Improve Your Interpersonal Skills

Joe Friel explains why people skills are the most important talent required to become an effective and successful coach, and how to improve them.

Regardless of one’s occupation, having solid people skills is the most important of all the talents required to be effective in any career field. Why? This is the skill that cements your relationship with the athlete—and all others. If you are lacking in this skill your chance of success in coaching, or for that matter, most anything else in life, is quite limited. Person-to-person relationships are at the heart of being good, successful, and happy in all fields. It’s the cement that securely bonds your relationships with others, especially your clients. Good people skills require communication and empathy. This becomes increasingly important as you build your coaching business.

Communication is central to having people skills. This is the first thing to cement the bond between you and the athlete. Here’s the key: You need to talk with each athlete (through whatever means possible) and frequency is critical. Typically, the best coach-athlete relationships are built by coaches who meet with their athletes daily, usually at the workout venue. While many coaches still do this, it is no longer the dominant coaching methodology. With the growth of endurance sport participation worldwide, your clients could be on the other side of the globe, so it’s not always possible to meet face-to-face. Of course there are many ways of communicating face-to-face, albeit on a screen. This is effective but not quite as good as a real face-to-face meeting. Phone calls also lack the full merits of face-to-face communication, but they are better than relying solely on email.

Regardless of how you go about communicating with athletes, it always comes down to these fundamentals: listening, asking questions, observing, and offering feedback. Here are a few other tips:

  • Always speak to the athlete at their level. Don’t try to impress them with how much you know.
  • If you are coaching athletes who are not native English speakers, become familiar with key words in the client’s language—hello, goodbye, thank you, understood, etc.
  • Use positive, affirming words whenever possible—yes; that’s right; I understand; good idea; and so on.
  • Find common ground with the athlete. Always look for things you agree on to help cement the relationship.
  • Be gentle in how you respond to things you disagree on. And when you disagree, always have in the back of your mind, as one of my clients taught me a long time ago, the thought, “He/she may be right.”
  • Call the athlete by name. No sound is sweeter to a person than their own name. Be in the habit of starting and ending sentences with the client’s name to get their attention and further establish your relationship.

Empathy is also critical to people skills. Being empathic requires that you put yourself in the athlete’s place. How do they feel and why? Understand the other person’s point of view. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything your client says, but you should know why they feel that way. It’s okay to ask “why,” but avoid getting drawn into an argument. Understanding their feelings doesn’t mean sharing their opinions. When the opinion is, in your mind, wrong and holding them back from achieving their goals, gently explain your reason for believing this without talking down to the athlete. Employ empathy to establish rapport, demonstrate patience, build trust, show respect, and be non-judgmental. In other words, treat the client as you would treat a friend—or how you would like to be treated.

As a coach, it’s your job to help the athlete succeed. It’s not about you. Keep the conversation focused on the athlete: why you believe they can succeed and how the two of you can work toward that goal together. Your objective is to inspire the athlete to perform at a high level.

The Craft of Coaching Skills Pyramid by Joe Friel

Resources for improving people skills

If you determine that your people skills need improvement, you will need to commit to working on this independently as these soft skills are not something your sport federation is particularly good at teaching.

Cultivating your people skills will improve your ability to interact with and understand your athletes. It’s easy to see how this will build your coaching business and help you get the best out of your athletes.

One of the best ways to get started is to spend time around people you know who have good people skills. Chances are, they are good at both communication and empathy. Consider how they demonstrate people skills in their interactions with others and how others respond:

  • How do they build rapport? Call the athlete by name, recognize strengths, show an interest in the athlete’s life, not just their athletic performance.
  • What do they say (or not say) that takes you by surprise? Questions are better than prescriptions. Bring the athlete into the process.
  • Describe their attitude when talking with others. Active listening is communicated by giving the athlete your full attention, repeating what you heard to check for understanding.
  • How much do they listen versus talk? Listen more than you talk.
  • Observe their body language or facial expressions. Maintain eye contact, lean in, convey your confidence in the athlete with both your body language and facial expressions.

Practice what you’ve observed in your own interactions. This may be a challenge at first, so focus on just one or two things at a time. It certainly isn’t easy to make such a change so remain focused on your interactions.

It’s difficult to practice people skills if your means of communication limits feedback. Consider the extent to which people skills are less about the literal message, but how it is delivered and received. Challenge yourself to engage more proactively: Don’t email when you can call, don’t call if you can do a video call, and don’t do a video call when you can meet in person. Visual and audible cues, both about the athlete and their environment, provide you with valuable information and an opportunity to help the athlete feel seen and understood. You will also be able to see the athlete’s response and recalibrate as needed.

Note that this is not just for your athletes. Practice these people skills with everyone in your life and not only will you see improvement, the skill itself will become more natural.

When it comes to people skills, “fake it until you make it” applies. With dedication and constant practice, you will improve and enjoy stronger working relationships as a result.

Keep learning