Let’s Talk Communication

“Communication does not always occur naturally, even among a tight-knit group of individuals. Communication must be taught and practiced in order to bring everyone together as one.” – Coach K

Picture a coach and I’ll bet they are yelling on the sideline. This is likely about their team not communicating. Or at a ref, fine. All coaches list communication as one of the critical skills to win a basketball game.  So why is it that most coaches find their teams suffer from too little? Here are some perspectives on why communication falls short in many teams. Although I share basketball as the context – this applies to all teams. And effective leadership can not occur without effect communication. Now let’s get the conversation started on how to have our teams communicate effectively.

If we claim to be player-centered coaches then we must take the player’s perspective into account. A majority of the lack of communication is due to one of the three following reasons:

1. A Lack of Clear Language

One of the growth moments I had early on as a professional coach in a foreign country was recognizing the need to create common verbiage so our team could relay information quickly. (Off the court we had time to speak slowly, and a translator). Most of the language of basketball is universal, but even if you all speak the same language there are discrepancies since each player and coach has their own history.

What helped us as a coaching staff was to write down everything we might say or expect our players to know. And then, what we meant by each term. I suggest you do the same with your staff. Then, trim it down. There is no need for three different terms for one way you defend a ball screen. One is enough, this holds especially true when you are teaching.

In India, there are nearly twenty thousand different mother tongues spoken in the country alone, it’s one of the things that make their history fascinating. However, when India was looking to unite for Independence from the British it became increasingly difficult for the many provinces of India to work with each other. This was because the country did not have a common language. Luckily, Bollywood became wildly popular throughout the entire country. This had the unintended consequence of creating a common language. Allowing the leaders to unite and move forward for their citizens. Having a common language is huge for culture building and culture preservation. This holds as true for teams as it does for nations. 

Determine your terminology and turn it into a document. Share it with your players. It will lead to good conversation and clarity. You’ll be surprised to hear “Oh, that’s what that means” to what you believed are simple concepts. Or, “we call that, this.” Maybe you’ll like ‘this’ better and the language will change. The day you do this, you’ll witness an inflection point towards togetherness in your culture.

I suggest making this a running document. Something you can revisit each year, and during your season as your team grows.

2. Player Confidence

Players can be unsure of what language to use, especially early on in a season when terms are being introduced.  This can lead to them feeling overwhelmed and lacking confidence in what they are saying than doing – which causes them to be quiet.  Often, players would rather be silent than be wrong.  

By positively reinforcing any time communication that occurs outside of their comfort zone and not providing negative judgment we can get players to flip this belief.  This can have powerful effect on communication and beyond.

Once they know the terms the next issue you may face is players that are overwhelmed with stimuli.  Their working memory is consumed by play and they have nothing left to speak to their teammates. Whatever thinking is occurring becomes internal.  This suggests that they may not truly know the schemes.  Many coaches can relate to the following situation in games or practice.  Your team starts a dead ball with tons of communication. But as the chaos of play begins. They become silent as they try to read what is going on.  

It is possible they know what they need to say but they aren’t able to apply it in action. When I suspect this, I will pull a player off in practice and have them track a player that is currently competing. I will have them simply communicate as if they were they were the player they are tracking. This allows me to test for understanding. Maybe they are still silent and now I know I have to teach them what needs to be said.

But often, by removing the kinesthetic load – actually playing. This will allow them to focus on communicating external thoughts.  Now the player has felt what proper communication sounds like.

3. Player Priorities

Dave Smart, who has won 13 Canadian Collegiate National Championships as the Head Coach of Carelton University – is one of the best coaches at emphasizing communication.  He constantly reminds his players “It is okay to over-communicate, it is never okay to under-communicate.”  Once players understand this they overcome their barriers to communication.  This increase in communication instantly leads them to become more cohesive as a unit and prevent breakdowns on the offensive and defensive end as they talk through situations and provide solutions to each other.

Offense and defense are easier to coach because of the scoreboard – which gives an objective score on how we are doing.  With that being said, if something is worth emphasizing, it is worth tracking.  As coaches and leaders, here are a couple of questions to ask ourselves when we find our teams falling short on communication:

  • Do we know what our non-negotiables are for communication?
  • Are our players clear on what those non-negotiables are?
  • Do we track communication in practice? If so, what do we track?
  • Are we specific in the types of communication we want?

Remind players that there are multiple ways to communicate with each other, such as: verbally, eye contact, touching, pointing.  Furthermore, the best communication is specific, to each other, and solution-focused. I’d much prefer to hear that they have “Help! Sara get corner!” than simply “I’ve got ball.” In the later, everyone already sees this because you are running there. In the former, you are in one word telling the entire team what you are doing and alerting a specific player of her next action. Communication in this manner cascades.

As a coach, I reinforce that our communication is Early, Loud, Continuous, (ELC) – which works effectively because it allows for a quick reminder when there is a general lapse in communication. Specific lapses must be addressed directly, but when the gym gets quiet a quick mention of your system will get players communicating.

I believe teaching effective communication is critical. Effective communicators make for effective leaders. Once your team makes communication a habit, they’ll start to reap the powerful effects of communication and it’s a great habit loop to be in. Communication engages players, increases teammates’ confidence, and shows that the player understands what is going on.  Without a system of communication in place, your team’s success will be limited.  Work to improve communication like you would any other skill. You’ll quickly see it translate to more wins.

Best of Basketball Bonus (For My Coach Nerds Only)

The best thing I’ve heard for on-ball screen coverage communication. First, as always have your Big communicate the screen is coming. How long should they yell out their coverage for? The classic I typically hear is three. But what I now believe, your big needs to communicate until the guard adjusts their feet. The guard flipping their hips to force a reject means they heard you and this action is their communication back.