Do You Understand?

By Scott Rosberg

This post is the second of a few that come from some ideas I wrote in my first two booklets “A Head Coach’s Guide for Working with Assistants” and “The Assistant Coach’s Guide to Coaching.” While those booklets were born out of some specific head coach/assistant coach issues I was facing with some members of a coaching staff for whom I was an athletic director, many of the ideas in them form the basis for good coaching principles in general. Today, I want to talk about the three messages that occur anytime we communicate with people.

As an English teacher for 18 years, I tried to teach my students many facets of good communication. Interestingly, most of the lessons on communication that I taught played a huge role not only in the classroom, but also in the athletic arena and elsewhere in life. One important lesson is that whenever we communicate with others, we need to be aware of three types of messages – Intended, Actual, and Received/Perceived Messages.

Intended Message
Every time we speak to someone, we start with a certain premise in mind that we are trying to advance. This goes for everything that we state to someone. Each time we speak we have what I call an “Intended Message.” Our intended message is what we are trying to get across to the listener. While we speak in conversations, every single utterance of ours has some intention that we are hoping to get across.

However, what we intend to communicate and what we “actually” communicate are not always the same thing. I may have a certain idea I am trying to get across to someone, but I may struggle to put into words exactly how to get that message across. Or the receiver of the message may miss out on some key element that is really important to fully understanding the message. Something may have interrupted the smooth flow of my intention and what was actually communicated.

Actual Message
This leads to the second type of message, the “Actual Message.” The actual message is what was actually stated. It is the words, phrases, and sentences that come out of the speaker’s mouth to try to communicate a given message to an audience. While this is a fairly simple concept to explain and understand, the problems in communication usually end up happening somewhere from this point forward into the next type of message.

Received/Perceived Message
The final type of message in communication is the “Received/Perceived Message.” This is the message that the audience takes in and then interprets. The Received/Perceived message is in some ways the most important message, for it is what determines whether or not the audience understands the speaker. It is in the Received/Perceived Message where we find out if our intended message actually hit home. Unfortunately, the speaker doesn’t always receive the feedback as to whether or not it did. This is often where problems occur in relationships – when an intended message does not actually end up being the received message. But how does this happen, and how can we work to avoid it? Also, what does this have to do with athletics?

Let me start with the last question first. This has a lot to do with athletics, for athletics is a relationship and communication endeavor. There is constant communication that is happening in the athletic world. Teams rely on clear communication to succeed. If people on a team do not understand each other, no progress can be made. So it helps to have a basic understanding of how communication works in order to achieve success.

So where does communication break down between the intended and the received message? Well, it can occur in a variety of places. It can occur in the intended message if the speaker is not completely certain of the message s/he is trying to get across, or if s/he isn’t sure of the best way to get that message across to the audience. For example, if I am an assistant coach, and the head coach wants me to communicate something to a player or players, I may not fully understand all of his/her intentions with regards to the message, so I may struggle getting the message the head coach wants to be received properly by the players.

The next place the message can break down is in the actual message stage. One would think this would not be an area where a breakdown could occur. If you just say what needs to be said, there should be no problem here. However, just “saying what needs to be said” and actually saying it that way can be two different things.

For example, if my intention is to confront a player’s behavior that is unacceptable in our program, but I struggle with confrontation, I may mess up my intention by not clearly stating what the problem is. What I “actually” say and what I “intended” to say may have been different. I may have needed to be very direct, strong, and to the point, but because I do not like confronting in this manner, I may have softened my message to a point where the player did not realize the exact message and that what s/he was being told was a very big thing. What was actually said did not convey the severity and seriousness that the intention of my message demanded. This can lead to confusion and misunderstanding on the part of the player.

Finally, the message can break down in the “receive/perceive” stage. I may have had the right intention and said exactly what needed to be said, but the receiver may have been distracted or may have had a preconceived notion about me or about my message, and so s/he did not clearly understand the message. S/He is not a blank piece of paper onto which a message is written. S/He is a human being with her/his own thoughts, feelings, emotions, and ideas, and those all impact the messages s/he receives. S/he is reading my body language, tone of voice, inflection, past history with me, and any other number of things that affect how s/he processes the message. S/He may even “receive” the actual message, but s/he may “perceive” it differently due to some of those types of factors.

What Can We Do?
So what can we do to maximize the chances that our intended message ends up being our audience’s received/perceived message? The first thing is to recognize this dynamic of the difference between these three types of messages. Then as a speaker, make sure you consider exactly what you are trying to get across and then speak that message as clearly as possible.

Brevity and conciseness are important parts of communicating in athletics. We don’t always have time to go into much detail due to time and space constraints in an athletic arena, so this can often lead to breakdowns in communication. Coming up with a “common language and vocabulary” to use when coaching so all people understand the message better is an important step in keeping communications clear.

While brevity and conciseness are important in communicating in athletics, there are some times and situations where you may need to explain things in more detail to make sure that they “get it.” This just happened with this post that you are reading – my goal is to be in the 800-1,000 word range for these posts. However, this post demanded a bit more detail to explain it, so it is about 1,500 words.

Also, consider what type of message you are sending with your body language, tone of voice, and inflection as you speak. Are your actions backing up the exact words you are stating and how you want them to come across? Is the person to whom you are speaking picking up on these non-verbals? Are your non-verbals communicating what you want them to communicate?

When you are the receiver of a message, pay as close attention as you can to what you are being told. Consider body language, tone and inflection, but also make sure you focus on the words being spoken to you. Also, consider your own state of mind and biases as you are processing what you are hearing. Try to be as objective as possible as you process, so that you don’t perceive something that isn’t really there. Finally, ask clarifying questions to help you figure out if you are receiving the right message. Make sure to truly listen to the answers you get.

Coaching/teaching is communicating. The more you know about communication skills and how to use them, the better your chances of success as a coach/teacher occurring. If you have any stories of times when your intended message somehow got sidetracked by the time it got to be the received/perceived message of your audience, I would love hear them. Please leave your comment below this post on our website or on our Facebook page.

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Teaching and Coaching have been two of my greatest passions since I began my career over 30 years ago. I have always believed that as coaches, we are teachers just like any classroom teacher. However, we are entrusted with so much more than just teaching skills and techniques of our specific sports. We are role models, counselors, and educators of the many life lessons that sports can teach young people. Therefore, it is imperative that we intentionally work to teach those lessons to our athletes. You can find more articles like this at:

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