Coaching: Learning Communication Skills

Over my 10 years of coaching experience, I developed a value for communication.  But I wish I had done more to develop my communication skills.  When I was 28, speaking to high-school athletes about important matters was generally effective, but communication was generally a one-way street.  I spoke, and I assumed they listened.  In my mind, I was doing a good job because I was raising points that I felt other coaches might ignore.  If we wanted to have a good team, I had to point out critical details to athletes, instead of just hoping they would fix those problems.

That approach worked with athletes that had both the attention span and the intrinsic motivation to attend to the multitude of details required for incremental improvement in swimming – a sport where dropping 1 second in a 100-yard race can be considered a monumental success.  But that approach didn’t engage every athlete.  Not every athlete could take a multitude of my statements – some instructions, some ideas, some loose thoughts – and turn them into actionable plans and behaviors.

And the bottom line in coaching is athlete behaviors.  How do you get athletes to adopt behaviors that will lead to successful performance?

Behavior-change research is quite clear that knowledge alone is generally not sufficient to actually change behavior.  For instance, most of us know that getting more exercise and eating more vegetables will be beneficial to our health and well-being… but how many of us comply?  And even when we do comply, how well do we comply, and how strong do these habits become?

The reality is that we have to engage in different types of planning and strategy-development to support behavior change.  And for coaches to help create behavior change in their athletes, to get them to take new steps to achieve bigger and more ambitious goals, the best way to do this is by engaging them as partners to develop an appropriate strategy or plan.  The best way to do this is through a process of questioning.

The importance of questioning

In my view, it is the job of the coach to help the athlete engage in planning and strategy-formation to support behavior change and future goal achievement.  Most athletes are capable of planning – but some do much more planning than others. I hesitate to say that some athletes are natural planners; I think planning is much more a learned behavior than inherited trait.  So, as a coach, it’s important to identify how much support and scaffolding you will need to give to each different athlete as they plan to meet their goals.

When you’re in this situation, it’s helpful to have a model to guide you through the process.  In my work with my mentor (and now colleague) Dan Gould, we have used the GROW model of questioning and communication as a means to structure the types of questions that coaches ask of their athletes.  It has been used extensively in the executive development field as a means of developing management and leadership capacities of employees and managers (for more depth, see Whitmore, 2009, in the further reading section).

GROW is an acronym that stands for four broad categories of questions that are typically asked by a coach to an athlete (or a manager to an employee) in the following sequence.

  1. GOAL questions are ways of asking the athlete about their goals, the things they want to achieve in both the short-term and long-term.  These are relatively straight-forward for athletes who have a good idea of what they want to achieve, but may be difficult to ascertain for athletes that don’t have very well-defined goals, for athletes who are more interested in the social components of sport (which are completely valid motives for playing sport).
  2. REALITY questions are used to induce some reflection by the athlete – where do you stand in relation to achieving that goal?  These are important questions to ask of athletes whose goals are beyond achieving (in your estimation as the coach), or whose goals are too low (again, in your estimation).
  3. OPTIONS questions engage the athlete in the strategizing process, and are typically the most eye-opening questions that really get the athlete to think.  These types of questions engage the coach and athlete in a process of identifying potential courses of action.  More importantly, they also force the athlete to think them through – to see how they might unfold, to see what barriers could logically arise, and to strategize even further to overcome those barriers.  During this phase of questioning, options are open, and we’re not looking to be critical, because we’re not narrowing down to a specific course of action… yet.
  4. WILL questions are where the coach asks the athlete to take stock of their options – all the potential courses of action – and then commit to one course of action.  What WILL you do differently?  What can I expect to be different in one month?  What will you do differently tomorrow?  Many people have trouble taking ideas and thoughts and crystallizing them into concrete future behaviors.  These questions help with that process, and in my experience, they are critical questions for athletes whose track record shows that they need more direction and structure from the coach.

The model is just that – a model.  It provides a guide or a framework for your questions.  It is somewhat like cooking.  The first few times you use it, you might follow it exactly, but as you gain experience and become more comfortable with it, you might diverge from the sequence of questions so that you can follow the athlete better and make the conversation more natural.

To give you a better sense of the GROW model in action, here is a demonstration video that I recently filmed for my graduate-level Psychosocial Bases of Coaching course (KIN 855) at Michigan State University.  You’ll see my interview with one of our students, with annotations to point out some of the question types, and a debrief at the end.

Link to the video

Why do we emphasize communication in our masters degree program?

Now that I am teaching students in our sport coaching and leadership graduate programs, I have been given much more thought to how we teach coaches to be better communicators.  Because there is not great research on this process, I will provide my approach, which is generally rooted in behavior change theories, but is also based on my experience teaching coaches communication principles.

First, I think there is a values-shift that needs to occur. There is a very important core belief in this approach, which is that athletes should be an agent in their own goal pursuits.  Not everyone believes that athletes should be given this much agency or autonomy in the process, and I think this belief originates with your view on raising and teaching children.  If you agree with the notion that children should be seen and not heard, then this approach will oppose your core beliefs about the role of children in relation to adults. I do not advocate this view personally or professionally. Instead, I believe that if we want children to grow into adults that are capable of making good decisions and choosing productive directions in life, then we have to give them opportunities in childhood and adolescence (and emerging adulthood – college years) where they can learn how to plan and strategize in an environment with more structure and scaffolding, and where consequences are less grave than they would be in a real-life scenario.

Most adults and coaches no longer espouse this core belief, but many were raised in a time when youth’s voices were not as valued nor as engaged as they are in the present day.  Although they may embrace the value of giving youth a voice, habits are hard to overcome.  When they are adopting a new communication approach, they immediately fall back on habits of communication that involve telling rather than questioning. Novice coaches often fall-back on behaviors that were modeled to them by the coaches they had when they were athletes.  Thus, the biggest challenge tends to be avoiding the temptation to tell the athlete what to do (because you already know the answer), rather than sitting patiently while the athlete figures it out for themself.

This is where the GROW model of communication along with active listening skills (which I will address in a forthcoming post) can be immensely helpful as you are trying to make questioning a more habitual communication style when working with athletes.  The GROW model gives you a simple heuristic (a tool for obtaining knowledge) that guides your questioning process.  Over time, as athletes present you with questions, problems, or goals they want to achieve, it becomes the first stop when your mind asks, “how do I respond to the athlete?”

Can you really teach communication in an online course?

I would argue that because we are working online, and I cannot practice the communication skills with students in my classroom, I have had to shift the focus to the student – to have them record, evaluate themself, and then reflect on how to perform the skill differently a second time.  Reflective practice has long been demonstrated as an effective method for adult learning and continual professional development.  We feel that if we want coaches to change, then we need to have them practice the skill, reflect on it, refine the skill – all as a means of behavioral priming.  My speculation is that doing the communication exercise in a real context is better than doing it as a practice exercise in a face-to-face classroom setting with another student.  It takes on a different meaning when you perform the skill for real.

Continually, our students indicate that communication has been the critical take-away from my Psychosocial Bases of Coaching course.  They say that being forced to listen to a recording of their conversation with an athlete or colleague is an eye-opening experience.  Many note that prior to the exercise, they felt confident as communicators, but that they found themselves continually offering advice, interrupting the athlete, or trying to solve all of the athlete’s problems in one sitting.  Communication is a rocky process.  If done well, it will expose weaknesses that need attention.  This can damage your ego as a coach, if you let it.  But if you see it as an opportunity, it can help you work with your athletes to solve problems and get on the same page.  How many coaches are screaming about not being able to communicate with today’s youth because they’re entitled, saturated with social-media, and programmed for instant gratification?  But how many coaches are slowing things down, taking the time to communicate, or to be patient while athletes figure it out?

I encourage you – in whichever profession you work – to employ the communication skills and the questioning approach of the GROW model.  I think you will find that they greatly increase the effectiveness, the richness, and the depth of your communication with your athletes or the people you work with.


Behavior change research is a broad field that includes research in many different disciplines. Scholarship in kinesiology and sport science generally focuses on health behavior-change. To that end, the work of the Theories and Techniques of Behaviour Change Project (coordinated through University College London) has done exceptional work to help identify evidence-based behavior change techniques (93 at last count) and the theories that guide them. Their work has also given us greater knowledge on which behavior-change techniques are most appropriate to use based on the context. For instance, motivational interviewing is a behavior-change technique that requires that the participant have enough conversational and intellectual ability to identify their personal reasons for engaging in a new behavior (such as vigorous exercise). Given the need for conversational and intellectual ability to participate in a motivational interview, would a young child be able to participate in one? And thus, would motivational interviewing be an appropriate behavior change technique to use with young children?

Reflective practice has been advocated as a method for coach learning and continual  development.  The term stems from landmark work done by Donald Schön, who examined the balance between technical knowledge and artistry in the contribution to professional growth for workers in the health professions, education, and architecture.  In coaching, the concept of reflective practice is particularly useful for helping us to understand how coaches can access and retrieve established technical knowledge (e.g., how the body responds to the stress of high-intensity aerobic and anaerobic training) and adapt it to new situations where technical knowledge is not clearly established (e.g., how to train novice climbers for a new high-altitude expedition). In sport contexts, much has been written about reflective practice by Wade Gilbert and his colleagues (see further reading section).

Further reading

Gallimore, R., Gilbert, W., & Nater, S. (2014). Reflective practice and ongoing learning: a coach’s 10-year journey. Reflective Practice, 15(2), 268-288.

Gilbert, W. D., & Trudel, P. (2004). Role of the Coach: How Model Youth Team Sport Coaches Frame Their Roles. Sport Psychologist, 18(1), 21-43.

Schön, D. R. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.

Whitmore, J. (2009). Coaching for performance. Boston: Nicholas Brealey.

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