A Word of Coaching Advice: Talk Less, Matter More

Take one second and think about the best teacher, coach, or mentor you ever had.

Now come up with one memory of them, fast.

(Got it?)

What’s your memory? Is it something your coach/teacher/mentor said? Something they did?

Perhaps what you remembered wasn’t anything particular they said or did, but just their face — specifically their eyes, and how those eyes looked at you — or, rather, looked into you. Which is to say: the lasting impact of our teachers might not be contained in their words, but in the connections they form with us.

When you look around today, a lot of coaches and teachers and bosses seem to be doing everything but connecting.  Go to a soccer game, for instance, and you tend to see  coaches on the sideline doing a lot of talking (shouting out mid-game advice, orchestrating the action), but not a lot of connecting. Certain CEOs and managers are similar, though perform do their sideline orchestrating via email. But is this wise? Is it useful?

I recently met a terrific soccer coach by the name of Iain Munro, who coaches at YSC Sports Academy in Philadelphia (a burgeoning soccer hotbed in its own right). Munro, who’s in his sixties, played and coached at the top level in England and his native Scotland (working with, among others, Alex Ferguson and Jock Stein). I put the question to Munro this way: if the average coach says 100 words to his players, how many words should a master coach say?

Munro looked into my eyes; he let me know he really heard the question and was giving it due consideration. He placed a friendly hand on my shoulder, and I got an ineffable feeling that I was about to hear something important. Then I did.

“Ten words,” he said. “Fewer, if possible.”

The truth is, great coaches and teachers don’t spend their time talking. They spend most of their time watching and listening. And when they communicate, they don’t just start talking. First they connect on an emotional level, to one individual at a time. They deliver concise, useful information, and they make that information stick. Kind of like Munro did when he communicated with me.

So with that in mind I’d like to offer the following checklist; a filter to use before you start talking.

  • 1. Are you connected? Do you have the person’s complete and undivided attention?
  • 2. Do you know — deeply understand — where that person is in their development right now, and what the next step is?
  • 3. Can you, in five seconds or less, deliver a clear, memorable piece of useful information to help them take that step?

Watch Munro work with his soccer teams and you’ll see him sidle up to a player during a drill, without interrupting the larger flow. He puts the hand on their shoulder, connects to them, and delivers a nugget of helpful information. Then he steps away, allowing the player to take that nugget and start applying it.

Munro’s players, of course, will remember him for the rest of their lives. Not because he makes them better (which he does) or because he’s so entertaining (which he is, too) but for the same reason you remember your greatest coach: because he’s not about himself, he’s really about the people he’s trying to help.