September 18, 2014

Taking Communication Lessons from the NBA


One of the biggest keys to the most successful sports teams is the way they talk to one another. If you sit courtside at an NBA game, for example, you can catch all types of chatter (some of which is not altogether appropriate), but most has clear communicative implications. “Screen coming! I have the middle! Switch! Switch!” you might hear players yell to one another to negotiate the behemoth bodies and the general freaks of nature that roam the hardwoods. But how do these players talk to one another off the floor? How do coaches address their players and communicate strategy and teaching points to the best in the world? Well, I got a small taste of their culture last summer.

During the summer of 2013, I was invited to come up to the University of Maryland (where I’m currently a student) to participate in the annual Coach’s Clinic. The Clinic brings together basketball coaches from all levels, but mainly high Division I programs and NBA coaches, to trade strategy and discuss styles and significant factors in attaining their ultimate goal: winning. I play on the scout team for the women’s basketball team at school, which is a group of guys who practice against our women’s players, so I was invited to the Clinic as something of a chess piece; coaches would move some of my peers and me around the floor and use us to illustrate the drill or play they are trying to teach to the rest of the coaches in attendance. This was a true test of how coaches spoke to their players and communicated, and I was excited to enter into their exclusive and secretive fraternity.

The first presenter of the Clinic was a man named Gannon Baker, who is a player development coach who trains only the best and most elite basketball players in the world (think Kobe Bryant and LeBron James). I was so thrilled to get the chance to work out with Baker. Before he came on to the court, his assistance approached us, the players, and told us, “Now, don’t be upset or surprised if Baker pushes you or yells at you. That’s just his style.” That’s just his style. I mulled over the meaning of those words. Shouldn’t his style be molded to fit us, not the other way around? If he is such a great coach, a great teacher, and a great communicator, how come he can’t explain things to us in a way that allows us to feel comfortable enough to learn from him? When he came on the court and started demonstrating different drills for the coaches present and showing things he does with his clients, he spoke extremely fast, he didn’t explain things clearly, and he was somewhat physically aggressive. Instead of feeling enlightened and more knowledgeable, I felt like I learned nothing from him. His style prevented me from doing exactly what it is that he is paid to do: teach and develop players, and help them improve.

I recently read a book by a man named Idan Ravin, titled “The Hoops Whisperer.” Ravin is also in the player development business for the best basketball players in the world, just like Baker. However, in his book, he addresses exactly what I had taken issue to when I was with Baker. Ravin writes that he always tries to communicate with players in a way that allows them to feel comfortable and safe so that they can better themselves and try new things. He says that athletes who don’t feel this comfort will stick with what they know and will never really better themselves by risking trying new things and expanding their horizons.

I think this can be true for communication as a whole. The whole point of a teacher, a tutor, or a coach is to help the student, mentee, or player become better. Being rigid to one speaking style and unchanging in the way we communicate is not conducive to a an environment that promotes learning. Sometimes, to get our message across, we have to try to explain things differently in a way people will better understand. Simply saying what you want to get done and then becoming upset when it doesn’t meet your standards doesn’t mean it was that person’s inadequacy and their failure. It could have been the way you dressed the problem. Taking Gannon Baker as an example, it is important to communicate clearly, and try to tailor your teaching point or discussion to your audience. Don’t think about the message you want to send, but focus on who is receiving that message.