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Efficient verbal communication: A gateway to softball success

Are the things we say to players what we really want them to hear? How is what we say as coaches being interpreted by players? Does the subconscious interpretation of what we say interfere with our true message?

We know that communication is important in our profession, however are our verbal communication skills being used efficiently?

Everything we do well in the game of softball comes down to being efficient. We work on a player's hitting skills in order to attain the most efficient batter standing in the batter's box come game time. We practice rundowns in order to get an out efficiently with the fewest number of throws, and so on. How often do we look at our communication skills as coaches to see if we are doing our job efficiently? It is the purpose of this article to take a quick look at some communication examples and get us thinking about our own abilities and efficiency.

Practice Communication.

Many of us as coaches have physical education degrees or a teaching background. All of us who have gone to college have taken a communication course at one time or another. Iím not even going to begin to put a semester's worth of information into one article. It does bring to mind a question: Why does it seem that we often forget the teaching skills that we learned in college when those skills often can be used in coaching?

One common mistake that I see all the time is giving to many cues at once. A coach may say to a hitter, "get your hands out away from your body, bend slightly at the waist, bend your knees, keep your front side closed and stay balanced!" Wow! By the time the coach gets to "stay balanced," the player has forgotten the first two or three cues.

When teaching a skill or adjusting a movement or stance, it is better to concentrate on one or two cues at the most. Perfect one or two parts of a skill at a time before you move on to another piece of the puzzle. Trying to communicate too much information at one time tends to break down a player's ability to comprehend, retain knowledge of a skill or muscle memory to a movement, thus hampering efficiency.

Another problem that I see is coaches who do not require enough verbal feedback. We tell a player to perform a certain skill or act out a game situation and she does it correctly. However when a similar situation occurs requiring a slightly different reaction, an adjustment is not made. This happens a lot in game situations that may vary due to the number of outs or possibly the score. When practicing a skill or game situation ask the players questions that begin with "Why?," "What if?," or "How does ...?."

An example would be when working on hit & run cuts in the cage you ask the batter, "With a runner on first and one out, you receive the hit & run signal, what are you trying to accomplish and why?" If the player gives you appropriate feedback you know that she knows the situation well. If you don't ask the question then she may be practicing hitting the ball to the right side of the infield with no purpose in mind.

One thing that I have learned the hard way is to not assume a freshman knows anything. Even players that come from good programs sometimes donít know about things like hit & runs, bunt & runs, or safety squeeze bunts. By asking appropriate questions your communication efficiency will rise and so will the play of that individual.

Game Communication.

At the 18 and under ASA Nationals a couple of years ago I was watching an elimination game with Kennesaw State Head Coach, Scott Whitlock. In the bottom of the 7th inning with the tying run on second base and two outs, a batter who has not had a great day, steps up to the plate. The third base coach walks halfway down the line towards homeplate and shouts, "You will not let her throw the ball by you!" At this point, Scott turns to me and says, "Nothing like adding a little pressure." On the second pitch her mission was accomplished when she hit a weak ground ball to the second baseman for the third out sending her team home. Scott turns back to me and says "Well she didnít let the ball be thrown by her."

Although she accomplished the task that was presented to her by the coach, I am sure that the coach had a different outcome in mind. I have often wondered if the coach had said, "Take a deep breath, find the center of the ball and hit it hard!," What might have happened?

The old addage of be careful what you ask for because you might just get it, certainly applies to this situation. We hear it at games all the time, coaches saying things like "Just meet the ball!" or "Letís make a little contact!." How does a player actually interpret statements like these? A player "just meets the ball" when she hits a weak grounder or fly ball and popping up means that she has "made a little contact."

A communication expert would probably say that subconsciously these general statements are sinking in to some degree. As coaches we do not want garbage to sink in, so we must avoid it no matter how harmless it seems. Don't take a communication risk, it may be permanent. Statements such as "Hit it Hard!", "Find your Pitch!" are more proper, positive and efficient terms.

Most of the time, keeping things positive is the best form of efficient communication. I realize that there is a time and place for everything and I too use some attention getters every now and then. However, some of the things that coaches get away with on a game to game basis is unbelievable. I continually wait to see a parent come down out of the stands to cart their kids off because of what I deem as verbal and sometimes physical abuse vs. good coaching techniques. Softball at any level should be fun for the coaches, players, parents and fans. Having fun and staying focused should also improve our communication avenues.

Off The Field Communication.

Good, positive general communication off the field is also very important in my coaching philosophy. Players need to be treated like adults, if you want them to act like adults. General questions about their academics, family life, or social life tend to open lines of communication. Athletes need to know that coaches are real people too. Stories about previous experiences sometimes entertain and let players know that we put our pants on one leg at a time just like they do. Showing interest in their lives outside of softball lets them know that you care about them as people not just as softball players. Efficient communication does not exist where there is tension and good off the field communication can be the key.

Obviously, I have not covered all there is about efficient communication. It would take a book 500 pages long to discuss all the details, problems, and solutions dealing with the subject. I do hope that this article has stimulated some thoughts and ideas to improve your game. Efficient communication is truly one of the gateways to softball success.