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Paralanguage: The Key to Communication for Coaches

By Michael Caples, 02/23/16, 11:00AM MST


To be a good coach, you need to be a good communicator. There is a whole lot more to being a good communicator than just the words that come out of your mouth, however.

“The best coaches are excellent communicators,” said Dr. Dan Freigang, a sport psychologist who works with USA Hockey. “They are good with words and they are good with context of words, they are good with their face, and they are good with their body and gestures. That’s called paralanguage.”

Freigang, who also works with U.S. Soccer and U.S. Ski and Snowboard, said a person’s paralanguage is just as important to conveying a message as the spoken word.

“It’s the big message. All of those things have to sync,” he added. “It’s a skill that you can improve on. Nobody is just born with this. Some people have personalities that they are born with and they may be very helpful and happy, eager to talk. That doesn’t mean they are good communicators. That just means they talk a lot. That personality, it comes from your parents and genetics, it doesn’t really change very much. Communication skills are a skill. It’s just like a wrist shot – it gets better the more you practice and the more you evaluate it and try new things.”

The Total Package

Freigang, also a youth hockey coach, said that being a good communicator comes with the total package listed above – delivering your message with both verbal and non-verbal cues. The latter is crucial for a young hockey player.

“Little kids, when they are below 12, they are really literal, but they may not understand a word, so they make up their own meaning,” Freigang said. “Body language, it’s like having a dog. Dogs don’t understand our words, but they connect with us really well because they read body language. They know when we’re mad, and they know when we’re happy. Little kids are like that, too.”

“There’s a difference between ‘Come on Bobby, you can put some pressure on him’ (said calmly) and, ‘Come on Bobby, put some pressure on him!’ (yelling),” Freigang explained. “Same words, but this message that includes body, emotion, face, if you walk closer to him and raise your hands up in anger, or if you’re calm – the little ones pick up on your message. These are all different dimensions of communication.”

Wooden’s Ways

Freigang said a great example is legendary basketball coach John Wooden. After his remarkable success with UCLA, researchers analyzed all the different ways Wooden communicated with his players, and the results continue to be utilized today.

“When [Wooden] used language, his body language, his organizational context (talking about dribbling while they were doing dribbling) and his body and his message – his instructional message – they sync together,” Freigang said. “They met. It was crystal clear. The language that he used had an instructional content and a personal encouragement. ‘Jimmy, put your hand forward, that’s the way you get better – go.’ But he was a butt-kicker, too. He made the kids do 500 reps.”

Analyze Your Communication Skills

It’s hard to figure out how you’re communicating with your players, of course. Freigang recommends having someone video tape your interactions, so you can see how you truly come across to your players.

“If someone has done a video of you, and you look at yourself, it’s pretty weird because you don’t look at yourself from the external, the way that the players do,” Freigang said. “It’s really weird. You had no idea that you presented your face like that. It gets even more strange for a coach when they hear their own voice, because that’s not the voice that players hear. I would encourage all coaches to have somebody that they trust – it could be an assistant coach or a manager, somebody that’s on the staff that they are loyal to – take a quick five-minute video, use your smart phone and do it in training first, to hear your instructional voice and how you give instructions and then you look at it.

“This is what USA Hockey is doing. We’re trying to educate people on, look, the best coaches use this kind of language and this kind of body language and the teaching process is much clearer. I can guarantee that 99 percent of the time, a coach goes, ‘Oh, I had no idea that I sounded like that, or in this moment they say, you know, that’s not really what I meant.’”

Things to Watch

Freigang said that some of the nonverbal communication things to watch include your tone, how fast you talk, the inflection in your voice, your volume level, the message your body conveys and the context – where you are on the ice or on the bench in relation to the player with whom you are conversing. A simple act of taking a knee – bringing yourself down to a similar height of the player – goes a long way in how he or she perceives your message.

“What’s really cool about humans is that we cue up on a face,” Freigang said. “It’s why when you were a baby your mother looked at you and smiled. We’re really good on picking up on facial cues. The first thing that a player looks at is this paralanguage – what we’re looking at is, are you throwing your hands up in anger or are you clapping in support? Then we immediately cue in on the face. Inside of about one second, a person can feel and recognize with our facial recognition what the message is. Are you angry? Are you happy? Are you frustrated? Are you asking a question? We communicate that, and people can pick up on it instantly. A coach has to sync body language – are you throwing your hands up in frustration or are you calm?”

Improving upon your communication skills will undoubtedly make you a better coach, and it will help come game day.

“If the target is to be a great coach and have kids improve and love the game, and I think those are important, you’re also going to win more,” Freigang said. “The better teacher you are, the kids try harder, they love the game more, they do it more, and you’re going to have really, really strong kids who develop skills more. They’ll practice more and they’ll be way better athletes.”

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