Athletes tone their speaking prowess
July 18, 2007
It’s not uncommon for athletes to invest all their energy into their sports, hoping to stand on the winner’s podium. But once there, with the world watching, they may trip over their words.
"A lot of these kids will be saying things on TV," said Chris Sherwin, an instructor at the Winter Sports School in Park City. "An awful lot of athletes are not comfortable speaking. To some people, almost the worst thing in the world is giving a speech. But even worse is not being able to give a good speech when you really want to."
The Winter Sports School is a private, college-preparatory facility for athletes involved in winter sports, freeing them from academics during the winter so they can fully concentrate on their sports. Alumni include gold-medal Olympians.
Sherwin, who has taught 12 years at the school, came up with the idea for the class, arguing communication is often overlooked. His class "is a compilation of the highlights of my speech-communication classes at the University of Washington."
Sherwin hopes to trim ‘uhs’ and ‘you knows,’ and replace them with two to five minutes of speaking from the hearts, and with direction. He teaches skills he sees translating to all aspects of students’ lives, from interviews and toasts to wedding speeches.
He said Barack Obama has a very good command of the English language, and his speeches sound more conversational than written.
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Sherwin said he is "absolutely, positively trying to get students away from reading a speech."
Jesse Tibbetts, 12, a freeride skier, said of public speaking, "I am absolutely comfortable. I’m not nervous." He said his confidence has come from athletics, but he admitted he could improve his speaking skills.
Kevin McJames, a senior who is an alpine ski racer, said, "I don’t feel particularly uncomfortable speaking, but sometimes I can’t verbalize things the way I want to."
Sherwin detailed the outline of a successful short speech. He said the speaker should introduce the topic, give some dazzly facts and wrap it up, often tying into the conclusion.
But that doesn’t mean a speech should come off dry and mechanical. "I want to see people who believe so strongly in their ideas, they are ready to throw their chair," he said they have to be able to control their ideas and have some demeanor.
Sherwin said speakers have to know how to address an audience, trying to relate to the people without compromising who they are.
He sees a happy medium between being too structured and being "over the top," and possibly offending the audience. He said speakers are best served by allowing their personality to come out within reason. He said, as an extreme example, people like Muhammad Ali "may pull it off but only if they can back it up. If you have the personality, fine. But you have to be prepared for the consequences."
Sherwin likes to break students into groups to further communication skills through constructive criticism of each other’s speeches and collaboration.
Whether students will win a medal in winter sports, or use newfound speaking skills in a job interview, the experience, he hopes will help them in their lives.
"You have to ask yourself, after winning a race, is your purpose to survive the interview or to get others involved in the sport? You have to be willing to be a role model. An interview has a huge influence."