Lessons in communication from Wade Gilbert

Wade Gilbert is the coach of coaches. He has dedicated his career to studying coaching and his book Getting Better Every Season is a must read for coaches of all levels. This month on HMMR Media we are looking at communication in coaching, so it is only appropriate that we end with a few insights from Gilbert.

Gilbert has presented at the GAIN conference many times, with one of his presentations now available for HMMR Plus Members to stream. You can also learn from him on GAINcast 7 and GAINcast 121. The insights below came from rewatching his 2017 presentation Good coaching – bad coaching.

Communicate through a common language of core values

What type of communication you need is different at different points of the year. For example, communication priorities for the preseason are very different than the end of season. At the start of the year you might work together to define goals, then at the end of the year use communication to highlight the behaviors that best help contribute to teaching those goals. During his presentation Gilbert broke down key things to look for throughout the year. My biggest takeaway was on how he approaches the preseason.

If you start the year right, it makes the rest of the year quite easy. Gilbert discussed the importance of vision, core values, and creating behavior standards. Essentially all of these tasks are creating a shared language between coaches and athletes. If the team is not on the same page, communication can be nearly impossible. If everyone is on the same page, then communication is barely even necessary. He shared one example along these lines with regards to team discipline:

“Accountability doesn’t require an iron fist, just a mutual understanding of what’s being asked and what’s at stake.”

This is easier said than done. Coaches need to invest a lot of time in this preseason work, and then be sure the environment constantly reminds athletes of the core values throughout the year. Slogans or quotes on the gym wall have become a cliche since all too often there is no meaning behind them. But such slogans can be an effective cue for athletes if they are a substantive reminder of core values that they really live. “Adapt and overcome” was the key core value for the Melbourne Storm this season that helped guide them to a championship as their performance team described on our podcast last week. Just a few words can keep make a big impact.

Less is more

One interesting point that Gilbert brought up in the presentation is that good coaches actually talk less. The difference is not small either: research has shown good coaches give 50% less comments to athletes. These coaches listen first and intervene second.

This reminds me of the article that Vern Gambetta wrote about John Wooden several years ago. During his last season coaching he let two psychologist study his methods and coaching style. They tracked every word he said and found that his feedback was short, punctuated, and seldom longer that twenty seconds.

Through my work with HMMR Media I’ve had the chance to talk with many good coaches. Just a few weeks ago we spoke with England Rugby head coach Eddie Jones on GAINcast 204. When I visited England’s training camp in 2018 I noted how he was surprisingly silent during training sessions. Even outside of training he follows minimalist communication philosophy. Meetings, for example, have to be short and to the point. As Jones puts it:

“It’s not like that Al Pacino movie Any Given Sunday. People would love it to be like that but it’s not. We never have a meeting that lasts longer than 15 minutes and we never have a meeting that has more than three points. So when they walk out of those meetings they understand those three points and there’s been interaction between the players themselves and the coaches as well.”

Over and over again you see this trend of less is more.

Learn to praise better

Praise can be a valuable tool, but we often render it meaningless by using it too much. If you praise every action by an athletes, it devalues the feedback process and then praise no longer serves its proper function. The motor learning research outlined in our recent video lesson with Professor Kevin Becker underscores this point.

Most athletes want genuine feedback, not never ending praise. They know all of their actions aren’t perfect, and they appreciate honesty. In both his presentation and this article he shares some best practices when it comes to praise:

  • False praise can do more harm than good. It is the worst thing a parent or coach can give.
  • If you want to praise kids, it should be genuine and earned. If the praise isn’t earned, don’t say anything.
  • Praise should reinforce the positive things that they’re doing and that they can control, not things that are dependent on how other athletes perform.
  • It’s okay to point out another player on the team, or on the opposing team, who had a great game. That helps teach your child how to handle losses and wins more gracefully, as well as highlighting positive behaviors and actions.

Coaching is teaching

Listen to Gilbert and one word that keeps coming up over and over is teaching. Great coaches are great teachers. If we think about communication in this way, it helps us optimize what we say. Every statement we make has the potential to teach. This can be good or bad: false praise might teach the wrong thing. Therefore when you’re thinking about what to say, quickly ask yourself what you are trying to teach with each statement. It is not practical to do this all the time, but the exercise can help you focus on the real message you are trying to convey.