Communications skills in sport

During the week just concluded the National Olympic Committee, as part of its continuing education programme hosted a two seminar on communications for public relations officers of national sports associations, coaches and athletes. While the NOC may have considered the programme particularly important it was nonetheless decidedly late.
Communication skills do not come automatically. They have to be learnt. Some are fortunate enough to have received early instruction from their parents while others experience tremendous difficulty learning the requisite skills.
Public Relations Officers
While it is fashionable for national sports associations to include the post of public relations officer in their respective constitutions they rarely seek to fill the position with an individual who has been appropriately trained or adequately equipped to be successful. In the recent past several associations have sought to vote into the position of public relations officers personnel who work in the media only to discover much later and to their disappointment that having had some exposure to the media as a practitioner does not necessarily translate into a good communicator. Several of our local radio stations have the misfortune of some very good disc jockeys who simply cannot be left to read the news.
In many instances the public relations officers are not equipped to evaluate the communications skill capabilities of the very executive committees on which they sit and even less so the athletes, coaches and managers travelling with national representative teams of their respective sports. Indeed, many of the public relations officers do not see this as part of their responsibilities after having been elected to the post.
For the most part public relations officers have essentially seen their tasks as limited to producing the odd press release and convening press conferences from time to time. They engage in little or not examination of the style with which their communications to the media is produced and even less to whether or not the media houses carry their information.
Unless national sports associations stop assuming that the media would unreservedly cover their events and activities because they have nothing else to do they would find themselves completely absent from the news in the country.
Athletes do not always understand the importance of being able to communicate effectively. Many believe that their particular sporting skill would speak on their behalf. They often fail to understand that in today’s world sport is a major enterprise; it is big business. The athlete and everyone involved in the sport must be effective communicators.
The bulk of the money in today’s sport comes from the sale of television rights to the respective events. Note they are no longer considered competitions but events. This means that every effort is made by the organisers to prepare a spectacle that is truly attractive and appealing or it would not access television rights. When the event does not attract television rights coverage then sponsors are less likely to get involved since they see little benefit accruing to their businesses as a result of their involvement.
Sponsors today are not merely satisfied that the athletes they sponsor do well in their respective competitions. They want to be sure that the athletes are aware that they represent the brand of the sponsor and that they must always be mindful of this reality when approached by the media.
Athletes are also commercial property. They seek to hone their skills to the point where they become valuable and can attract major sponsors for very lucrative endorsement deals. Many may recall the extensive sponsorship deals that Michael Jordan attracted during his playing career, some of which he still has even though he has long since left the court as a player. He was a great communicator whose entire personality came as the package. It was not just his ability to play well. It was not just his capacity to handle himself in an interview. It was all of these as well as his tremendously endearing smile. He was indeed the ideal total package.
Tiger Woods was much the same when he came on the scene and enjoyed tremendous endorsements until his recent domestic plight that was played out in the international media. He was an ideal sports person to interview. He displayed great charisma and as a result, much like Michael Jordan, impacted the overall image of the sport.
Jordan’s withdrawal from the sport at the end of his second three-peat with the Chicago Bulls led to a drop in the US Stock Market. His impact on the television ratings of the NBA that he dominated for several years remains to this day several years after his exit.
The Caribbean has never learnt to pay due attention to honing the communication skills of our athletes until very recently.
In 2004, one of the region’s leading athletes won a major Athletics Grand Prix event and was immediately approached for an interview by one of the leading international sports television networks. The interview quickly grew frustrated with the monosyllabic responses and turned to the second placed athlete instead. She then asked the winner’s management team to facilitate the improvement of the athlete’s communications skills. This was most embarrassing.
Another Caribbean athlete won the International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) highest award one year but was most embarrassing when sputtering almost inaudible responses to questions from the Master of Ceremonies at the IAAF’s Gala in Monaco that was carried live globally and before a live audience in excess of 400 persons.
Team officials
Team officials around the region are not exempt from the claim that we do not appear prepared for the international sports arena.
In some instances the team’s manager and/or the coaches are totally unprepared for the communications that confront them when they travel with teams. They are as unprepared and therefore as uncommunicative as some of the athletes under their care.
Generally, one of the weakest areas of our sports management in the Caribbean is this all important communications aspect. We do not attend to it.
Many of us seem to ignore the fact that athletes and team officials are representatives of the country, their communities and their respective families all at once. There must be clear understanding of who says what, when and where.
While it may be appropriate, for example, to criticise the facilities at home with the local media it may not be something that you would want to discuss with the international media at a major competition.
Associations must often select officials who have the managerial competence while at the same time are possessive of the capacity to determine what ought and ought not to be said on different occasions. The value of this cannot be overstated.
Coaches often seem to think that they too do not require training in communications. They need it in order to better relate to their charges. They need it to be able to work with other coaches and managers. They certainly need it when approached by the international media.
Effective communications also involves the image of the communicator. Often times we ignore this important aspect.
If anyone doubted the importance of image in communication one could readily draw on the recent experiences of US swimming sensation, Michael Phelps and golfer, Tiger Woods.
In the case of Phelps, the picture of him engaging in some ‘pot’ did immense damage to his image and reputation. Suddenly the world wanted to forget all of his swimming accomplishments. They were no longer important.
Tiger Woods’ domestic fracas turned into a major public debacle that has so dented his credibility that he is still in recovery mode. Not only has his personal image been damaged, his very game has been negatively impacted to the point where he runs the risk of being seen as a ‘has been’ in the sport to which he brought so much and so many enthusiasts.
Individuals who are involved in sport find themselves being elevated on pedestals where they can easily become role models for generations. Care must be taken to manage the image.
Michael Jordan has been so good at managing and preserving the image he created that even though he has had domestic issues the media has deliberately looked the other way. They do not wish to damage what they helped create.
Michael was always media friendly and hence they protect his image even when that is threatened by his own conduct.
Effective communications allows the individual to have greater confidence.
With great frequency we hear of locals being amazed at the communications skills displayed by children of tourists as they speak with their parents while walking through the streets of our capital city. This is not by accident. I tis deliberate. Some parents take the time to work with their children in respect of their communication skills. Like most skills, the earlier they are learnt the more likely they are to stay with the individual and be one of his/her characteristic features.
The decision by the NOC to host the communications seminar, although late in the life of the organisation is nonetheless important for the future of sport in St Vincent and the Grenadines and for offering all involved greater opportunity to significantly enhance their own images and the image of St Vincent and the Grenadines.
It was perhaps more than a little unfortunate that some of those who needed the training most sought to avoid being in attendance. In such cases it is the respective associations in that are the poorer for this and no doubt all of St Vincent and the Grenadines.
When individuals and organisations fail to appreciate their own limitations and seek to avoid opportunities to learn, they give the lie to their professed commitment to the genuine development, not only of themselves but of the organisations and the country they represent.