Moving from conversation to communication

If you are like me, you spend more time each day with your athlete than your spouse. As they say, good communication is the bedrock of any successful marriage. Why is it then that in coaching, where we spend even more time with our athletes, communication is always an afterthought? We prioritize biomechanics and physiology and even psychology before we begin to focus on communication. Most coaching courses do not even spend one minute on the topic.

I fell into this trap too, but something about the pandemic this year knocked our training group out of its normal routines and helped open the lines of communication.

East German influences

When I was an athlete, our training group was very much of the East German style. The coach and the athlete had defined roles, and we followed them. The coach would say what to do, and we did it. If we had to do 8 reps in the weight room, we did that. There was not much discussion as to why we were doing 8 reps, or why that might be better than 6 or 10. Like a young kid in church, you didn’t question the pastor about the bible. Not that my coach was some kind of a commander, we trusted him and the system, which worked for a lot of decades before us (why such a succesful system needed a rethinking is an article for another time). I am still in close contact with my old coach and every time we talk it is still inspiring. Even if he is over 80 now, we still discuss things we maybe should have done different during my time as an athlete.

We are all products of the culture we were raised in. I’ve tried to bring a more open communication style to my own coaching, but still the group still defaults to the traditional communication style. I noticed this most when the German throwers used to visit the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista for training camps. There I would see American athletes like Ryan Crouser, Darrell Hill, Reggie Jaggers, Sean Donnelly and a few more. They are motivated, self sufficient, and work very hard to do the extra work and learn the extra bit. Most of the German athletes, on the other hand, were like me and did what they were told. Give them a number and they would simply do it.

Improving the culture of communication

Communication is important for a variety of reasons. With strong communication with your athletes, you get to know them better, understand how the program is working, and help educate them and give them feedback. In other words, with better conversations you can get your monitoring, wellness survey, feedback, and buy in for free in a few minutes.

Those who know me, know that I love a good conversation over coffee, whisky, or wine. Only one of those is appropriate at training, so what I have done to promote conversations in our group is install a coffee machine in my office. If athletes want a coffee, they drop in and I get to have those casual conversations that give me an idea about how their life is going and how they are feeling. This has been very effective at bringing us closer as a training group. Some of my athletes I have been coaching for more than a decade and they start to feel like children. 

Getting feedback on training

Despite my best efforts, something was still missing. When it comes to training, the feedback was limited and the conversations were not very in depth. I would know all about what was happening in their lives, but little about how they felt about the philosophy of each training cycle. At least it was that way until corona.

When the lockdown came, we started to have more discussions. Training time was limited, but talking time wasn’t. So we began to discuss more how to best use the time. We talked one-on-one, we talked in groups, we talked more than we ever had before.

Over the months the conversations expanded. We would start to discuss our intention for each training session and training block. Once the conversations started, the flood gates opened. Not only did the coaching team talk more, but so did the athletes. It sounds so simple in hindsight, but once we started communicating more about training, athletes started to buy in more to the program. 

I had to answer how and why we (me and my athletic coach Simon Overkamp) choose exercises for each athlete differently and why maybe sometimes the rep-numbers differ. Again, like in marriage, honesty here is also critical. Another thing that is critical to good marriage is honesty. Honesty and communication go hand and hand. If you start to have in depth conversations, you are going to get difficult questions from athletes. If you bluff your way through it they will know. If an athlete asks me something I don’t know, I will tell them that. We all do many things in training because we know they work, but we don’t know how they work. But rather than just leaving them hanging, I tell them I will come back with an answer tomorrow, so let’s continue the conversation then. It’s not just the athletes that learn from these conversations, coaches do too. And such exchanges keep the conversation going. If a coach simply says how it needs to be, that ends the conversation.

As they ask me questions, I also ask more from them like things they maybe wanted to change and thing they think would work better. As athletes know better than I do how their bodies feel after a session, a week or a block.

The result of the feedback has been drastically different set and rep schemes this winter, in large part due to the conversations and goals we discussed in those conversations. We’re not only in the same book now, but we’re on the same page, which has increased athlete buy-in and commitment in our training. After our first two training blocks of offseason training, the gains can already been seen in our first tests.

From talking to communicating

At the end of the day my athletes still address me formally (Herr Sack in German). As national coach I sometimes have to make tough decisions and it shouldn’t be my goal to be friends with all my athletes. But the pandemic underscored to me the value of something as simple as communicating. Before we talked. Now we communicate. The difference is huge.