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Communication is the bridge between confusion and clarity

Growing up as the son of a speech and language therapist, communication strategies have always been strongly emphasised. Scientific understanding as well as clinical knowledge of the human body should be a prerequisite for all strength coaches, however, understanding and communicating effectively with the athlete is often where most coaches struggle. Strength and conditioning coaches often come with extensive knowledge and experience of training, either because they have been athletes themselves or because they have chosen a career they have a particular passion for. As not all athletes share their enthusiasm for the gym or for particular training modalities, coaches often struggle to motivate athletes that don’t have the same drive and determination that they have for lifting weights, purely because they don’t understand them and they are unable to empathise with them.

Everyone has a different and preferred communication style and this is best emphasised by the work by Marston (1928) in which he highlights four types of human behaviour. Dominant, Inspiring, Supportive and Cautious, each category lends itself to being more task or person orientated as well as outgoing or reserved. Most people have a blend of all the behavioural styles depending on the situation, however, everyone has a default type they display most often. Therefore, people tend to communicate in a way that they wish to be communicated with, overlooking the fact that the person they are interacting with may have a different preferred style. It is important to note that there is not a right or wrong way of communicating, however, it is essential that people understand others preferences as this will generate the most effective relationship. If they don’t, then there is a chance that there will be misunderstandings and potentially relationship breakdowns as a result.

Another key understanding is that all behaviour types can be perceived as either positive or negative, for example dominant behaviours can be perceived as either aggressive or assertive, driven or demanding. The same can be said for supportive behaviours that are considered either indecisive or compliant, a good listener or lacking initiative. For a more in-depth look at the behavioural types “Surrounded by idiots” (Erikson, 2019) provides an interesting and humorous insight into how different individuals may clash or collaborate depending on the circumstance. The aim of this post is not to delve too deeply into the types of personalities but to encourage you to recognise yourself and be more considered in your understanding of others.

As a strength and conditioning coach, you will most likely work with individuals from each behavioural category and possibly work with multiple different types in the same team (Bartholomew, 2018). Those who approach everyone with a one size fits all communication style risk alienating others who do not favour that style. The cookie cutter approach loathed by trainers when it comes to programming is however, most commonly adopted with regard to communication strategies. When considering a training program for an athlete most trainers follow a specific pattern, it involves a number of stages and normally starts with a needs analysis of the sport, followed by a thorough analysis of the athlete and then once this information is clear, a program can be put together in order to best facilitate the improvements the athlete needs to make in order to excel at their chosen sport. I am suggesting that as part of the athlete needs analysis the coach should determine what sort of behavioural type most represents the athlete and what the best strategies could be in order to communicate effectively with that athlete. This can either be done in a formal way using the DISC assessment or another behavioural assessment, or during the initial meeting the trainer can use conversation and questioning attempt to understand the athlete better and what style might suit them best. I believe the formal profiling would be most beneficial, however people are able to assess fairly well for themselves through simple conversation which type people are.

There are a number of ways in which simple changes to a training program can be made in order to best suit the individual athlete. When working with teams you should be aware that you may well need to change the way in which the program is outlined for different athletes. For example, a coach could provide access to a detailed program with all the information on or simply a leaflet with just the relevant information, giving the athlete the ability to choose for themselves which best suits them.

1. Choice

Some individuals will respond very well to an element of choice whereas others will prefer a more direct and prescriptive nature. With the athletes that enjoy choice I suggest giving them options with regard to load, this way it gives them the impression that they have more control over the session. It could be as simple as offering them two different loading schemes that in reality make very little difference to the overall effectiveness of the session but give the athlete a sense of autonomy. Another option, which I use most often, is during warm up and preparation activities - I put three or four exercises in different columns, each column will have a particular focus, for example glute activation or shoulder mobility. I then offer the athlete an opportunity to select a couple of exercises from each column as part of the warm up. No matter which exercises they chose they will effectively potentiate their posterior chain as well as mobilise the shoulder. The athlete will tend to choose the exercises they enjoy the most and therefore have a better experience during the session and ultimately this creates better buy-in from the athlete as well as a better relationship between myself and the athlete. Another athlete however, may find this confusing and problematic and feel like they are missing out by not doing all the options. Individuals like this would benefit more from being given a list of eight exercises and told to do them all. The aim is to prepare the athlete physically and mentally for the session and it the role of the coach to do that in the most conducive manor.

2. Explanation

Some athletes need to know everything, I call them ‘why athletes’. When working with athletes like this it is important to give them as much information as possible, they may not retain any of it but it is important to them to know why they are doing exercises and what the benefits are. As a coach you may not feel like you have to justify your decisions, but it is important to create a positive relationship between you and the athlete and clarity and confirmation may be what they need. Other athletes may be the total opposite so it is important to refrain from providing too much information to them because this could well have a negative effect on their mindset and compliance. Another athlete may well need anecdotes in order to better understand the reason behind certain training modalities or how it relates to their sport, so it’s imperative you are able to relate it back to the sport. It doesn’t hurt to have a few go-to explanations for certain movements that you can regurgitate when necessary, especially for the more common exercises or most important cues.

3. Targets

Goal setting is something I discuss further in another article; yet it is worth noting that although goal setting is well documented it does not always elicit a positive response. Some athletes need a target to aim for especially if they have prerequisites for their sport which they are expected to achieve, but not all of them need constant reminders of what it is they are aiming for. This is far from a suggestion that training should be aimless, programs need to be well thought through and ultimately have a target for improvement, however, this information does not necessarily need to be constantly available to the athlete if it is not beneficial to them. This can manifest itself in a number of ways, either through fear of failure in which they set too high expectations or themselves or complacency if they believe they are already at a high standard. The latter is often observed within school as athletes tend to have a small frame of reference until they start competing at regional or elite level and therefore over inflate their abilities. This can be the case for athletes who are naturally big, strong or fast and feel they don’t need to work to improve these elements as they are already the best within a relatively small group. Understanding your athletes and setting SMART goals (Doran, 1981) is important, but the way in which this information is disseminated can make all the difference.

The aim of this article was to help the strength and conditioning coach think more critically about the way in which they communicate to athletes as well as offer some insight and examples of ways in which simple alterations can be made to best suit the athletes they work with. This is not an exact science and there are, no doubt many more examples of ways in which communication can better improve the coach athlete relationship. Nevertheless, take the time to understand your athlete’s better, chose intelligent ways that best suit their communication style and it is likely that the athlete will not only respond better but achieve more.


Bartholomew, B. (2018). Conscious coaching: The art and science of building buy-in. South Carolina: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Doran, G.T. (1981). There's a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management's goals and objectives. Management Review, 70 (11), 35–36.

Erikson, T. (2019). Surrounded By Idiots: The four types of human behaviour (or, how to understand those who cannot be understood). Vermillion: Ebury Publishing.

Marston W. M., (1928) Emotions of Normal People. Andesite Press.

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