Greg Dea: The Top Six Ways to Get Better Buy-In from Your Athletes

by Greg Dea

For a coach of any discipline, the goal of communication used to be about changing behavior. It still should be. Success depends on the behaviors of your athletes toward a successful result. And success is the progressive realization of a worthy ideal.

Success in sport is not very common. With only one person or team winning each event, there are many opponents lining up to prevent you from winning. The last thing you need is an athlete working against you.

I’ve previously said being trustworthy could be the most important characteristic an athlete can have for a coach. It works the other way as well. An athlete has to be able to trust the coach. And believe it or not, the athlete reviews that trust subconsciously every time you meet. That means you’re permanently on parole. Your job success depends on predicting success and then delivering a program to get it.

Let’s have a look at some key principles to solidify compliance between you and them.

1. Ask if you can be involved before you direct them.

Remember, it’s not always about you. And if you want to take, you’re going to need to give. That’s primarily about setting up a trustworthy agreement to take a step together.

We often think that by starting a conversation, it’s assumed you’ve got an agreement to work together. You don’t. Not yet. You’ve got to get the first yes before you can get many more.

In order to enhance compliance—gain unanimous consensus—this is what we want, what we need, and why. That “we” word often means “them.” While we think all an athlete wants is economic advancement, don’t underestimate the social advancement factor—in sports, it’s been identified as a key driver in success at the highest level. You need to ask if you can be part of that advancement.

Here’s an example: “What’s critical to your success?”

“What are the main things that need to happen for you to consider this program a success?”

“How can I help you achieve that?”

Once you’ve agreed on that first step, you can re-word key phrases to drop the word “you” and replace it with “we,” or “our.” For example, “Let me recap, what’s critical to our success is …” or “So, we can achieve that by….”

2. Remember that the person on the other side of the relationship values mutual respect and recognition, whether they say it or not. This requires soft skills and human interaction—not stepping into each other’s domain. There’s a time for direct instruction, but you’ve got to earn the position of respect first. Then your instruction will carry more weight.

Create a space for the other to grow into, toward you, or toward a mutual goal. That means you have to let others BE what they are, athletes. That doesn’t prevent you from suggesting ideas, but respecting their comfort zone of expertise is extremely valuable. Be an agent of change. Scott Hopson describes this in his masterclass about stress and expression.

For example, ask them what they’d do differently to achieve the performance goal for the session/week.

No one learns from talking, only from listening. Don’t be surprised to learn something you hadn’t thought of from an individual on another side of the situation.

3. When YOU want certain minimums done, like monitoring, plan them into operational schedules. This way, they won’t be extras; they’ll be staple components. Shape the environment and tasks to make them standard operating procedures. Rett Larson and I dive deep into this in our masterclass, available here.

At amateur levels, a training session often has movement preparation, or corrective strategies as an afterthought to conditioning or technical and tactical components. At pro levels, it’s part of the operational schedule—it’s part of the session. This kind of step makes your athletes reliable. As a coach or clinician, it ensures your favorite, preferred or critical requirements are part of the conversation from the outset. Lance Walker introduces this brilliantly in Max Velocity Training for Physios.

Such a step from the outset gives you the option for daily accountability and daily communication, if that’s what you want.

The first three steps above aren’t random. Nor are they isolated to my experiences. The enlightening book, “Switch – How To Change Things When Change is Hard,” by Dan and Chip Heath described the above concepts beautifully. We do well to direct athletes with clarity, engage their emotional side, and understand that what we think are people problems are really situational problems—those involving the task and environment—requiring us to shape those for the benefit of the outcome.

4. Review and refine.

The above steps lead you naturally to communicate in a way that shows whether you’re on or off target. The reviews happen regularly.

Despite this, set regular times to formally review whether what YOU think is going on is the same as what THEY think is going on.

For example, if you’re a clinician, “Here’s the last batch of data we’ve got. That looks a little off to me. Are you okay?”

5. Give feedback. Tell them how you’re doing AND how they’re doing. If your feedback is not specific, find an example. Examples that involve the other person are more likely to get engagement. For example, if I’m coaching a runner, “The monitoring you’re giving me has been really good at shifting the plan I had for you. I thought the medium-intensity sessions were going to bring on an RPE of 6–7, but it looks like I underestimated you. I’ll change the session next time. Keep that monitoring going and we’ll improve on our original plan.”

6. Smarter coaches than I have agreed on one thing: An athlete’s body will literally pay no attention to what you’re saying. Bosch, Cook, Sweetenham—all icons of success—know the language of getting athletes to do what YOU want is through the language of feel, and of creating a task or environment that leads the athlete to the outcome.

“An athlete who is training doesn’t listen to you.” – Bill Sweetenham. He should know: 5 Olympic Games, 9 World Championships, 8 Commonwealth Games is the current legacy of one of the world’s greatest swimming coaches.

The great running coach, Frans Bosch, has tapped into the potential of rugby legends George North and Israel Folau. “An athlete’s body will literally pay no attention to what you say,” Bosch said at a workshop in Darwin in 2013.

Leading movement coach Gray Cook echoed these words when he said, “Don’t coach change, cue change.”

Earlier, I mentioned predicting success. Wouldn’t that be a valuable tool as a coach or clinician? It turns out you’re in luck there: Nate Silver broke down this concept. Look for the signal amid the noise. Be a fox coach, not a hedgehog coach.

In football, for example, the hedgehog coaches and clinicians get more TV time, but surprisingly, less success. And what about the fox coaches? They appear innovative and insightful to those closest to them—those who matter: the athletes. They understand there are many factors for success and the first step is getting buy-in from your athletes. Have you got buy-in or are you just a director?

For more from Greg, check out his book, Return to Field-Sports Running Manual, available in ebook format and paperback, and learn from his growing archive here on OTP.