeps bailing out (stepping with his front foot toward third base).
Response #1: "Hey, Terrell, you look like you’re ready to run to third base, not first base, the way you’re stepping out! You’re halfway into the dugout with your right foot!"
Response #2: "Step toward the pitcher, Terrell. Keep your front foot in there. 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 baseball. 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. So do rainouts. 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 fielders record the outs, but their technique is not quite right. Hitters get hits, but they have flaws in their swings. Even the fields are not manicured to these coaches’ satisfaction. 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 error. 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 umpire. 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 run in a tight game, and this response is seen 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 field. 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 your communication style be?
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.
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."
Communication is a two-way street. If you make it one-way, athletes will eventually tune you out because you tuned them out when they attempted to talk to you.
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.
Provide Helpful Feedback
Tyler has been having trouble in the infield. He tends to rush things, wanting to throw the ball before he has control of it, and as a result he makes a lot of errors. After one such error, Tyler and his teammates return to the bench after the inning is over.
"Tyler, you need to field those grounders and make good throws to first base," Coach Dixon says.
Is Coach Dixon telling Tyler something he doesn’t already know? Hardly. Is he helping Tyler improve his fielding technique? 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 fielding. 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 from Coach Dintiman’s.
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 field 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.
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
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, "As the pitcher releases the ball, take a step toward the pitcher as you get ready to swing," only to hear you follow that the next week with, "There’s no need to take a step as the pitcher releases the ball. Just pick up your front foot, set it down where you picked it up, and swing." 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.
Make sure you treat all your players in a similar fashion. If Dana breaks a team rule one week, and you discipline her 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 throw or hit 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 ability.
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.
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 your second baseman for knocking the ball down when she should have easily fielded it and thrown out the batter. 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.