Wouldn’t it be great to get the edge on the competition, and surge ahead towards your goals?
Improving your communication skills can help you do just that!
The Importance of Communication Skills
As you develop your communication skills, it enhances your relationships – with coaches, teachers, other performers, parents/children, the wider community etc – and this will improve the support you have to reach your goals.
What you communicate – through how you hold yourself, to how you behave in and out of performance settings – can help you to move closer to your goals, AND have a positive effect on your own mind too. Your personality says a lot and sometimes in team situations or for professionalism, you may need to adjust how you portray your image to others in a performance context.
For example, communicating emotion to an opponent through acting out after a wayward shot can give them a mental edge, or bring your teammates down. In performance, people make a large proportion of judgments of an athlete’s character based on how they behave, not what they say (Nick Kyrgios take note!).
What you communicate to yourself (that little voice in your head, that can be angel or devil!), can also help you to achieve great things. Self-talk – or your inner voice – can be planned and used strategically to keep your mind positive and on task.
So what is communication? It is more than just talking or writing, it refers to how we send and receive messages (both externally and internally), including what we say with our body language and style. Language (verbal and body) is our main focus here, as it is a very effective tool both in controlling our own mind and body, and improving our relationships with others. Both are critical to attaining your peak performance.
1. Communication with Others
If you want to get the edge on your competition, and become a leader, remember: leadership is all about communication. Setting specific goals helps leaders to hone their ability to connect with individuals and groups. Breaking information down makes it easily accessible, and simplifying the world of performance for others helps to build shared language and a shared vision of what to improve through targets and goals. This helps to reduce conflict and misunderstanding. Improving your communication skills involves clarifying and addressing:
- Values and team identity;
- Performance targets (profile);
- Training strategies;
- Conflict resolution.
The process of sitting down and doing this early in a season (or career) creates valuable discussion, and allows performers to express themselves and feel a sense of agency in the process, increasing motivation. People learn in both visual and verbal ways, so utilising communication tools such as mind mapping and performance profiling can enhance this process greatly.
A performance psychologist can help you with improving your communication skills, by working with you on:
Positive reinforcement: Setting up expectations of how reward and punishment or reinforcement will shape behaviour under the coach’s lead is delicate, and to get performers on-board and committed to the model, specific processes are required.
Motivational interviewing and eliciting personal goals: Leaders can help performers to reflect and generate motivating forces, both internal and external, to drive them forward. There is a particular skill set that experts in behaviour change use to develop motivational drive and goals that can be learned. This improves the relationship and motivation, and creates shared accountability and follow-through.
Conflict resolution: Conflict is inevitable and is usually due to communication breakdowns in the first place. There are several models of conflict resolution in terms of “putting out fires” when they occur.
However, I believe in proactive and pre-emptive conflict resolution through improving communication processes; but since we cannot avoid conflict altogether, we must have skills to help resolve such events, to make sure they do not affect training and team/individual cohesion and performance.
Assertiveness training: Assertiveness in communication is the “Goldilocks” effect for leaders. Too strict, controlling and harsh is authoritarian and aggressive and will not reap the positive outcomes desired. At the other extreme, submissive and passive communication lacks control, power and weight. Leading from a passive or submissive position is bound for failure as your troops must respect you, and you must be able to command their attention and commitment.
In the middle is “assertiveness”. Assertiveness is confident and powerful without being forceful and controlling. It will gain you respect without resentment. and is important for both leaders and non-leaders who need to communicate clearly with their peers what they need and believe. Sometimes you will need to be assertive to look after your own interests and goals above and beyond others’ needs. If you do not have the communication tools to stand up for yourself without coming across as aggressive or submissive, it will create barriers to progress.
Empathy and counselling skills: Leaders benefit greatly from improving their empathy and counselling skills. Unfortunately, most leaders do not develop these skills by utilising counsellors and psychologists who are the experts in this area of communication. Empathy, or showing understanding and acknowledgment of others’ feelings and perception of events, allows people to feel heard and that they have some freedom of expression. This subtle human need contributes greatly to internal motivation, strengthening rapport and trust, and improves conflict resolution greatly. Counselling skills are a finite set of communication tools to help people discuss their life challenges and internal world and find some resolution, answers and/or direction forward.
Constructing team communication structure: How does information travel within a group? How is everyone’s voice heard without information overload, top down and bottom up? To accomplish this middle ground of not too much, and not too little, two-way communication between leaders/coaches and performers, it can be useful to have a plan for what the team communication channels are.
2. Body language and Expression
Think of the information you pick up about who Lleyton Hewitt is, or who Roger Federer is, just through how they hold themselves, react on the court, speak and behave.
We and the rest of the sporting community make judgments of athletes based on what we see, and so do their opponents.
Some people are confident, loud and emotionally reactive and some are shy, quiet and calm. You can be all business and serious with your actions and subtle body language, or you can have fun and enjoy things through how you behave. What identity do you want to convey to others in your performance world? And what messages will your behaviour send to you – about your values, self-worth, attitude and professionalism? How do other people’s judgments of your identity in sport affect your future success? Think of all of the benefits of being aware and pre-meditated about how you act and hold yourself in performance.
There is no right or wrong energy and attitude to project to the world in sport, it is very much a personal thing. However there are advantages of being aware of what you are communicating through how you behave and treat others, because it projects who you are.
The good news is, you can be the architect of how you want to be seen and judged, to maximise your image to others such as coaches, selectors or other players. You also send valuable feedback to yourself about how you are feeling and thinking and behaving, when you pro-actively “act as if”. Body language can have a dramatic effect on your internal world and mental state and learning about how to use body language to build mental toughness is a valuable skill.
3. Internal Language and Self-Talk
Your internal language or self-talk can help or hurt you in performance settings, due to its link to your attention, emotions and goal-directed behaviour.
Self-talk can be useful in directing your mind through high-pressure performance situations, as it can reduce the complexity and distractions typically increased by stress, and keep your mind on task. A concise set of targeted words or phrases can keep your focus on the plan; what is in your control, what your goals are and what attitude or energy you want to bring to the task.
Internal language occurs all the time and if you think about it, self-talk often reflects how we are feeling, and can either keep us in a bad headspace or get us out. Your self-talk can be used to grab attention and re-allocate it to more productive positive targets if you prepare and practice effective verbal cues. In performance settings, it can be important to utilise self-talk strategically to bring your focus back when distracted; to remind you of motivational information; to help you relax or pump up; boost your confidence, and improve skill learning.
Self-talk can be broken down into mantras (short phrases to build motivation and confidence) and cue-words (single words that draw attention to a specific cue for skill execution, attitude, focus, goals).
Mantras – Mantras can serve as motivational triggers, focus tools, reminders of values and attitudes or as self-affirmations for confidence. Mantras are usually very meaningful and personal short phrases like prayers, but serve the purpose of preparing and setting the mind for performance. They can be tailored to the sport and individual and can be strengthened or charged up by practicing them in certain ways, like accompanied by music or imagery. An example of a mantra that focuses a performer on the present moment and what is within their control might look something like this:
“The past is only memories, the future is imagined, right now is where I live and breathe. The score is my enemy, other people are distractions, but I am in control of me.”
Cue Words – Cue words act as thought anchors, because they are single words that draw attention to specific cues related to the task or your mindset. Cue words are fast and easy ways to trigger positive thoughts, behaviours, focus cues and emotions. They too are most useful when they are meaningful, personalised and practiced. There are several techniques to derive powerful cue words which can help you as a performer to stay task/goal oriented and in a positive frame of mind. They can also be used after distraction or mistakes, to help you pick yourself up and re-focus quickly. Cue words are typically used in skill learning processes to help people sequence movements to improve technique.
Three Tips for Enhancing Mantras and Cue Words
- Keep them visible (eg on your water bottle);
- Associate them with information that is meaningful to you, such as memories or music;
- Use them when you train and when things are going well, they can be part of the routine.
If you are keen to get the edge on your competition, by improving your communication skills, your public image or your self-talk, you can make an appointment with me at either Loganholme in Brisbane, or Tweed Heads on the Gold Coast.