Here is a conversation I had with my girls basketball team last season a few days after being accused by a parent for yelling at her child during a game.
Me: “Imagine you are on the playground 100 feet away from your best friend and you want to know if they want to join your game.”
Taylor: “Like jump rope?”
Me: “Okay, like jump rope. You yell out ‘Hey Tasha, want to join our jump rope game?’”
Emmersen: “It’s not really a game, coach, we call it a turn.”
Me: “Okay, great, thank you Emmersen. So you yell out to them to take a turn using this voice [I raise my voice as loud as I can] ‘Hey Tasha, come take a turn.’ That is me yelling to Tasha to join us. Now, here is a different way I could do it [I use a deeper voice with attitude and frustration] ‘Hey Tasha, come take a turn!’ I used the exact same words, but do you hear the difference in how I said it?”
Chase: “I do! The first one you were encouraging. The second one you were mad.”
Me: “Exactly! Now, what is something I say during the game, a lot?”
Alex: “Get your hands up!”
Me: “You’re right, I do say that a lot.
Maddie: “Like a thousand times a game.”
Me: “Well, it’s important! Okay, Alex, scoot back 10 steps and yell to me to get my hands up. Camryn, you go with her and yell at me to get my hands up.” [They yell, we all get it, giggling ensues, we all high five, then start practice.]
In my experience, the people who can communicate the most effectively often end up being the most successful in their field. I have heard it said many times that success belongs to the one who can tell the best story, and I agree. Football coach Jon Gruden said he chose to study communication in college because he knew he would, for the rest of his life, need to be able to communicate a game plan to his players and coaches. I was in my third year of college when I read that sentence and it made so much sense to me that I literally changed my major to communication the very next day.
There is a great scene in Star Wars Episode 1 where Qui Gon Jinn and Anakin are running from Darth Mal. Qui Gon Jinn turns and yells, “Anakin, drop!” Without hesitation Anakin drops as Darth Mal flies inches over his head. The clip is only a few seconds long but made a lasting impression on me, so check it out. Here is the Youtube Link.
That is the kind of communication you want with your athlete. However, we cannot assume our athletes will know how to accept communication like that without first building trust, and trust is built over time through great communication.
How does this apply to parenting and coaching youth sports?
Here is the background of the previously mentioned accusation. I was shocked, especially since these were 10-year-old girls and it never even crossed my mind to be upset, much less yell for any reason whatsoever. I coached against some jerk coaches who yelled at their players and I know it does not motivate at all. This parent pulled her child from the team after that game and we never saw her again. A few days later I realized where I went wrong.
Kids are not mini adults and for that reason we cannot assume they have the emotional experience or maturity to understand what is going on during intense moments. Sure, some kids are more emotionally mature than others, but there is a limit to how much they can possibly know for the sheer fact they have not been alive long enough to know what an adult knows. To add to that, it is unfair for a parent to expect a child to have control of their emotions if the parent cannot control their own emotions. So if you find yourself yelling at the ref during a game, don’t be shocked when your child gets thrown out for yelling at a ref. You taught them how to do that. Stings a little, doesn’t it? Deal with it.
Where I went wrong last season was in assuming my 10-year-old female basketball players knew there is a difference between being yelled at and being yelled to. So when I was yelling to the team to “get your hands up,” there was a misunderstanding of how I was trying to motivate my athlete. My athlete thought she was in trouble, instead of hearing what I said and interpreting it as a reminder that would help her performance. I later found out that the girl had been quite sheltered and never been in the presence of a man who raised his voice, so she reacted exactly the way she should have, by being upset. Why is that an appropriate response? Because she doesn’t know any better, and because she is a child and as adults it is our job to teach kids emotional maturity.
How to Improve Coach-to-Athlete Communication
The very next practice I pulled the girls in tight and I said we were going to learn the art of communication. First, I complimented them on their on-court communication since it had improved greatly and they needed to hear again I was proud of them. Then, the scene above took place. It ends with us laughing and yelling to each other the rest of practice. They understood right away the difference between being yelled at and being yelled to and began practicing it right away. An unintended bonus was they got louder on the court after being given permission to yell to each other to call for the ball for an open shot or a breakaway situation.
During the game there are parents cheering, feet hitting the gym floor, whistles blowing, and music blasting. Any good coach knows they have to use a loud voice in order to be heard over these noises, but the better coaches know there is a right way and a wrong way to yell.
Teach your young athletes to know the difference and keep your own emotions in check. Use yelling as a tool and use it sparingly so when you need to get their attention on something important, it doesn’t sound like everything else you yelled to them.