Why is Effective Communication a Critical Skill for College Athletes?

Recently, the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology published an article making suggestions about how to coach “Generation Z” (those born after 1996) athletes. The authors Gould, Nalepa, and Mignano (2020) specifically identified communication skills as a challenge for many Generation Z athletes, particularly face-to-face communication. Generation Z athletes, not shockingly, communicate best by text messaging. However, the coaches interviewed for this study felt that Gen Z athletes needed to work on their in-person communication skills, including “making eye contact, common friendly behaviors, and respectful communication” (p. 114).

Most college coaches understand that they need to meet Generation Z athletes in the middle. Coaches are morphing their communication styles by communicating with players via text and through social media. However, coaches also know that having strong interpersonal contact and communication are the basis for trusting, long-lasting relationships. For a high school athlete elevating to the collegiate level, having a clear understanding of how to effectively communicate with his or her coach is a critical skill that will give that athlete a significant edge over their peers.

Incoming college freshmen student-athletes often go from being a big fish in a small pond in high school to an average-sized fish in a very big pond. Every incoming freshman will likely have been the best performer on their team, in their school, in their state. The athlete isn’t (as) special anymore. So what does this mean for the athlete? Well, it likely means that the athlete will need to learn how to effectively communicate with their coaches in order to stand out and to build a strong relationship that allows the athlete to feel comfortable advocating for his or herself.

Gould and colleagues suggest to coaches that they need to make the effort to put themselves in their athletes’ shoes and communicate as they prefer. However, I would argue that the responsibility is equally on the young athlete to practice their in-person communication skills to meet their coaches where they are at. My feeling is that an incoming freshman athlete that knocks on his coaches door to introduce themselves and ask what they can do to succeed as a member of their program will set that athlete apart from his or her peers. Further, the process of building a personal, trusting relationship will likely start much sooner than it would otherwise. This will likely put the athlete in a better position to advocate for themselves as needed and for coaches to deliver constructive feedback to the player without the player taking it personally. 

So, what can a high school student-athlete do to improve their communication skills before arriving on campus?

  • Try more in-person communicating: As with building any skill, mental or otherwise, practice is required. How does a student-athlete practice communication? By putting his or herself in situations where they are communicating in-person with adults rather than via technology. In a non-COVID world, this might mean knocking on a teacher or coach’s door to ask a question or address a concern that they might otherwise do by text or email. Part of getting better at communicating, like anything else, is making one’s self uncomfortable. If someone is not feeling uncomfortable, then they are probably not growing.
  • Previewing conversations: Think about what a conversation with one’s soon-to-be college coach might look like when arriving on campus. What are your objectives in speaking with the coach? What does the athlete want the coach to know about him or her? How will they regulate their emotions if they get nervous or upset or angry by something the coach says? Previewing situations can be an extremely useful tool when preparing for difficult conversations.
  • Work on being a better listener: Part of being a good communicator is learning how to listen well. Many teenagers think that the world starts and stops with them. Some of this is simply developmental. Young people are learning where they fit in the world around them. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t try to get better at demonstrating empathy for others – even adults – and listening to what others are saying to them. Again, listening is a skill that can be practiced. One tool for becoming a better listener is practicing mindfulness, which can help them stay in the moment and actually hear the words the other person is saying without placing too much personal value on those words.


Hopefully, this blog post was valuable. Please feel free to reach out to me any time with questions at michael@freshmanfoundation.com.

You can learn more about The Freshman Foundation by downloading my eBook using this link: https://michaelvhuber.com/the-freshman-foundation-e-book/



Gould, D., Nalepa, J., & Mignano, M. (2020). Coaching Generation Z Athletes. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 32, 104-120.

21 thoughts on “Why is Effective Communication a Critical Skill for College Athletes?”

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