It’s hard to believe that this is my 13th year in the sports performance world. For those that don’t know my story, I will spare you most of the details, but I do believe some background here will be beneficial.
I started my coaching career at 18 years of age, as a volunteer high school baseball coach. All through my undergraduate years, I coached. And, coached, and coached; year-round, every day. And over time, I was afforded more and more responsibility and growth opportunities, both at the high school level and also within the collegiate and professional ranks.
Upon completing my undergrad degree, I embarked on my first, true professional experience. From 2015 through early-2017, I spent my time as Strength and Conditioning coach at multiple levels before moving into a Coordinator position with the Cleveland Guardians, where I spent five years helping to support our Strength & Conditioning efforts and staff.
Over those years, our organization steadily increased its sports science needs, but did not yet have a full-fledge department or staff dedicated to it. My role as Performance Coordinator based out of our Arizona Academy put me in a convenient position to help fill at least some of those needs. After a half-decade in this role, however, we reached a tipping point: a full Sports Science department was needed, and I shifted into my current role as a Sports Science Analyst.
I share my journey thus far for one simple reason: to illustrate that I have not had a traditional “Sports Scientist” upbringing – well, not by industry standards anyway. So, as I spend a few minutes discussing with you my perspectives on communication and the sports science process, just know that this comes from its own unique vantage point. Not good, not bad, just one all its own.
Okay, enough about me – let’s chat about communication in the sports science domain.
Defining What Sports Science Means – to Us and to Others
If we are going to be able to communicate sports science insights, it is vital that we come to understand what it means to us and others.
Ask most what it means to work in sports science and you will undoubtedly receive a spectrum of answers, typically ranging across, ‘it’s the sports tech’ and ‘it’s all of the data’, and ‘it’s our science people telling us what to do.’
Depending on who you ask, the takes you get will be attached to mixed feelings. Sports science can get a bad rap, but it is important to acknowledge that this is both dependent on what others perceive of sports science, but also on how sports science services are/have been delivered to them. In other words, whether we recognize it or not, everything we do influences the way in which those around us view sports science. Which is why it is so important that the delivery information, insights, and services be managed with care and thoughtfulness.
Without a clear consensus at times of what sports science is, it has dawned on me just how valuable it is to have my own personal take on what sports science can mean. In that way, the delivery of insights and analysis, the collection of data, and the prescription or recommendation of training – all of it can be consistent and comfortable for each stakeholder involved.
Speaking for myself personally (me, and me alone), the meaning of sports science can be simply explained in just a few words:
Helping to solve great sporting questions.
While oversimplifying things just a touch, in all reality, this philosophy can be applied to all different aspects of the sports scientist’s role:
- Is a player making progress in their physical development?
- Are we content with an athlete’s current workload relative to the demands of the sport?
- What are the demands of the game? The demands of practice?
- Is the athlete prepared to compete this season? Are they ready to participate in today’s activities?
- How should we progress our athletes’ workloads in the off-season to prepare them for the competition season?
- How should we structure our day? Week? Month? Season? Year?
All of these questions, and really any meaningful question that can be solved with the scientific method (or something akin to it) are things that I believe a sports scientist can help solve, which is why I center my own personal philosophy of the endeavor around asking and seeking to solving great sporting questions.
Why Communication Matters
I proffer to say that sports science is no different than any other line of work when it comes to the irreplaceability of communication skills. Whether you are a coach, analyst, CEO, doctor, elected official, nurse, fly attendant… if you are in a position of supporting anybody other than yourself, there will surely be a cap on your effectiveness if you are not willing or able to communicate well. But, communicating “well” is a bit of an ambiguous mark for which to strive. So, let’s dig in a bit deeper:
Personally, I believe what can often be hard to recognize is just how much strong communication encompasses when it comes to sports science. Yes, communication includes the obvious verbal discourse with other staff members. But it also includes interactions with players too. Both stakeholders — athletes and staff — are important, but when it comes to players and collecting data from them, the value of strong, accommodating communication is often lost in the midst of ticking over every item on our to-do list, every assessment on the docket, and every shred of data that is required on a daily basis.
The singular focus on what we need from our athletes can turn the humanity of sports science into something far too transactional:
- “Hey Sam, today you have to jump on the plates”
- “Cindy, don’t forget to wear your ___ device”
- “Shawn, did you complete your survey?”
Our athletes are people, and people respond best when they feel as though they have agency and stake in their own lives and livelihoods, as well as in the decisions being made for or about them. To me, this is why language matter so dang much: it may feel like semantics, but it’s the little things – like word choice, tone, syntax, metaphor and symbolism —that can add up when we are building rapport with our athletes around the sports science process:
- Ensuring that we ask, not just tell. Whether that be in their willingness to do something, their openness to try something new, or their acceptance of feedback
- Striving for and speaking to participation, rather than compliance. Would you prefer that your athletes comply with your “instructions”, or willingly participate of their own accord?
These are just two examples, but they are two of the ‘little things’ that can mean an awful lot to the health of a relationship.
Often going unnoticed, too, is how communication can come in the form of many different mediums. Verbal and written; email or group message; through body language. And, let’s not forget the fact that reports with tables, charts and other visual aids serve the purpose of communicating information as well. Each of these mediums provide our language and the information we seek to share their own unique environment for delivery.
Having knowledge in the field, the experience in the trenches, technical competencies – these are all non-negotiables for being a good practitioner (in sports science and any line of work, really), but it is the ability to communicate all of this in a respectable, effective, and non-threatening way that can take good to outstanding.
And let’s be honest: great communication can also make up for limitations in the the more technical skills. Being genuine and authentic, relatable and timely, thorough yet concise, approachable and clear… these are soft-skills that can level-us-up beyond our know-how. However, it can be quite difficult for the hard skills to make up for poor communication and tact. Having solid information, repeatable methods, and air-tight procedures means very little if none of it can or will be received by others.
Versatility in Communication
One final aspect that we must not forget is versatility in our communication. As a practitioner in the sports performance world (and of course, in the micro-climate of sports science), we are often called to cater to a variety of stakeholders: strength coaches, athletic trainers, medical staff, athletes, front office members, executives, senior leadership – sometimes parents too! Beyond the types of stakeholders, there are the individual differences of each person: how they best learn, how they prefer to communicate, what language they speak, their appetite for data and learning. You and I may prefer to communicate a certain way; we may highly value sports science principles and get enthralled by communicating ‘the why’ behind our practices; we may be afforded plenty of time to do this, and we may speak the same language as one another. But, not everybody does. Heck, in professional baseball, the athletes alone can run the gamut in age (as young as 15, as old as 40+), capacity to speak the English language, educational level, and upbringing.
Being an effective communicator, then, isn’t just about competency in a narrow context, it is about being effective at it in the broadest sense possible; being able to reach a variety of audiences, through all mediums available, in whatever way it best suits the person(s), the organization, and the cause. A rigid approach may ensure that some stakeholders get the information they need, but it can also leave others missing out on the value we are striving to bring (and may even alienate others).
For a long time, I had a bit of a challenge explaining what this versatility looked like in practice, grappling between authenticity (be yourself!) and flexibility of language and interpersonal connections (be what others need!). But, over the last few years, I have been able to more clearly recognize it in two ways:
First, to better understand it, I had to hear another coach slightly (in my mind) misattribute what they saw as a strength in their coaching: they explained that they “manipulated” their athletes by being a different person or coach, themselves, to each athlete based upon whatever each needed from a communication standpoint. While the connotation of ‘manipulation’ isn’t a good one, I understood what they were driving at, and I worked to reframe it more appropriately for myself: it isn’t about manipulating others at all. It is about manipulating ourselves within our environment in order to meet our athletes with a communication style to which they can best connect.
Another perspective on our versatility in communication, coaching, managing, and leading that has resonated with me is the concept of ‘soft power’ and ‘diplomatic protocol’:
Soft Power is a termed that was coined in 1990 by Joseph Nye, then the dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Simply put, soft power is used to describe the process of influencing others by attracting or enticing, rather than forcing. As Capricia Penavic Marshall puts it in her book, Protocol: The Power of Diplomacy and How to Make it Work for You, “it is about getting the other side to want what you want, rather than strong-arming them to do what they don’t want.”
Further, she is sure to note that this does sound a bit like manipulation, but the clear difference lies in the intentions: “Manipulation doesn’t take into account the health of the relationship and is only concerned with what you can get out of it; soft power is about recognizing the need for a relationship, developing it through cultural connections, and creating a bond that will last and be beneficial to both parties.”
At the end of the day, a lot of what we do can be wrapped up within two pillars of diplomatic protocol:
- Creating a bridge between parties
- Influencing others
Ultimately, when working in high performance environments, we are all trying to bridge the gap between various stakeholders, and between those stakeholders and the information we strive to share. And, this is essentially all done in the name of influencing human behavior, right? Whether we are trying to help an athlete improve their body composition, increase their power outputs, alter a technical skill, buy-into the team/organizational culture and philosophy, impact the decision-making of a coach or manager – all of these actions fall under the umbrella of influencing human behavior.
Whether you are a sports scientist or just somebody being asked to wear the sports science hat, the application of today’s discussion on communication is equally as important: the ability to be a conduit or bridge between parties, and to positively influence others in a diplomatic manner (as opposed to ordering, instructing, coercing, etc) is all about our versatility and effectiveness as communicators.