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Sportsspeak: become a better communicator

August 14, 2015 - Mark Cook

Andrew Brandt, Director of the Jeffrey S. Moorad Center for Sports Law, speaks during a concussion symposium at Villanova University School of Law, March 15, 2013, in Villanova, Pennsylvania (Credit: AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

How many times have you listened to an interview of an athlete and groaned internally at all the clichés being bandied about? Sportsspeak is the broad term for the unique brand of communication from athletes, coaches, team management, and even sports broadcasters and journalists. It covers well-worn paths that we’re all familiar with by now.

“We’ve just got to take it one day/game/week at a time”. That one is timeless, and is usually tossed out after a hard-fought victory when the reporter asks the player about their teams’ confidence for a playoff run. What the player is really thinking is probably something more along the lines of, “I’m amped up right now. I can’t wait to play our next game. We’re going to destroy any other team that stands in our way.” But they can’t say that because it’s too cocky. They settle instead for the truism.

A relatively new phrase is also creeping in to the lexicon of sportsspeak, and comes from team management. In response to player X’s off-the-field transgression, the team will come out with a statement generally saying, “We’re aware of the situation involving player X. We’re monitoring the situation and are gathering more information at this time.” Of course what the management is really thinking is obvious: “We’re angry with player X and are looking internally at all the ways we can discipline and/or cut player X”.

Andrew Brandt, ESPN commentator and former Green Bay Packers executive, has parlayed this sportsspeak phenomenon into funny Twitter fodder by highlighting these kinds of statements from athletes and teams and then offering his own “translation”.

In response to this entrenched form of sportsspeak, many athletes have grown frustrated by the perception that they are robotic or uneducated. Several players, led by former Yankees star Derek Jeter, started a website called the Player’s Tribune a few years ago to provide a forum for players to speak directly to fans without any middleman.

One of the most recent articles caught my attention, because it directly addressed this issue of player’s involvement with the media. Written by Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, it speaks of the importance of athletes building relationships and guarding themselves, at the same time, with members of the media.

It got me thinking about the basics of communication: logos, pathos, and ethos. Logos is what you say, the actual content. Pathos is how you say it, or your emotional connection to your audience. Ethos is your credibility; do people trust you? Sportsspeak provides tremendous lessons on how you and I can learn to become better communicators.

Number 1: Clarify what you want to say
One of the reasons why athletes are drawn to the platform of the Player’s Tribune is that they have direct access to the fans, and don’t have to rely on the media being the intermediary. Thus, when you read the articles, you see a different side of the players: usually more thoughtful and open about whatever they are writing about.

How many times have you had a frustrating email or text conversation with someone where they completely took what you were saying the wrong way? Nothing is better than face-to-face communication for richness, and sometimes we need to clarify what we’re trying to say to someone not through text or email, but through an actual in-person conversation.

Number 2: Seek to connect with your audience rather than simply get your message across
It’s difficult to watch or listen to an interview with an athlete where they are slouched over, respond with vague platitudes, and sound as excited as if they were asked to read from the phonebook. In his article, Larry Fitzgerald encourages other athletes to try to connect with the media by being polite and relaxed. The truth behind what he’s saying is that people receive our messages better when they feel like they are connected to us.

Number 3: Match your actions to what you say
Your credibility, in any arena of communication, is vitally important. If people don’t think you believe what you are saying because of body language or because your lifestyle says something different, it matters very little what you say.

Don’t let your life become a series of passive, reactionary communication patterns. Get out of the rut and be proactive. Listen to others. Put thought and time into what you want to say in that next email, team meeting, or conversation. Consider logos, pathos, and ethos and think about what you’re weak in. Then seek to grow and change, one conversation at a time.

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