“Don’t write so that you can be understood. Write so that you cannot be misunderstood.” – William Howard Taft

I think about this quote a lot when I think about coaching. Don’t coach so that your players understand you. Coach so that your players cannot misunderstand you.

One of the most common mistakes I made when I first became a head coach – and one I still see a lot from different coaches – was in the way I delivered the message. Of course I wanted to be clear and make sure our guys understood the message. But I didn’t take enough time to make sure it was impossible for them not to understand the message.

The challenge as a head coach – especially when you are new – is you know exactly what point you are trying to make and what you want it to look like. You’ve thought through the point you want to make and how you want to say it. But it makes a lot more sense to you because you know exactly what you are trying to say, and you understand the concepts completely. So in your mind it processes quickly, and it makes sense no matter how you are saying it.

You’ve probably head the saying “The slower you teach, the faster they learn.” It’s a great point. As coaches, if we are thinking about the way our guys will process the message, we are trying to slow it down and make sure they get it. But the pace of delivery is only one aspect of it. It’s also crucial to think about the terminology you used, the order in which you provide the information, and the tone you use as you emphasize your point. There’s a lot more that goes into them receiving the message than just the pace of your delivery.

There are a lot of situations in coaching where we aren’t as specific as we need to be and we give our guys a lot of grey area. We speak in generalities a lot more than we probably realize.

“Rebound the ball!”

“We have to get tougher!”

“Sprint back in transition!”

We give our guys orders, but we don’t necessarily give them a plan to execute. We assume they know what it means to block out or to sprint back and match up in transition. We raise the volume of our message, but we don’t necessarily get more specific with our direction. We leave room for the message to be misunderstood.

As the head coach at Maine, one of the major issues we had defensively was in transition. For the first two years we were just awful at it. We would practice it every day, we would emphasize it, we would watch it on film – we’d do all the standard things to make our guys better. But we weren’t getting better.

I finally got smart enough to realize I had to change the way I was delivering the message. I was emphasizing the effort – how committed we had to be and how hard we had to run every single time we went from offense to defense. So our guys knew as soon as there was a change of possession, they had to bust their ass to sprint back and try and get in front of the ball. But that message was so overwhelming and constant that it was really the only message they were getting. They weren’t really getting an understanding of how we wanted them to guard in transition.

I had to learn that they were misunderstanding the message because I was leaving them room to do so. They thought that a great effort to get ahead of the ball was what was expected out of them in transition defense. They weren’t processing anything after that, and our transition was still a mess. It didn’t start getting better until I started delivering the message differently – and being very intentional about the direction and purpose when we were guarding in transition. We implemented specific rules about how we processed transition defense and what our responsibilities were – get ahead of the ball, talk to the ball, take away the biggest threat, positioning. We told them how we were going to understand our transition defense on the run, and tried to make it impossible for them not to understand it.

I learned as a head coach I had to spend a lot more time on the specifics of my messaging to make sure there was no grey area. No area where they could possibly misunderstand me. It took some intentional practice and a lot of preparation. You have to really know exactly what message you are trying to send, and then you have to work on the best way to deliver it. To do this, you really better know your craft and show a willingness to be definitive. Nothing allows for misunderstanding more than your own lack of specifics.

You also have to consider the timing of your message and how you want to reinforce it. When you have a minute in practice to stop everything and explain yourself slowly, you can deliver the message a certain way. When you have a 30 second time out late in a game and you need a specific coverage on defense, you have to be concise, quick and clear. You should consider a process for how you want to deliver your message in pressure situations – make sure you are the only one talking, ask them for confirmation, finish with a reminder of the basics.

Do not coach them so they understand you, coach them so they cannot misunderstand you. This takes a lot of time and effort on your part, to know the message and work on the best delivery.

Leadership is so much more than knowing what you are talking about. It’s knowing how to deliver it in a way that your team absolutely understands.

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