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Communication and working relationships in sport and fitness
Communication and working relationships in sport and fitness

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3 What else matters in brief encounters?

In your busy working life, you come across many people. However, for new relationships and key people you are working with how else can you create connections to them beyond using minimal encouragers? In this next activity a national coach and academic (Jones, 2009) tells a brief yet powerful story of what he learned from a short encounter with a newcomer to his group.

Activity 2 A coach’s story: the smiling gallery

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes

Read the following first-hand account from Jones (2009) of an early morning walk down a sports centre corridor dressed in an official tracksuit with his two assistants Jon and Rich, during which he encounters a newcomer to the group he would meet later that day. Jones is head coach of the national age-group squad of young footballers and he admits to feeling ‘respected, important, good … here, my thoughts and words matter’.

What is the main message you take from this story? Look out for at least three words used in the story that help to describe its main message.

The talk turns to the boys … It’s a light-hearted chat, sprinkled with sarcasm at a few of the players’ seeming lack of ability demonstrated in the first tentative session last night. I mumble an agreement …

A boy comes towards us. His face is familiar, although his name eludes me. He immediately averts his gaze … He’s one of the youngest in the squad …

The ‘word’ on him is that his technique and passing are good, but that he’s not aggressive or assertive when under pressure.

I’m suddenly aware that the boy is close. He moves a little to his left allowing this group of betters to pass without having to break stride …

As we pass, the boy unexpectedly looks up … I glance at him. He holds my eyes, long enough to make a connection; a look which beseeches recognition, interaction, any kind of acknowledgement. He smiles nervously, hopefully, needfully.

My mind is elsewhere; I look at him but don’t see him. Consequently, I don’t even nod my head; not even an instinctive, superficial gesture. His smile vanishes. The moment slips by.

My stride becomes less purposeful as I begin to confront the poverty of my action … I should have said something to him, at least have acknowledged him; shouldn’t I? I scan my mental coaching manual for the answer and … seemingly rigid girders of ‘good practice’ guidelines [and models] … faithfully regurgitated.

I think of the image I purposefully cultivate at these gatherings; knowing, confident, …, enjoying the status and power that the role provides. Is that how I’m supposed to be?

… back to the boy … I watch him … His talent needs care. … it needs my care. I call out his name, ‘Hey, Pritch!’ As he turns, I gesture … I meet him half-way. As we do so, I greet him and smile. His eyes beam. We chat informally about his background, his school and his club. His initial shyness begins to thaw. His hesitant, staccato replies, ‘yes thanks’, ‘not really’, ‘hope so’, slowly give way to more confident sharing; … it turns out we have some acquaintances in common, from which he obviously draws great reassurance. I learn a little more about his brother … and his sister.

…. I give him some additional constructive feedback … His gratitude is obvious; not for the advice but for the encounter, the encouragement, the recognition, the smile. I glance at my watch … We part, he smiles again …

(Jones, 2009)


It is likely that you have experienced similar self-doubt in social situations such as this. Perhaps you’ve witnessed a situation when little attention was given to a person: recognition in itself can often be valuable in building rapport, connection and belonging in a strange new environment. Jones (2009) calls this seeing or noticing others. The main words used that were highlighted by previous readers are: care, recognition, acknowledgement, encouragement, smile, chat and reassurance. You were not expected to list all these!

After this encounter, Jones recalls that later he tells the assembled group of boys ‘that they can trust me, that I can see them and that, if they have the confidence to try to show me their best, they too can perhaps join the smiling gallery [the team photos on the walls of the building]’.

The importance of a small behaviour of stopping, smiling and chatting to a relative newcomer and, if possible, remembering their name conveys that you care and are encouraging of their place among the work team. Small behaviours can demonstrate that you have made a genuine effort to connect with another person.

Perhaps you already find yourself noticing others, nodding, smiling and using encouraging words. If so, then there is a good chance that your communication skills are well developed.