Nonverbal Communication in Sports: an Integral Part of Global Sport Society

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The art of non-verbal communication sport is something that is intriguing and pertinent in the world of sport. Whether a team is looking to gain an advantage over another or a coach is attempting build a strong chemistry amongst his or her players. The use of non-verbal communication is the key. There are different types of non-verbal communication and each has its own unique quality that separates it from the rest but also what makes it important on how we see each other and are able to read one another. The ability to use this form of communication to distinguish between who may be winning or losing with no other parameters other than facial expressions and observing ones posture dictates that this ability is embedded within each of us and is a tool that can be sharpened as we age.

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Non-verbal communication in sport will be presented throughout this paper by presenting it in various lights. First, we will look at what non-verbal communication is and how it can span into the world of sport. Next, we will look at the findings of research that was used to identify whether or not teams and/or players could be identified as winning or losing based solely off of non-verbal cues. We will then look into interpreting what it means when one uses nonverbal communication in a sport setting, whether it be a coach or a player. Through this we are able to see how players and coaches can gain a competitive edge on and off the field.

Nonverbal Communication in Sport

According to Preja (2013), “Communication is performed on three levels: logical, para-verbal, and non-verbal.” For the purpose of this paper, we will be dissecting one of those three levels of communication and that is non-verbal communication. More specifically, what non-verbal communication looks like in sport. Understanding non-verbal communication is integral for the success of sport across all platforms. For example, a coach must be able to read the posture and facial expressions of his or her players. The majority of communicating we do on a day to day basis is through non-verbal communication. Reading each other before engaging in touchy subject is a form on non-verbal communication while also monitoring facial expressions throughout conversation to allow this conversation to continue or to change the conversation entirely. Sport is the same way. Seeing a player with his shoulders slouched after turning the ball over in the game of basketball is a significant red flag to a coach. Immediately he must make a decision, will he substitute this player for someone who is going to compete more vigorously than someone who is showing signs of defeat and failure or allow this player to continue playing. Preja (2013) stated “In verbal communication, the conscious sphere is largely involved, while non-verbal communication is spontaneous, less censored, unaffected by distortions.” To me this is one of the most important aspects of nonverbal communication. That being, it is raw and uncensored. As a coach myself, I look into the eyes of my players and I ask them, “Can you do this?” Without hesitation, they answer, “Yes!”. However, I have seen the look of excitement, that of defeat, scared players, excited players, etc. All of these, I read, not by their verbal communication, but by the non-verbal cues they displaced. The ability of coaches to not only teach their players the skills but to be able to interpret and communicate non-verbally is the key to success.

To elaborate even further, we will look at what non-verbal communication can tell others in regards to sport with very little information being shared verbally. Based on the findings of Furley & Schweizer, people were able to distinguish between who was actually winning compared to who was losing based on a few simple elements. These elements consisted primarily of facial expressions and body posture. No other evidence was needed. They were even able to show that even small children had the innate ability to determine who was leading and who was behind based on these non-verbal signals the athletes were projecting. The results from their research also suggests that as you progressed in age, your ability to decipher who was winning and losing became even more precise. As with anything, the more practice you have the better you will become at something. Therefore, it is the same principle, as we engage more and more with various people in society we are able to build this ability so that we can better communicate whether it be in society or in sport.

Interpretation of Nonverbal Communication

One of the most profound statements I was able to gather came from Smith & Strand. According to these two, Smith & Strand (2014), “There are six forms of nonverbal communication: Physical Appearance, Posture, Gesture, Body Position (proxemics), Touching, and Facial Expressions. Coaches need to make sure they are communicating the same message with their body as they are with their voice.” As a coach, there are times where I wonder if my players are receiving the same message I am sharing with them. Do I even believe what I am saying? When a coach says nothing to a player, is a message even being sent? I believe the answer to that question is absolutely! Interestingly enough, body position not words can give players motivation or simply keep the interest there enough allowing them to feel important. For example, the example was used where a coach who sits at the end of his bench with his best reserve players beside him is sending a signal whether he knows it or not to the players on the opposite side of the bench. This signal is portrayed as though these players are not as good as the ones who are sitting closer to the coach and they have a significantly lesser change to enter the game compared to the other players who are physically closer. Do I think verbal affirmation is acceptable, sure. Do I believe that by a coach moving to the middle of the bench and splitting the players on both sides creating a sense of comfort and intimacy by proximity is a more suitable and subtle solution. Certainly, I do.

While researching non-verbal communication in sport, I came across research that involved kids with Autism to attempt and distinguish between non-verbal cues based off condensed clips and interpret what they viewed. Essentially, these children were shown these short clips and again had to distinguish who was leading and who was losing based off only non-verbal signs. Interesting enough, there was sufficient evidence that supported the idea that children with Autism had the ability to correctly identify those winning compared to losing at a level very close to children without Autism.

Non-verbal communication in sport is fascinating to watch and to engage in. One tool I have gained throughout my career coaching is the ability to read players and coaches and respond accordingly with what will help my team or put my team in the best possible situation to succeed. I do not believe this is something that just came to me when I started coaching. While playing, little things coaches taught me or said intrigued me but the things that gained me the most advantage for example would be whether or not a player was on the balls of his feet or his toes, whether a player has his knees bent or if he is standing erect, is his hips opened up or are the facing a certain direction. All of these things to a basketball player are very significant. A player must read these non-verbal signs quickly, process them, and then act. Likewise, as a coach you spend more time observing throughout the course of a game and then relay that information to your players. This is how teams are able to go in at halftime of a game and come out with the necessary adjustments even though it appears they are still running the same plays. Let’s look at this a little deeper. “The body feint is always a deliberate attempt to deceive the opponent to gain an advantage in the context of the game, moreover, it is the basis of the game of basketball, along one players against one, on which is built the complex process of acquisition of tactical advantages over opponents.” Raiola (2015) Taking something as simple as a body feint, or getting the opponent to think you are going one way but you actually go the other, is something that pits mind against mind. In all sports, one is constantly in a battle to gain the upper hand, so knowing this and understanding what players are being taught is significant in the art of purposeful deception to gain this strategic advantage. This again is all based on what a player sees or what a coach sees and is able to relay to his players.


Throughout the course of this paper, we were able to visualize what non-verbal communication looked like in the sport setting. We were able to gain a better understanding of how it looks for players to be identified as winning or losing based solely off of their non-verbal cues. The most intriguing element that we examined is how non-verbal communication is such an integral part of our global sport society. Having the ability to communicate without using words is something that takes practice. Fortunately, I believe that those involved in the world of sport are professionals at this task whether they know it or not.

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