Coaching Professional Athletes on How to Massage the Media

You're a star college basketball player who's just been picked by the Utah Jazz. Now that you've hit the big time, suddenly a handful of professionals are coaching you in everything from weight training to nutrition.

But who will help you face the media in the locker room, tutor you on how to navigate through press conferences, or teach you poise when reporters pepper you with questions about a bad play? In short, where's your media coach?

If you're a high-profile athlete, coach, or general manager, getting tips on how to make the most of your public image may be one of the most important career moves you make. That philosophy is according to Andrea Kirby, a former sportscaster who has pioneered what has become a thriving business.

For the past dozen years, Ms. Kirby of Andrea Kirby Coaches, Inc. in Atlanta has coached more than 2,000 sports celebs to tune in, not turn off the media. She's helped shy athletes become confident chatterboxes, tamed tempers of grizzly coaches who laced their answers with expletives, and shown teams and players how to avoid controversy.

Last year the United States Olympic Committee for the first time enlisted Kirby's services for athletes during the Atlanta Games and will use her again this winter in Nagano, Japan.

Though Hank Aaron, Muhammad Ali, and many other sports immortals never needed such media tutoring, Kirby maintains it's crucial today, and not just because of the million-dollar sports contracts.

"There's been an explosion of the media," she says during an interview in her spacious loft office here. "It's not like you just have a conversation with one or two people. Now there are hundreds of people, lots of different papers, radio and television stations, and they're coming at it from different angles. There's more to be concerned with than there was before, and athletes have to know how to handle this part of their game."

Kirby found her niche in 1985 after watching basketball's Patrick Ewing, then the New York Knicks' No. 1 draft pick, fidget uncomfortably in the locker room as the press bombarded him with questions. That night she drafted a proposal as a media mentor and sold it to baseball's New York Mets.

Her clients this year include the National Basketball Association's Toronto Raptors, baseball's Pittsburgh Pirates and Florida Marlins, wives of National Football League players, tennis players, and race car drivers.

When she invented the concept, Kirby had no competition. That has changed. Now about five other companies specialize in media coaching for sports, and a number of public-relations firms offer the service as well.

Kirby's methods range from large group presentations that can last from two hours to two days to one-on-one sessions with individual athletes. She uses audiotapes that show examples of how sports stars should and shouldn't act. She also often conducts a mock news conference and puts the athletes on camera to see themselves.

Among the biggest concerns athletes have is feeling out of control in front of the press, Kirby says. "The most common mistakes they make are they assume [the press] is all out to get them, some think they don't need the media, others think they have to be different or perfect, and that they have to answer the question. All of those are wrong. My whole drill is to ... get them in the right attitude and then teach them some skills, and one of the key skills is to tell stories."

Kirby can point to plenty of successes. Take, for example, Hersey Hawkins of the Seattle SuperSonics. Before his media coaching, the basketball star would answer questions in a mechanical and technical way, Kirby says. "Now he understands what the press is going for. He knows how to give them a story, let him inside his head, and ... he's entertaining, interesting, and in control."

Kirby also deals with those coaches or athletes who have frequent outbursts. In a press conference this year new Toronto Raptors coach Darrell Walker was defensive, feisty, and rude when asked to answer questions about his star player. Not only did he use profanity, but he ridiculed reporters.

During a workshop for the team's coaches and managers, Kirby showed the tape. "He learned how he looked - stupid - and why writers were asking him those questions," she says. "He learned the questions weren't personal and how to answer them." Since then he's cleaned up his act, she says.

Though Kirby coaches mostly professional athletes and coaches, she's beginning to target the college market. This spring, the University of Wisconsin hired her to conduct media sessions for its coaches and key athletes in sports ranging from hockey to football.

"We're the only Division 1 football team in the state, so we get an awful lot of press," says Barry Alvarez, head football coach. "We have some athletes who are on the national scope, and we felt it was our obligation to prepare them to handle themselves properly with reporters."

Though many of the Wisconsin athletes and coaches have yet to test what they learned, the message was clear. "I'm one who might get upset after [losing] a game," Alvarez says.

"You're drained and in that situation I might snap at someone.... [Now] I don't think I'll let some of [the reporters] get under my skin regardless of the poor questions. My underlying theme will be I have a message to get the truth out to the people who are interested in my program. I'll be a little more informative and go through the thought process of why a decision was made."

But as more athletes undergo media massaging, it begs the question: Are they being programmed to respond as automatons, rehashing the same clichs? Kirby is emphatic in her answer.

"I'm always surprised when people think I'm trying to make athletes slick and polished, or when they think I'm telling them what to say," she says. "They come up with the clichs because they don't know what else to do. We just try to coach them" so the real person comes through.

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