MYHockey News

Communication is a Two-Way Street

By Scott Lowe -

The complaint I hear most often from young hockey players and their families is that their coach is a poor communicator. Before players come to that conclusion, though, it’s important for them to evaluate the situation and make sure that they are doing their part to facilitate the communication they desire.  

As we’ve been told many times, communication is a two-way street.

Coaches communicate by coaching and usually have somewhere between 20 and 25 players to worry about, so if they never hear from a player, they likely will assume that everything is fine with that particular situation and spend more time dealing with other players and issues.   

This is not to say that there aren’t many coaches who could use a crash course in communication. I can assure from my own dealings with coaches during my15 years working as an NCAA Division I athletics administrator – as well as my more recent experiences with coaches as a hockey parent and then in my current role helping young players find their path to junior and college hockey – that many of them are not the best communicators.

There are many extremely successful coaches who are comfortable in their work environment at the rink, on the field or in the locker room. These coaches can motivate a team to run through a wall for them with an inspirational speech. They can explain or diagram the most complicated systems or plays in a manner so simplistic that a young child can understand them. And they can bring together a group of athletes from diverse backgrounds who have played for a variety of other coaches with differing styles and mold them into a focused, cohesive unit that functions as one and executes to perfection even during the most intense competition.

So clearly these folks aren’t bad at communication, but maybe in some situations they could be better communicators.

Some of these expert teachers and tacticians do struggle with the basics of daily communication. During the season, full-time coaches often develop tunnel vision and focus on doing everything they can to win the next game. Out of season they may be on the road in the never-ending search for the next Wayne Gretzky or Connor McDavid. And part-time coaches or volunteers have to juggle their jobs and personal lives along with their coaching responsibilities. They may be lucky to find 30 free minutes to design that night’s practice or think about the next game’s lineup.

One thing that is important for young players to remember is that you are part of a team and rarely will be your coach's No. 1 priority. You are A priority, but not THE priority. Coaches have a lot of responsibilities and a lot more going on in their lives than most players realize.

Because of their hectic schedules or the laser focus, coaches might go days without checking emails and longer without responding to them. They often are too busy to answer their phones. Because of the positions they are in, missed calls and messages pile up quickly, which means that some of them inevitably won’t get answered. They may depend on their captains to get messages to team members and often change plans frequently or at the last minute. Some may not seem approachable to team members who aren’t the top players or starters and may think it should be obvious to all the players where they rank on the team totem pole by how they are treated and perform during practice and games.

Coaches communicate by coaching.

That said, there also are a lot of people in general who aren’t great communicators; many bosses, shift managers, teachers, doctors, lawyers and parents might work really hard to be good at what they do yet struggle with interpersonal communication. That doesn’t make them bad people or necessarily mean they are bad at their jobs or in their roles. We all have weaknesses and areas we should try to improve upon on a daily basis.

As a former journalism major who worked in communications and public relations for nearly 10 years, I would consider myself a pretty good communicator, yet I’ve worked for people who simply didn’t appreciate my ability to write and my desire to always provide details and all pertinent information.

I’m a detail-oriented person and prefer to supply all the information about a particular topic to avoid getting bogged down or interrupted with questions later and to avoid leaving people wanting or needing more information. Like coaches, bosses and supervisors tend to be very busy and usually have many employees reporting to them, so some of them prefer to have information presented to them as concisely as possible. Because they were in charge and I reported to them – and my employment and potential to make more money depended upon their opinions of me – it was necessary for me to adapt my style to make them happy, whether I liked it or not (usually I didn’t).

It wasn’t always easy to swallow my pride and accept criticism or do things in a way that was different from my preferred method, but it I wanted to remain employed and have the ability to earn more money in the future, I had to make a concerted effort to please my superiors. Perhaps more important than just making them happy, though, was building a relationship and earning trust.

If I ever wanted to leave my position and seek employment elsewhere – or wanted to apply for a higher-ranking position in the same organization – my boss was going to be contacted by someone involved in the decision-making process and was either going to be my biggest advocate or give a lukewarm recommendation that would be far less than a ringing endorsement 

It would have been impossible for me to do my job effectively and build a strong relationship with my superiors if I hadn’t been willing make the effort to understand exactly what they wanted from me and been open to adapting my approach appropriately. And the only way to do that was to ask questions and have some difficult conversations.

Effective communication between player and coach really is no different. When a player comes to me and tells me that his or her coach doesn’t communicate well, I have learned that it’s important to ask what the player has done – if anything – to improve that situation. Remember, communication is a two-way street.

Regular communication with an adult is something that young players need to get comfortable with as they progress up the hockey ladder and advance toward adulthood. It’s a skill that will help them athletically, academically and professionally.

It also will help the player build a stronger relationship with the coach and reinforce to the coach how much the player cares about the team and improving. Establishing this type of relationship can help a player earn the benefit of the doubt in certain situations, may make the coach feel the player is capable of assuming a leadership role and should make the coach feel confident recommending the player to higher-level programs in the future.

Is also makes it much easier on the player and coach to engage in the more difficult conversations if they have a strong working relationship and are comfortable with each other.

See the similarities with the employer-employee dynamic?

Participation in athletics provides so many lessons that prepare young athletes for life on their own beyond youth hockey and school. The more that parents step back and allow their kids to handle these situations on their own, the better off they will be later on in their hockey careers, in college and in their professional endeavors.

It’s important to understand that communicating is not solely about going through the motions and having a meeting about something. The player must bring an open mind and the proper attitude to any discussion since it is likely that he or she will hear some things that are not particularly flattering. The player must be willing to accept this and turn it into a growth experience rather than taking it as a personal affront.  

On the ice, players don’t get better by performing the same drills they are good at repeatedly. Instead, performance improves only when players are willing to venture outside of their comfort zones and work on areas of their game that they struggle with until they master them – no matter how awkward or silly they look in the process.

Similarly, if a player has a mentality in which he or she does not want to hear things that make the conversation uncomfortable – and the player is determined to question and debate the coach about any constructive criticism – it is going to be very hard to absorb and comprehend the points the coach is attempting to make.

If a player is defensive and unwilling to listen intently, ask questions about things he or she doesn’t understand and absorb the message the coach is trying to communicate, the likelihood of leaving that meeting with a real understanding of what needs to be done and the ability to successfully act on what the coach has requested is very low. This also may damage the player-coach relationship and make the coach less willing to spend time with the player going forward

An exchange like this often results in the message parents receive from their kids being much different from the one the coach was trying to get across and can be why animosity often continues to grow between the coach, the player and his or her family. The player was too busy formulating arguments and trying to defend him or herself in the meeting to absorb and understand the constructive criticism that was being presented.  

Of course, when this happens the message relayed to the parents is going to be inaccurate and likely construed as the coach being unfair or unable to communicate. While this may or may not be the case, the reality is that it doesn’t matter. The coach isn’t always right, just like in business the boss isn’t always right. But similar to the boss, the coach is in charge. Players can fall in line and do their best to be coachable and do everything the coach demands or they can continue down the road they’re on and likely suffer through a long, frustrating season.

At this point it is fair to ask if it is the player or the coach who has the communication issue? 

The answer probably falls somewhere in between since we’ve already determined that communication is a two-way street. The coach may feel like there is no communication gap and that it should be obvious to the player where he or she stands and what areas of the player’s game need improvement based on the number of reps the player gets in practice and the manner in which he or she is used in games. Most times, players are going to feel like they are working hard, doing well in practices, playing fine when given opportunities during games and deserving of more playing time and responsibility. 

Keep in mind that coaches communicate by coaching while players often want more from their coaches. Deep down inside, though, many players may not truly want to hear what the coach has to say. This type of situation can result in a stalemate, with the coach feeling like the player is perfectly happy with his or her situation and the player getting more miserable with each passing week.

It’s the coach’s team to run as he or she sees fit, and as a member of the team, it is the player’s responsibility to do everything in his or her power to do what the coach is asking of him or her. That is the nature of team sports and the definition of a good teammate. Failure by a player to make a concerted effort to do what is asked of him or her on and off the ice gives the coach every right to reduce the player’s role and his or her opportunities.

Keeping the lines of communication open from the start can prevent a situation from getting so far downstream that it becomes toxic and beyond repair. For a player, having to make slight adjustments along the way to remain in a coach’s favor is much easier than getting so far off the track that there is little hope of restoring his or her faith in the player. And for a coach, it’s much more rewarding to spend time on a player who clearly puts the team first, wants to get better and is willing to do whatever it takes to improve within the team dynamic.

If the player is open to coaching and constructive criticism from Day 1 and tries to do everything the coach asks, any lack of success enjoyed by the team rests on the shoulders of the coach, who hopefully will be willing to adjust his or her approach if things aren’t going right for the team.

That, too, is on the coach and not for the player to worry about. The only thing that should be on the player’s mind is trying to do exactly what is asked of him or her.

And the best way for the player to learn exactly what is expected of him or her is to start building a relationship with the coach right away. Every player wants individual attention and enjoys working with his or her coach 1-on-1, but again players must understand that they are A priority, not THE priority. 

The best way to start building the relationship is to just talk to the coach in non-threatening situations. Stop by the coaches’ room on the way in to practice and just say, “Hey coach, how’s it going?” Have short one-minute conversations before and after practice to find out how you are doing. “Hey coach, how I’m doing in practice? Anything in particular I should be focusing on?” If you played a game over the weekend, ask similar questions before or after the next practice.

If there’s a concept that the player doesn’t understand, asking for a more formal meeting to discuss that concept and maybe go over some video is appropriate. Again, this is non-threatening, shows that the player cares and probably is the type of exchange a coach enjoys. These interactions also allow the coach to get to know the player better, which also important as it may be necessary for the coach to be an advocate for the player when talking to higher-level teams in the future.

Perhaps most important, though, is that building this type of relationship paves the way to make any future difficult situations and conversations much easier to handle. There’s nothing a coach hates more than a player who only comes into talk or complain when a situation goes bad. But when a player has built a relationship and the coach knows how much he or she cares, wants to help the team win and wants to get better, the coach is more likely to be more understanding if questions about playing time or other concerns are raised by the player.

It will be much easier for the player to bring up any difficult topics, and the coach is more likely to take a step back, be receptive and maybe even give the player’s side of the situation more consideration than he or she might under similar circumstances. Building a prior relationship allows this type of meeting to be productive instead of contentious, and in my experiences, when two reasonable people sit down and have a face-to-face conversation the results generally end up being positive for both sides.

Building a relationship with the coach is the best way for a player to make the most of his or her hockey experience and to develop as a player and a person. Oh, and if it helps make the coach a better communicator, everyone wins, right?  

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