Athlete-Coach Communication

How an athlete and a coach communicate is paramount to the success of their relationship. And this is true even if you are a self-coached athlete, in that the framing and self-talk you employ can have profound impacts on both your outcomes and your perspectives.

I’m going to highlight a couple of key areas and offer the viewpoint of both coach and athlete. This isn’t necessarily a comprehensive list, but it is a good foundation from which to formulate more effective language and interpretation.


This has a lot to do with goals and plans. Just what is it that we are trying to achieve? What is the primary objective and how are we going to accomplish that?

  • Athlete: “I’d like to get leaner without losing any muscle mass or strength.”
  • Coach: “Let’s put you on a 12-week plan that optimizes macros in a slight caloric deficit in conjunction with a training program that keeps overall volume somewhat low but intensity relatively high. Our target will be to take your bodyfat percentage from 15% to 12% but maintain your key performance indicators including 5RM lifts.”


We need to be realistic about what’s going on. It’s important to find that balance between being sensitive and being direct. Delivering the truth about how things are going should be straightforward but not condescending.

  • Athlete: “I don’t feel like this program is working. I haven’t lost any weight in 5 weeks.”
  • Coach: “How consistent do you feel you have been with the nutrition and workout plan?”
  • Athlete: “Well, I’ve had some ups and downs, and probably could do a little better.”
  • Coach: “I think all you need to do is just tighten down a little and the results will come. It’s still early in the process. Also, your weight may not have changed but you have had to tighten your belt up a notch. Sometimes you’ll trade some fat for muscle and the scales won’t show it.”


Making our communication largely positive, yet not delusional, is critical. Statements that are punitive and perceptions of failure tend to defeat intrinsic motivation.

  • Athlete: “I failed today’s track workout. I didn’t quite hit the splits we were targeting and I’m bummed out.”
  • Coach: “You got extremely close to our goals. Your form looked good and your effort seemed reasonable. It was 10 degrees hotter than usual and the wind on the backstretch was strong. That was actually an outstanding session and you did a great job. Chalk this one up as solid work toward our objectives.”


Short-term memory is capable of chunking several items together at one time, but this is not as effective as focusing on THE ONE BIG THING RIGHT NOW. Early on, I was taught by several mentors that the best way to confuse somebody was to give more than one thing to think about at a time. What needs to happen and what we are working on should be boiled down to the most basic understanding.

  • Athlete: “I’m trying to smooth out my swim stroke. I’m thinking about my arm recovery, the entry, the catch, the pull, and the finish.”
  • Coach: “Just focus on the catch for now. Don’t rush it. Wait until you feel everything align and just grab big water to set up your stroke. Everything else will follow.”


This is the art of providing input to the CNS to aid in the learning and execution of a motor pattern. The human can learn from many forms of cues including verbal (hearing), visual (seeing) and tactile (feeling). All are of great value but the verbal cue is most prevalent. The best cues are minimal, and analogous. For example, you can extrinsically cue a person into a hinge pattern by telling them to break at the hips, maintain a flat back, and reach toward the floor. You can cue them intrinsically by asking them to feel the tension in their hamstrings and back extensors as they lower down. Or you can just say “Be a silverback gorilla!” That message immediately puts the analogous picture in the CNS and most people can instantaneously reproduce the position. 

  • Athlete: “I’m having trouble going to my right.”
  • Coach: “You have to store the energy from going left to be able to use it to go right. Just think about loading to the left before exploding to the right.”


We is greater than me, and it’s not all on you. This is the power of team and the coach-athlete relationship is an outstanding example. When you feel like you are working together toward a common goal, it’s not adversarial and is much more productive than being backed into a corner.

  • Athlete: “I’m feeling a lot of pressure. I’m just not sure I can put together a solid game.”
  • Coach: “Just remember all the things we’ve worked on together. Your teammates have your back and we all support each other toward our goal. You are never alone.”

Reset Orientation

In a Utopian world, there is never a need for a reset. The athlete’s mindset never waivers and training and competition are always stellar. However, in this real world in which almost all of us exist, we will occasionally see dips in consistency, motivation, and results. Resetting, or getting back on track quickly, is a skill and strong point in the coach-athlete relationship. The maintenance of the mindset which embodies rapid resetting revolves around the fact that data is just data. Life is a ride, and you occasionally get bucked off. Assess your situation, make sure you have a handle on things (and are OK). Then get up, dust yourself off, and climb back on the proverbial horse.  Try not to invest emotion into something that does not require it. Not always as easy as it sounds, but this is a success strategy. 

  • Athlete: “I fell off the training wagon for almost a month. Had to paint my house and complete a big project at work. Just didn’t have time or energy to train. What’s the best way for me to get going again?”
  • Coach: “Your training base is substantial and you really didn’t lose too much. Your conditioning will come back in just a few weeks. Just jump back into the program and try to punch in and punch out for the first 10 days or so. The important thing is to get in some consistency while listening to your body and soft-pedaling the intensity and duration of the training sessions. Let your fitness come back to you gradually and don’t force it. You’ll be fine.”

All of the above were real-life examples of conversations I’ve had with my athletes and clients. Understanding that training, fitness, and athletics are just one part of our existence, but an extremely important one, is key. Working with a coach (or yourself), and setting up workouts and competition for success will yield the greatest results in those pursuits and those wins will spill over into every other aspect of your life.

If you’d like to take your training to the next level by working with me in a 1-on-1 coaching capacity, or as a member of our group training community, check out the coaching services and the Training Tribe, or contact me. Cheers!

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