Listening is key to effective communication, and active listening skills can be learnt and improved.
If you think back to your sports coaching course and training, you might recall the emphasis on listening. This is because sports coaching goes beyond performance; a sizeable amount of what we do relates to counselling and mentorship. Central to both is the art of listening.
Hello – is anyone there?!
The basis for a good relationship is good communication. It allows both parties to speak honestly in confidence and without judgement. This is especially true of sports coaching, where the athlete-coach relationship relies on transparency and openness on both sides.
In the ‘Counselling Skills Handbook for Sports Psychologists’, authors Katz and Hemmings pay great attention to active listening skills. They believe that it enables the sports psychologist to encourage the athlete to “tell their story” in a non-judgemental way which “reinforces athlete trust” of them.
Putting our active listening skills into practice we can determine the right type of intervention needed, as well as build trust and gain helpful insight. It’s more than just hearing – it’s about actively listening and providing feedback to demonstrate that we understand what is being said.
Tips for improving your active listening skills
There’s an art to listening, it involves more than just nodding in all the right places. It means giving your full and undivided attention, and knowing the right cues to use. Here’s a few listening techniques to improve your listening skills:
Focus and Attention
In these modern-times we live in, it’s easy to be distracted. It’s a rare gift to be able to remain focused, yet one you’re likely to have if you’re in this profession, which requires patience. So, use it to your advantage.
Make a conscious effort to focus on your athlete when you’re conversing with them. Avoid taking calls and resist the temptation to look at emails, meet in places where you won’t’ be interrupted by other people. Basically, do all you can to create an environment where you can offer your full and undivided attention.
Being a good listener is not just about deciphering what is being said – it’s about what isn’t being said too. As such, the importance of non-verbal communication cannot be understated. Experts who have studied the subject believe that 55% of what we communicate is non-verbal. Let’s take a look at some of these:
- Eye contact; Talking to someone who can’t maintain eye contact is rude at best, disinterested at worst. Being a good listener means giving your full and undivided attention, and this involves direct eye contact, not looking around the room.
- Facial expressions: Don’t be afraid to show that you’re listening. A sympathetic smile and gentle nod of the head can go a long way in demonstrating this.
- Gestures: Use your hands to express yourself – touch is a great way to reinforce a close relationship.
- Posture: Remain conscious of your posture and what this communicates. Are you standing alert and focused, or are you slouched with your arms crossed? A term used in sports psychology is ‘reflection’ also known as ‘mirroring’ – research has shown that when we replicate the body language of the person we’re speaking to, it shows that we understand them.
The best way to show that you’re listening, is to show interest. It’s about being authentic, genuine and in the moment.
Some also refer to this as ‘emotional listening’ – this means really trying to understand how it feels to be in your athlete’s (running) shoes!
It also requires a touch of empathy – this means opening your mind in a non-judgemental way, in order to see the situation from another’s point of view. In doing so, it allows us to sympathise and think laterally about resolving any concerns they bring up.
Coaches who are empathetic listeners pay attention with an open mind and are intent on understanding their athletes and other coaches.‘Sports Psychology for Coaches – Burton and Raedeke.
Ask relevant questions
The best way for a sports coach to show that they’re listening, is to ask questions at respectable intervals. This requires the emotional intelligence to know when to interject, allowing your athlete enough space to express themselves without interruption.
Watch any accomplished journalist or presenter and see how they balance the art of asking questions and listening. Andrew Marr, Louis Thereoux, Fiona Bruce are just some great TV personalities that have honed the art of being a good listener.
We all know someone who goes from A to Z, via B, C, D! Patience is certainly a virtue, when it comes to being an active listener.
With this in mind, try and organise meetings with your athletes early in the day. That way you are less likely to have as much pressure to finish quickly.
Patience is also about listening without judgement, it means keeping an open mind and allow the athlete to tell their story in their own time. It’s a privilege when someone trusts you enough to open up to you, and your responsibility as sports coach to listen.
On that note, it goes without saying that it’s important to wait for the other person to finish before you start speaking. Interrupting suggests that you might be bored, or hurrying them along, it can also be viewed as dismissive.
Paraphrasing is a technique used in business management and sports psychology alike.
It’s a simple way of showing that you understand and have listened to what’s being said.
The athlete support team “…can demonstrate that they have listened effectively by providing their understanding from what they have heard, which can be either confirmed and/or challenged and clarified further by the athlete”.Katz and Hemmings.
Think about how you can repeat back comments made by your athlete, to show you’re actively listening to them.
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