I’m an introvert. I grew up eschewing high school and college parties for the sake of my 10 pm bedtime and the 15-mile run I had the next morning. At that point in my life, I would rather get sleep than go through the college tradition of bar hopping. That scene was not my comfort zone, to say the least.
As I was making my way through my coaching journey, there came a point where I had to go back to what I’d missed. No, not to get drunk, or in my own lame attempt to pick up women. But to further my coaching.
We’ve all heard the research on how a large proportion of our communication occurs in a non-verbal way. Without realizing it, we send messages of intent and emotion through our facial reactions, our body positions, and a myriad of other ways. Recently, I attended a conference on endurance performance with experts from around the world. While debating the merit of monitoring and measuring, the scientists kept coming back to how important ‘face time’ is. Or as one researcher put it, the ‘hair in the yogurt test’ is the best indicator of fatigue. (Is the athlete so mindless and fatigued while eating breakfast in the morning that there hair falls into their yogurt..)
If we look to how human communication evolved it makes sense. Despite our proclivity to rely on speech to communicate, the human brain evolved for thousands of years relying on movement, gestures, and expressions before language came into the picture. We sent messages of surprise, happiness, danger, and a slew of other emotions simply from a shift in our facial expression. Communication through language was then layered on top of a deeply ingrained non-verbal system. Talking is new.
In the sport of running, look no further than the athlete who walks into practice, tells you they feel good, all the while with their head down and shoulders slumped. Their words convey one message, their body another.
And that’s the reason I found myself at a bar, by myself, on a Friday night in my mid-20’s.
And as I sat there, with the music drowning out any ability to hear anything but my own thoughts, I started to take note of how people interact. The way that the majority of women close themselves off, positioning themselves in a way that is almost always turned slightly away from their male counterpart. The way that interest is communicated by opening their posture up, mimicry of movements and other gestures. An almost synchronization that occurs.
Or the way groups of women shut out the rest of the world by enclosing themselves in a circle. I watched the frat boy transform from puffed up bravado to sulking rejection before trying to exaggerate and expand his posture to fake his way through an appearance of confidence.
And most of all, I quickly saw how bad men are at reading signs. Continuing to press on in a conversation that their female counterpart obviously had little interest in.
Is any of this an exact science? Of course not. Does this translate directly back to coaching? Probably not. But it was a good lesson in the value and importance of observing others. Of the powers of engaged observation.
We rely so much on verbal communication that we often forget about the other portion. We have our heads buried in our iPhone or stopwatch, vaguely listening to what’s being said but missing out on the context. We get updates from text messages or snapchats and take it at face value, forgetting the nuance that is likely lost.
We forget that we are more likely to project the image that we think the other person wants to see through verbal communication. A neuroscientist once put it to me like this: “Verbal communication sends the message that we want others to hear. Non-Verbal sends the message of what is actually going on. Sometimes they are the same, other times there is a distinct mismatch.”
What we are looking for is patterns. To see how people interact. To hone our ability to observe and detect. In a world where we increasingly rely on text messages and other technology to communicate, honing the ability to read non-verbal communication is paramount.
Do you have to go to the bar to hone such a skill? Of course not. A good coaching friend relayed how he loved to come to a variety of sporting games early to watch teams warm up. Not to see what drills they utilize, but to see how players interact with one another and the coaches, before the chaos of the game commences.
So whether you choose to watch others practice or to venture down to your local watering hole to see the human ritual of mate selection, observing people is crucial to coaching development.