Meet the Press

January 29, 2015
Getting your coaches to become more personable and relaxed in front of the media may seem like a monumental task. A dynamic training program can help.
By Blair Bloomston

Blair Bloomston is Vice President and one of the founding partners of game on Nation, LLC, which has trained many of the world's top athletes, coaches, teams, and corporations, helping them improve communication, leadership, character development, and media awareness. game on's team of consultants uses an engaging, improvisation-based curriculum to create tangible outcomes clients can see, feel, and measure, incorporating the same fun and intensity with which elite athletes physically train. Clients include the New York Yankees, Florida State University football, and the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team, to name a few. For more information or to contact game on, go to:

Be honest. When was the last time a quote in the newspaper by one of your coaches got anyone truly excited about his or her team?

"The kids put in a great effort today ... We're going to bounce back from the loss ... Our defense was strong but our offense needs to execute better."

Not bad quotes. And certainly better than negative words that put a line of parents in front of your door. But they also don't portray anything dynamic about the coach or the athletic program as a whole. They don't make a community member excited to come out and see a game. They don't make a parent say, "Wow, what a special coach."

Instead, they make the coach appear about as exciting as a typical interaction with a teenager:

How's it going? Fine.
How was your weekend? Good.
What else is going on? Nothing.

Unfortunately, the first instinct for many coaches is to regard media interviews as the part of the job they have to get through to enjoy the rest of it. But a coach speaking to the press can create vital free publicity, and when done well, strengthens your fan base and triggers more community support.

As Vice President for game on Nation, LLC, I have spent the last eight years helping coaches, athletes, and corporate executives improve and enhance their media interviews. Using game on's interactive curriculum, I encourage coaches to share their authentic personalities, build likeability and trust by using humor, and increase interviewing confidence to the point where talking to the press actually becomes fun!

The first step in the curriculum is a game called "Coins." A person's Coins are topics of conversation that make him or her smile such as interests, hobbies, passions, achievements, and so forth. When we think of Coins, we think of money or things that have value. It's very difficult to simply tell a coach, "Smile more!" when being interviewed, but if you convince them to think and/or talk about things that make them smile, they will be more apt to do so.

To start, set a timer for one minute and ask coaches to list as many topics as possible that bring a smile to their face just by thinking about them. The only rule is they can't write down anything related to their career or sport. It's not that these aren't extremely valuable Coins. It is just that your coaches are already very good at talking about them. To add fuel to their interviews they'll need to dig deeper.

If your coaches are feeling stumped or having difficulty thinking of things to write down, that's totally normal. We don't typically go home at the end of our busy day, look in the mirror, and think, "What makes me proud and unique?" Try adding another minute to the clock and direct them to list Coins related to any of these categories: family, travel, food, pets, or hobbies/activities.

Once your coaches have five to seven Coins, encourage them to connect their Coins to stories and examples. To demonstrate, the first three Coins on my list are family, pets, and vacation. But just having a list of words is not enough. That's similar to saying "Fine," "Good," and "Nothing." It's critical I back up these words with more information.

For example, when I think of my "family" Coin, what first comes to mind is my Grandpa Joe. Then I remember that he loved to paint and was a master watchmaker who had nine children and lived to be 99. And before painting and watchmaking and nine children, he traveled to Southern California and wrestled alligators in a sideshow during the Great Depression. Telling that story is a bit more interesting than saying "family" or "Grandpa."

Some Coins are very personal and we call them Left Pocket Coins. These Coins are powerful tools for helping a coach relax and smile, but they might not be appropriate to share in an interview. For example, my second Coin is my cat Max, and though I might not mention him when talking to a reporter, just thinking about his very chubby body and very tiny head will get me to smile and make me appear and sound more confident during my interview.

Right Pocket Coins are ideal for sharing in interviews. Discussing these Coins will cause a coach to feel just as confident and relaxed as Left Pocket Coins, but Right Pocket Coins have the added benefit of providing positive information to a reporter. For example, my "vacation" Coin is tied to my family's annual lobster diving trip to Big Pine Key, Fla. On this trip, I use an 80 lb. dive tank, weight belt, mask, fins, snorkel, dive knife, and two-foot long rubber gloves that I zip-tie to my arms to grab the most lobsters at 30-feet underwater in a week-long contest against my dad, five uncles, and 18 cousins. So when the Big Ten Network profiled my work with NFL draft hopefuls and wondered whether this 5'5" bubbly brunette in heels is competitive and tough enough to teach elite athletes media training, I shared my vacation Coin and their questions were answered.

Some good Coin examples from coaches I've worked with include: being the oldest of five children (proves inherent leadership and teamwork) and taking a U-17 soccer team to Brazil (highlights organizational and management skills). Another coach's Coin was that he loves watching the television show Swamp People (shows personality and illustrates a sense of humor).

To utilize this game in interviews, coaches need to come prepared with both the new Coins they've uncovered (the ones that go beyond the "obvious" topics) and also the career and sport related Coins that they already have lots of practice talking about. Before an interview starts, the coach should take a moment to remember and asses his or her Coins and then have three or four "in their pocket" to incorporate when the moment is right.

So when a reporter asks what was the key to today's win, instead of a statement like, "We've been working hard in practice and things clicked today," the coach might share a story about practice that relates to their own or their players' Coins. One example is a music Coin, and here's how the coach used it:

"We've been working hard on getting the players more focused. For example, last week the school band was rehearsing in the bleachers at the same time we were on the field. Our quarterback Taj usually gets distracted by the noise, but the band was playing that song called "Stronger" by Kanye West, who Taj really likes. Rather than fight the sound, I asked Taj to acknowledge it, then think about the task at hand. Before tonight's game Taj made a playlist with that song on it, and asked if I would play it in the locker room. It was amazing to see the entire team get pumped up listening to the music. But the best part was how Taj stayed more focused throughout the entire game."

While saying, "We've been working hard and things clicked," is fine, it's cliché and not very memorable. The coach behind the music Coin quote, however, is someone who grabs people's attention. It's easy to tell from the story that this coach has respect for his players and that he is creative and willing to take positive risks in practice. If I'm a community member, it makes me feel good about the athletic program, the school, and what the kids are learning. If I'm a parent, I want my child to play football and be coached by that guy.

We all have an inherent desire to be liked and validated and want to avoid being embarrassed. I don't know anyone who shows up for an interview and thinks, "I can't wait to be humiliated today." That desire to avoid embarrassment is so strong that it can bring out our loudest inner monologue, imploring us to: "Be cool, be cool, be cool" and "Don't say anything dumb." From a communication standpoint, though, these negative thoughts affect us the same way a tennis player's serve is weakened by thinking, "Don't double fault."

So how do you turn the volume down on those bad thoughts? Try playing a game we call Expert Speaker. In this mock-interview game, coaches combat their negative inner monologue by creating a situation where mistakes are impossible and they practice thinking quickly on their feet. In Expert Speaker, you put one of your coaches through a mock interview following these rules:

- Everything your coach says is absolutely correct and as the interviewer, you will agree with him or her.

- Everything you say as the interviewer is absolutely correct and your coach will agree with you while adding new information to the conversation.

- Both you and your coach must have each other's back and set each other up for success in the interview.

- You will interview your coach on a completely random topic that he or she knows absolutely nothing about, because you will choose it for them. Think: time travel, pizza construction techniques, cliff diving with local lemmings.

A quick note about having each other's back--don't ignore this rule. Expert Speaker is a game that takes quick thinking and creativity. If you and your coach laugh "at" one another more than "with" one another it will be extremely difficult to succeed. Keep the humor appropriate and work hard to set each other up for success!

When playing Expert Speaker, your coach learns to lose the fear of being laughed at after saying something ridiculous. Instead, the more positive risks they take, the more validation they'll hear from you as you cheer them on and laugh with them.

Playing Expert Speaker is like swinging a weighted baseball bat. The game stretches and builds your coaches' communication muscles by asking them to add humor and enthusiasm to their answers in a made-up situation. Then, when they are in a real interview, they will retain the feeling of speaking with complete confidence. There are three key tie-backs between the Expert Speaker game and successful interviews in real life:

- Coaches learn to enter the room, sit, and speak like an Expert. Even if the interview is conducted over the phone, moving and sitting like an Expert will carry over into their tone of voice.

- In a sports interview, the main topics coaches will be asked to be an Expert on are their school, their team, and their sport. If they can talk with confidence, clarity, and creativity about a random topic in the game, they can certainly be an Expert on subjects they know about.

- Learning to have the reporter's back makes the interview a positive process, and the reporter is more apt to support the coach. When coaches are as forthcoming as possible with positive information--including stories and examples--the interviewer may not need to focus as much on negative or dangerous subjects.

Now that your coaches have formed an interview "pre-shot routine" by having Coins in their pocket and speaking like an Expert, let's focus on how to navigate interview questions. To do this, we'll discuss one final game called "8-5-3."

Start by asking coaches to think of their personality and energy level on a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high). We're going to eliminate 10 right away. Like Jim Carrey after drinking a Red Bull, it's just too much. On the flip side, 1 is also out because it means a person is practically asleep. So we're going to focus on the numbers 8, 5, and 3.

Coaches should think of "8" as driving a car cruising on the highway. They're driving fast and free, maybe slightly over the speed limit, but not dangerously so. It's a beautiful, sunny day and there is almost no traffic so they've put the top down.

At "5" a person moves slightly slower, like on a busy local road. There are other cars around but traffic is moving together at a great pace. You can change lanes from time to time, but you are hitting mostly green lights and jamming out to a great song on the radio.

"3" is traveling through a school zone and there are young children running around. You are keeping an eye out to make sure a child doesn't run into the street. You've got your seatbelt buckled, the radio is turned down, and you are alert and ready while driving at a reduced speed.

To play 8-5-3, you will run another mock interview with your coach, this time asking them common questions they might get from reporters, possibly some they've heard before or topics that could be covered in an upcoming interview. Set up three chairs representing 8, 5, and 3. As each question is asked, the coach should take a moment to repeat it to him- or herself silently and determine which number response they should use. Then they should move to the appropriate chair and adjust their body language to fit that number. Finally, they should share an answer plus one or two examples to prove their point. Whenever possible, the coach should incorporate their Coins into their answers.

Not all interview questions are created equal, with some being safer than others. When being interviewed, the key for coaches is to recognize which questions warrant an enthusiastic, informative response, and which ones require them to be more reserved. The coach should identify if the question requires an 8, 5, or 3 response, then embody that number in his or her body language, energy, and tone of voice.

For example, a coach being asked about his first player to receive a Major League Baseball contract is typically a safe 8 question, whereas being asked about disciplining a player usually lands at 3. Just imagine the interview if these numbers were reversed, with a coach talking about his star player with guarded slow answers while enthusiastically bashing the player in trouble.

Coaches should try to think of their personality and the energy behind their answers in the interview like a set of clothes. A coach wouldn't wear a tuxedo to practice and wouldn't wear practice gear to a Hall of Fame induction. By the same token, coaches should try to avoid answering every interview question with the same voice and energy. Adjusting one's personality to match the question using an 8-5-3 scale is helpful because it is easy to remember. More importantly, coaches already have this personality range at their fingertips based on their own individual scale. That is to say, one person's 8 will be different from another person's 8.

Also, remember that while we adjust our energy up and down like a dimmer switch, we don't turn it on or off like a light switch. A coach should acknowledge what number they are most comfortable using to answer with, then work on the number he or she needs to improve upon. If a person is a natural 8 they shouldn't remind themselves to be an 8 before the interview. That could push them into the "Jim Carrey on Red Bull" zone and is like adding sugar on top of sugar. A good rule of thumb is to start at 5 and adjust up or down as needed.

An interview is just like a conversation, only with a lot more structure and a little more pressure. Using Coins, speaking like an Expert, and adjusting one's 8, 5, or 3 will be most helpful and effective for coaches in interviews if they also practice these techniques in day-to-day conversations. I can't guarantee that a coach won't be nervous or will say the perfect thing every time, but I promise that concise, descriptive stories work where bland statements don't, and using these techniques will help coaches feel more prepared and give them a far greater chance of coming across as articulate and authentic.
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