Good or bad, it has the ability to leave a lasting effect on a team. In fact, non-verbal communication can work hand-in-hand with what coaches say to their players, or communicate an entirely different message, all at the same time. To learn more about how body language impacts the game, we spoke with long-time Air Force Academy head coach Frank Serratore, one of the game’s best – and most animated – coaches.
USA Hockey: How important is body language from a coaching perspective?
Frank Serratore: I believe coaches send a lot of non-verbal messages – both positive and negative – through his or her body language. It’s a huge part of coaching that’s very similar to the ways an educator communicates with his or her students in the classroom or how parents talk to their children.
Over time, tendencies in body language reflect the nature of a person, whether it be a coach or a player. If not their nature, it certainly shows a person’s maturity level and/or self-discipline.
USA Hockey: As a coach, what’s the toughest thing about non-verbal communication?
Serratore: You have to find just the right balance between reading your players individually and reading the team as a collective unit, because they’re interconnected.
An effective coach needs to be more positive than negative by at least a 3-to-1 ratio – an overly negative coach will eventually lose his or her team, because those players will get to a point where they simply tune their coach out.
USA Hockey: Is it fair to expect coaches to avoid showing their frustrations through body language?
Serratore: Not necessarily. My job is to figure out how to best communicate with each of my players so that they play and perform their best. There are many effective ways to correct mistakes by implementing positive strategies. This dynamic reinforces the importance of having high-character people on your team, because people with high character will respond in a positive manner to constructive criticism.
The most important thing, as a coach, is to really get to know your players. Each player is different and, by getting to know them, you’ll learn which “non-verbal buttons” to push in each of them to help them excel. For example, one of your players might respond positively to negative body language, while another needs constant encouragement and reinforcement through your positive body language. Then, you might have particular players who perform their best if you don’t pay any particular attention to them at all. It’s different for everyone.
USA Hockey: When you have a player who consistently displays negative body language, what do you do – and recommend your peers do – to address it?
Serratore: Bad body language reflects bad attitude. It can be the beginnings of a cancer in the locker room, so our staff addresses and confronts it immediately. The only things players really have control over are their effort level and attitude so, if one of my players displays bad body language, he’s displaying a bad attitude.
I always tell my players that if they are dissatisfied with a certain situation, come and see me privately in my office after the practice or game, and we’ll discuss and rectify the problem. I don’t want anyone creating a distraction by reacting negatively during a game, whether it’s on the bench or in the locker room between periods.
USA Hockey: On the other end of the spectrum, how do you encourage positive body language?
Serratore: I always make sure I praise a player who has responded positively to something that’s happened – whether it was a good or bad experience. Usually the praise is immediate (as the player returns to the bench) and, sometimes, I’ll acknowledge that player a second time in the locker room – between periods or after a game – in front of his teammates.
USA Hockey: Finally, can body language be used to successfully ‘speak’ with officials?
Serratore: There’s no question that all coaches, including myself, utilize body language to communicate with officials. Non-verbal communication enables a coach to send a message to the officials without showing them up in front of the fans and – most importantly – without getting a bench penalty.