Communication is key for any coach in any sport. In soccer, communication is even more important because of the limited interactions you get with your players, especially during games. Forming a relationship built on trust and mutual respect is therefore of paramount importance if you want your players to adhere to your instructions. Following are some basic tips for effective communication with your players:
- Get to know your players
I have found it useful to hold short–10 min–conferences with players at various points of the season (e.g. at the beginning, middle and end of the season). By holding these meetings, I have been able to gain insight into my players’ perspectives, hopes, fears, etc. Additionally, I learn what is and isn’t working for them.
- Identify the leaders and get them onside
Every group has its leaders. They are not always the loud ones, and they are not always the ones you want them to be; however, it is essential that you identify who the leaders in your group are, as the majority of your players will be following them. Once you have identified your leaders, figure out which one(s) best exemplify the values and the direction you want to take your team. Make sure to spend extra time with these players, so that they know and understand what you are trying to achieve. Many coaches assume that all leaders are born. Some are, but most need nurturing, guidance, and support. Backing the wrong leader can be disastrous for your team dynamic.
- Before/after practices
This is a great time for individual chats and to tell the players what they have been doing well/where they can improve. Just remember, though, the “emotional bank account” that Jose Mourinho (Chelsea FC manager talks about) talks about: For every criticism you have for your player, you need to make FOUR positive deposits. Many coaches may dismiss this as too “warm and fuzzy,” but who can argue with one of the greatest soccer coaches of our time? Before/after practices also provide good opportunities to listen to what your players are talking about and connect with them (e.g. television shows, music, other interests, etc.).
- During practices
No lectures! Your practice time is precious, so don’t regularly sit everyone down and explain in minutiae whatever tactical concept or drill you want them to do. Typically, if you can’t say it simply in 30 seconds or less, you don’t really know what you want to say. Also, consider whether you need to stop the entire practice and talk to the team en masse, or whether you can have a quiet word in your player’s ear when the opportunity presents itself.
- During games
Believe me, less is more! Soccer is a fluid dynamic game in which there are multiple changing variables. In other words, the “picture” constantly changes. To think that you, the coach, can tell a player what to do, they hear it, process it, and execute it as you want it done (assuming what you’re saying is actually “correct”) is not a good strategy, as the picture will have already changed. Some people call this type of micromanaging coaching-style, “playing Nintendo,” although I’m not sure how many people actually play on Nintendo game systems anymore. The point is, unless absolutely necessary, let the players play and keep your comments to praising them when they do something good (see above for Mourinho’s emotional bank account).
- At half time
It may make you feel better to lambast each and every player, going over every little mistake at half time; however, it probably doesn’t do the players any good. There are many different philosophies about what to do/say at half-time. In my experience, it is best to spend a couple of minutes thinking about what you are going to say first (e.g. discussing with assistant coaches). This also gives the players time to decompress, rehydrate, go to the bathroom, etc. When you do speak, try to keep the coaching points to no more than three. Any more and the most important points will get lost. If you need to speak to individual players, this rule drops down to one point. Again, what is the single most important point you want to communicate?
- After games
The last thing the players want to hear after the game is how badly they played or listen to your dissection of why they lost. This is a time when emotions are highest – only bad things can happen. Even if you don’t think they gave full effort, thank them for giving it their best, tell them to get some rest and that you will address what needs to be addressed at the next training session. This pointer is also the hardest one for me to follow. Even if you are really mad (especially if you are really mad), do not take it out on your players immediately after a game…wait until the next practice, by which time, you will have had time to think about what you’re going to say and therefore will be able to communicate more effectively.
- Say what you mean and mean what you say
Seems simple, but it’s not. If you want your team to “play like Barcelona” and “pass out from the back,” then you can’t jump all over your defenders when they lose the ball trying to pass to a teammate and the other team scores. Don’t tell them to “go out and enjoy the game” when you scream and shout up and down the sideline the entire game. Similarly, don’t tell them to “relax” when you try to micromanage every single play in the game!