How Coaches Can Make Small Communication Shifts for Big Impact

We sat down with communication expert, Betsy Butterick to discuss how you can make just a few small changes to communicate with your team in a positive, constructive way that nurtures growth. You can watch the entire interview here and read about he interview below. Here are a few highlights:

  • How to deal with difficult parents.
  • How to communicate effectively with athletes on sensitive issues.
  • How to correct and critique so your athletes actually hear what you are saying
  • How to nurture a positive environment with your words. 

This is an in-depth coaching masterclass, so buckle up and get ready to learn from Betsy!


Betsy began our interview by teaching us the very actionable strategy and high-power impact of communicating with athletes in a positive way. Namely, she discussed how coaches can reframe negative feedback and rephrase it in a positive way. By sending a positive, constructive message, you can create change and increase success. Rephrase feedback it in the language that mirrors the outcome that you want to see.

  • Instead of using the term “don’t”, use the term “do” to define the action that you want to see from your athletes.

In the next part of the interview, Betsy talks about how (and why) she advises coaches to define their values with their team. What do their values look like in action? How do they hold each other accountable to the standard they’ve set for their team? Defining your values with your team greatly increases ownership and accountability. Betsy describes the communication tactics takes an in-depth look into discussing some especially difficult topics.


As the interview continues, Betsy talks about a tough issue that’s come up in our Facebook group: Talking to an athlete about their weight when it’s gotten in the way of their performance. As with any difficult discussion, frame what you want in terms of what the athlete values. For an athlete that’s overweight, use phrases like,

  • “As your physical endurance improves”
  • “As you become more fit”

Knowing what an athlete values will help you communicate with them in a way that makes them want to listen to you. Meet people where they are and ask questions to gain greater understanding, set transparent expectations, and have overall more efficient interactions.


It’s important to lead with respect, even if the parent does not. Set expectations upfront with parents about what you will and will not discuss with them. Tell them your boundaries:

  • “I will discuss playing time with your athlete, I’m happy to have that conversation with them, but I cannot have that conversation with you. You’re free to have that conversation with them.”

It’s important to maintain a respectful tone. If they come at you with disrespect, listen to them and disarm them with compassion for what they’re feeling. You are responsible for making the parents feel heard and acknowledged. Acknowledge that their engagement with you comes from love for their child, and meet them there. Impart a larger perspective as it relates to their issue.

Practice improvising real life parent and athlete conversations. It will make things A LOT easier. 


It seems obviously but it’s important to consciously treat your child exactly as you would any other player on your team. It’s crucial to the way they’re viewed and respected by their peers.


Correct them in layers. There are a variety of ways you can criticize or critique a player for individual and team benefit.

  • Start with the ‘what’ : “Pass with your outside hand”
  • Add a ‘why’ : “Pass with your outside hand to avoid the deflection”
  • Give them the ownership: “Why do we want to pass with your outside hand

When you want to correct negative behavior from the team, lead with the ‘why’ and frame it for the positive to create a competitive mindset. For example.

  • Every time we’ve lost, it’s because we’ve been out-rebounded by the other team.
    • This approach is discouraging - Athletes will start doing the math and give-up when they feel they’re being out-rebounded.
  • Every time we’ve won, we’ve out-rebounded the other team.
    • Athletes will feel a competitive drive to out-rebound the other team. 


Positivity alway starts with you. When you see someone positively acknowledge someone else on the team, stop and appreciate that moment. Reward the behavior you want to see, and it will be repeated. When you hear something that’s not okay, stop and police the situation by saying something like,

  • “I understand your intention behind saying that, that language is not appropriate and that’s not who we are as a team.”

If your athlete is negative, and they don’t understand the point in being positive, start with what they want, and help them understand how a positive outlook or tone can help them achieve what they want.

Important conversations need to be had in person, and make sure you have communicated with the athlete how they respond to criticism. Consider having a team meeting early on, before there is conflict, and ask them:

  • “How do you prefer to receive criticism?”

This sets the stage for understanding and effective communication.

Always start with the word “I” or “we” not “you”. The word YOU makes the athlete immediately feel defensive like they’re not doing something wrong. Say something like,

  • “We need you to be more defensive”
  • “I need you to stay calm”

Whenever necessary, use the sandwich method to help your athlete feel seen and appreciated. Say something like,

  • I know you’ve been putting in the work to be more competitive, I see you running drills after practice. As you continue to work hard, make time to focus on _____”

We are so thankful to have Betsy with us for this interview. Ask questions in the section below, and continue the conversation online by tweeting @PositivePerform and @BetsyButterick and sharing this video on social media.

About Betsy

Betsy, the coaches’ coach,  provides executive coaching services to support the personal and professional development of coaches in all sports. Her specialties include but aren’t limited to: communication effectiveness, leadership and personal development, emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, cultural competence, mastering difficult conversations, getting "unstuck" and understanding one's power and influence.

Betsy is known to utilize dynamic and creative methodologies to focus on client priorities while developing long term excellent behavior that is both self-generating and self-correcting.


If you loved this interview, we'd like to invite you to join us for our masterclass, Inside the Minds of Great Competitors where we pull back the curtain on 10 years of developing competitors We've now made it so you can watch it at your convenience. Click here to register!



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