Today I would like to address one of the primary functions of coaching. Communication, plain and simple. Great leaders are by and large great communicators. Even if you are leading by example, you are communicating through your actions.

In my experience (and perhaps in yours) I have certainly encountered well intentioned managers who made the mistake of assuming that their audience, be that their staff, players or supporters just knew some things or viewed certain things the same as them. We sometimes need to remind ourselves that their is more than one way to skin a cat. No matter what level you are coaching at, the individuals you are instructing are coming in with backgrounds and exposure to previous experiences that vary from person to person. Some information they have received may be completely wrong and still some information may have been from a successful system that just happens to not fit with the current system you want them to use. As a drill down example, let’s look at one small but important aspect of the game…footwork at second base on the double play.

I had a conversation two years ago with Indiana High School Hall of Fame coach Phil Webster. Coach Webster has a way of asking questions to get students to think their way to what he is trying to tell them (more on that later). He forced me to clearly define the approach the receiver of the ball should take and the conclusion is how I have stated the instruction to players ever since. Seek the ball with the glove side foot. That means that a right handed thrower covering the bag who has the glove on his left hand will step on the base with his left foot as the ball arrives. I like this technique because it allows the the second baseman to clear either across the bag to the third base side via; right foot plant, left step and throw or clear back towards first with the same pattern. I still teach that to this day, however, last summer I was working on double plays from the shortstop side as the receiver and a player showed me how he was instructed to “shuffle” across the back of the bag to time the transfer. Two things occurred to me in considering his method; 1) that only works from the shortstop side where his momentum is setting him up to 1st 2) he could still touch the bag with his left foot then shuffle step right to left in the same pattern. The important thing is that the conversation made us both think. It was, in this case, two way communication which is really the best form. What if we had never discussed specific footwork on the double play? I have been around many coaches over the years that never discussed it in that manner. The player wasn’t wrong in his approach, he just had a specific viewpoint. By getting specific on communicating fundamental details, we both were able to get on the same page.

Come at it from all angles

It is an important requirement of instruction to state, and in many cases, restate information in different formats. The art of presenting information in multiple forms is what teachers call differentiated learning. Some people are better visual learners and some are better auditory, some need hands on and some need a set of written instructions. For best results, I would suggest formatting important points in all of the above. My belief is to have at least five ways of disseminating key info to players:

  1. Demonstration – go over the mechanics and techniques in front of the group by demonstrating step by step
  2. Playbook – write down each element for players to read and review
  3. White board – “chalk talk” is great in a classroom setting, it also allows for questions and the two way communication described earlier in the double play example
  4. Drills – hands on execution *remember-practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect. Do not let players practice it incorrectly, communicate the mistakes
  5. Repeat it back to me – have a method of players explaining the process and give feedback. This goes back to the concept of not assuming they know what you are thinking. Quiz them on the steps you taught to be sure it has been absorbed.

Include the whole organization

If you are a head coach, then the very first group you must teach the system too is your assistant coaches. I can’t emphasize this enough. A great example I see way to often, is miscommunication on base running as well as defensive infield signs.

Let me know if this sounds familiar, at some point prior to the season, you go over the base running signs with the whole group of players and coaches. You try to pick a day when everyone is there, but really there is no day when EVERYONE is there, but that’s ok you will cover it again. First game comes and you put on a bunt. Hitter misses the sign and takes a strike, runner gets caught in no man’s land leaning (expecting a bunt) and the catcher guns him out at first. In between innings you are back in the dugout asking the hitter why he didn’t bunt and he of course tells you that he thought the bunt sign was different than what you gave. Upon further investigation, another player or worse yet another coach, tells you that they also had the sign wrong and told (taught) the hitter in question the wrong sign.

Signs, by definition, are sign language. According to wikipedia there are around 500,000 people in America who use sign language or 1.5% of the population, the vast majority of whom are hearing impaired. Most of your organization is not used to emphasizing non-verbal communication. They will require you to spend additional time teaching signs in different mediums until they all learn the system proficiently.

In each case of directing your program, from fundamental techniques to how stakeholders find out what to wear, take nothing for granted. Emphasize multi-channel message delivery, repetition of information, inclusion of the entire organization and 2-way communication and you will find a much more in tune and cohesive group at the end of the process.