The Right First Impression in Sport (Part 1/2)

When we meet players for the first time, they form an impression of us dependant on (primarily) non verbal factors. The term “person perception” for the players’ assessment of the target (coach) they are interacting with. Impressions formulate the evolution of players’ expectations of the coach and can impact the players’ attention, memory, attributions and ultimately behaviour. It has been reported that “coaches’ expectations have the potential to play an important role in how athletes cognitively process their athletic achievement” (Wilson & Stephens, 2005). It is therefore fundamental that we ensure we give the right impression for our athletes. Impressions can be broken down in two fundamental forms; non-verbal and verbal communication.

Non-verbal communication

Research has shown that there are more than 700,000 forms of body language. This article will consider a few examples which can help the coach – player relationship. When a player meets a coach, the initial impression is dependant on behaviour cues such as eye contact, proxemics (the distance between the two people), posture, facial expressions, gestures, athleticism of the coach and clothing. These areas all determine the way the player will view the coach and impact on the sporting performance.

Body language

It is important that eye contact is maintained with the player as it determines your confidence and interest in that player. Think back to a time when someone did not hold eye contact with you (perhaps it was over lunch), and think of the way it made you feel. A person who can hold eye contact with their target will portray themselves in an amicable, open and confident way.

The distance between you and the player is vital, especially when you have just met someone. The ideal distance is 2 feet away. Outside of this distance you will end up shouting, and inside this distance will make the athlete feel uncomfortable as you are intruding their personal space. When addressing a group the dynamics is dependant on the environment, but if you can interact on a personal basis with your athlete it will benefit both parties.

The importance of posture in terms of shoulder rotation and the “hunched” look will convey an emotion of feeling down. A confident individual will hold their chest proud, shoulders back and head held high. If you look like you do not want to be there your player will certainly mimic the motivation.

Research suggests that hand gestures make the person more open. Try not crossing your arms or putting your hands in your pocket, as this can portray an element of boredom.

Stay in shape! Studies on physique have shown that players are more likely to develop a positive impression of the coach if they are regarded as athletic as opposed to non-athletic.

Much research has been conducted over the last 30 years into the colour psychology of clothes. When you think of the red kits of Manchester United, Liverpool FC or Arsenal you may get an impression of how they play or act as red is an aggressive colour and symbolises danger and blood. When you think of the white kit of the English football team your opinion may be different! Furthermore, studies have shown that wearing the correct “uniform” is essential for performance. Turning up for tennis coaching and wearing a rugby kit would not evoke a desirable response in motivating your player.

In summary, the little things we neglect – like wearing the correct coaching gear, will impact the way the players’ perceptions of you. It is essential for high-quality impressions to be formed to secure the working relationship of the player/coach that will ultimately optimise the players’ motivation and performance.