Athletes’ Body Language: Truth or Perception

I believe in teaching body language. I believe that my body language as a coach speaks louder than words. But I have a problem when we start to believe that the body language from developing kids and teens is the unquestionable truth.

I saw a tweet today that said body language is everything. That all you need to know is revealed with how you present and carry yourself. I couldn’t help but analyze it, because there’s a partial truth to it, but there’s also a giant problem with it. We want athletes to project body language that shows effort, respect, focus, and a desire to learn. But that’s something that comes when walls are broken down and they are free to be honest with that body language and how they carry themselves.  It’s not something that can just be mustered up by a teenager on command.

Players who are confident, secure, and in an environment that fosters learning are going to reflect that in their body language when they are passionate about what they are doing.  Those who still show poor body language are more likely to be accurately reflecting their attitude and need to be redirected. That’s a great learning opportunity. That’s a fair time to intervene and help them see how they are projecting themselves.

But players who are fearful, in an unstable environment where the coach swings rapidly throughout practice from happy and fun to angry and demeaning, will display body language that is protective, detached, and gives the appearance of not caring. Some athletes are going to be more reactive to the environment than others. Some are already showing up in protective mode and some are just not good in social situations and need time and a little extra effort to let the walls down.


Coach’s view:

 He hangs his head, he looks away, he won’t make eye contact, he’s shifting on his feet, he’s not responsive, he doesn’t join in the fun chatter, he thinks he knows everything, he’s un-coachable. He’s a lost cause, not worthy of wasting time on, never going to change, not a team player.  He’s swinging from working hard to checking out. I don’t have time for this kid’s issues.


 He’s shy, he sees the disappointment in his coach’s eyes and he feels ashamed. He is directly reacting to the coach’s mood swings.  He is focused on worries about making mistakes, he can’t tell when the coach is being sarcastic or joking or is trying to make a point. He feels self conscious, he feels out of place, he struggles in social situations. He desperately wants approval and to be successful.  He wants the praise and beaming smile he sees going to see easily from the coach to other players. He avoids eye contact, he’s nervous.

Before we judge a player, it’s important that we look inwardly and make sure that we are creating a place where their body language can be a truth of how they feel rather than a protection from what they fear. We are quick to lay blame on the kids and teenagers, but as motivators, teachers, leaders and trainers we must take ownership in how much of our athlete’s response is due to what’s being brought out of them by our own behaviors.  I’ve personally noted that the majority of behavior issues I find on the field come directly from a wall between myself and that player that needed to be addressed. It’s incredibly rare that I’ve connected with a player who was struggling or showing poor behavior and built trust with them and still continued to have an issue. This is why it is so important that we are slow to judge our athletes and patient in getting to know them. Successful teams have mastered athlete-coach connection and understanding of one another.

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