Communication for Dummies (like me)

It’s lawn mowing season here in Iowa, and when you live out in the country as we do, that means plenty of time to reflect while doing hot laps around the yard. After my mid-season ouster in 2020 I spent hours cutting grass and contemplating what went wrong. A clear contrast between where we are now and where we were then is how frequently and efficiently information flows back to the head coach.

Sometimes, the biggest difference between the best of times and the worst of times is the number of times someone shares with us what’s really going on.

When the rebellion was brewing it was obvious something was afoot, but no one came forward to share the truth about what was actually happening behind the scenes. Even the players I had good relationships with kept silent until it was too late. Without a reliable flow of information, I was flying blind directly into a mountain I could not see.

Looking back at those three years, the start of the off-season was often full of surprises, and none of them good. It became tradition for parents to wait until the morning after the banquet to unload their dissatisfaction in finely crafted emails to me or the athletic director. Of course by waiting until after the season was over, it was too late to do anything to improve their child’s experience. What we needed was actionable intelligence in real time.

In short, I needed a better surveillance system. 

Four years later, after finishing exit interviews with all of our players and coaches, I am happy to report there have been far fewer postseason surprises. We had issues like every other team in America, but the biggest difference between now and then is that we have far more awareness of what is actually going on within the team.

So what changed?

We have become far more intentional about creating systems to harvest information.

In his book The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle notes that when individuals feel psychologically safe, they are more likely to take risks, share ideas, and express themselves authentically without fear of negative consequences. This sense of safety “fosters an atmosphere of openness, honesty, and mutual respect.” While in my previous job I understood this in principle, in practice I failed to make players feel heard, especially when they were frustrated. They didn’t feel comfortable sharing what they really thought, and that ultimately led to my demise.

In the years since, here are four ways we’ve worked to improve our communication.

Start from a Place of Vulnerability - We begin with the assumption that I don’t always know what’s best for the team, and the more players are willing to share information, the better our decisions will be. This message has to be delivered with earnestness and a dose of humility. To convince them that we really do care what they think, we share stories of when player input improved a decision or led to a great outcome. We ask returning captains to talk about our weekly meetings and the amount of influence they have in our process. 

At the end of the day, we want them to believe that their experience will be better the more they are willing to share.

Consistent Check-Ins - When we first started doing one-on-one’s with players, we scheduled formal meetings with each individual player three times during the season. These meetings typically lasted 10-15 minutes, but could take longer depending on what surfaced in the conversation. As described in the Culture System, these meetings provide a space for coaches to provide more specific feedback than what players might receive in practice. It provides players an opportunity to ask questions, address frustrations, and share any concerns or struggles.

As players have now come to expect these meetings throughout the season, it has been easier to schedule a one-on-one when something comes up. For example, last year I received a text message from a parent about a player’s waning confidence. After gathering a little more information, I reached out to the player letting her know she’s up for her next one-on-one. When it has become routine, it feels normal and non-threatening to meet with Coach. Using the information shared by the parent, I tailor my questions to explore how she’s feeling about her game. Which brings me to my next area of growth…

Be More Curious - Truth be told, when I first started doing consistent one-on-ones, I often had an agenda for each meeting. I saw it as an opportunity to deliver information, rather than learn more about the player. That was a huge mistake. There is obviously going to be an exchange of information in the conversation, but now I find myself much more interested in discovering more about how the player works, and how she thinks and feels than ever before. Often the key to unlocking their growth is exposing the stories they are telling themselves, and helping them to reframe those narratives through questions rather than lectures. 

This is much more difficult. Not only do I have to ask better questions, I have to show up with a completely different mindset. I have to pay much closer attention to the player’s body language, eyes, and tone of voice. I have to be present, without distraction, to help surface what needs to be said. 

As a result, there has been a dramatic shift in how our players show up in these meetings as well. They are more comfortable, more interested, and more invested when they feel heard, but for that to happen the change had to start with me.

Be Honest - Georgia head football coach Kirby Smart once said that one of the most difficult things about leadership is, “You have to make difficult decisions that negatively affect people you care about.” And usually you are the one who has to deliver the message.

If I have one superpower it’s conflict avoidance. I don’t like saying things that will upset others or create conflict. For most of my career I have found ways to avoid hard conversations with players - generally letting my actions and substitution patterns speak for themselves. While it may have been obvious when a player’s role or minutes changed, I left far too much room for interpretation as the player struggled to understand why. This created all kinds of problems with players and parents that were largely my fault for not communicating more clearly.


I have become more comfortable with two topics of conversation in particular.


  • This is where you are. Players have come to expect a frank assessment of their current role, strengths, weaknesses, and areas for growth during our conversations. We compare where they are with what the job requires, and we have gotten better at incorporating film and statistics into our player meetings. Players know what we measure and why which helps hone their focus. 



  1. Here’s what we don’t know… There is more uncertainty in coaching than we care to admit. For example, looking ahead to next year I don’t know who our fifth starter will be. I don’t know who will back up our post. I don’t know how deep we will go in the rotation. Opportunity abounds, but there is still a lot to be determined before the start of next season. Players seem to appreciate knowing what has been set in stone, and what we are still trying to figure out. There was a time in my career when I saw this approach as a weakness, afterall, aren’t we supposed to have all the answers? Now I see it as being transparent and vulnerable when we admit, “I’m just not sure yet.”

As I cruise around the yard it’s been easy to blame others for the communication problems we’ve experienced in the past, but now more than ever, I’m starting to realize how much more this dummy can do to create the conditions for effective communication to happen.

Food for thought.

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