Sports journalists will report on many aspects of the sport, but some of the most eagerly-awaited content is interviews with athletes. Sports fans enjoy hearing from their favorite players, whether they are commenting on their latest success, being philosophical in defeat, or discussing their hopes and dreams for their careers. For sports journalists, interviewing athletes can be one of the most exciting aspects of their work, giving them unparalleled access to some of the biggest names in sport, which sometimes might include their own sporting heroes. However, conducting a good interview with athletes is also a challenge and a responsibility, as they must find out the information the fans want to hear while ensuring the content is fair to the athlete. While each sports journalist must find their own individual style when conducting interviews there are some tips and strategies that can help them achieve interesting and engaging content. As sports journalists become more experienced, they will develop their style and strategies even further.
Sports journalists work in a variety of different media, and there are a number of factors that will dictate the best strategies for interviews. If they are writing either for print, a website, or an online publication the purpose of the interview may be to get some good quotes to form part of a wider article or they may be aiming to publish the transcript. Interviews for television or radio may be live or pre-recorded. They may take place immediately after an event or game on the field with little time for preparation. Interviews can be impromptu or scheduled in advance. Interviews may take place in a studio, where athletes being interviewed may know the questions that are going to be asked, or if an interview is opportunistic and takes place immediately after an event, a journalist may have to make questions up on the spot. An interview may take place in-person, or it could be done on the phone or by video call.
Strategies for a good interview will therefore need to be tailored to fit the style, time, place, and method of the interview.
Learning how to interview
Sports journalists are generally naturally good at communication, but like all journalism skills, this ability needs to be honed through training and experience. Additionally, they will need to learn how to use their natural communication abilities across a range of different media. For those keen to enter the exciting, competitive world of sports journalism, gaining qualifications is a good way to acquire the necessary skills to impress prospective employers.
Sports journalists usually at least hold a bachelor’s degree in a relevant subject such as journalism, English, or communication. But to stand out from the crowd, a master’s in sports journalism is a good idea and will allow you to tailor the more general journalism, language, and communications skills to sports journalism. To find a good course, you can check universities accessible to you to see if they offer something akin to your needs. However, you do not need to limit yourself and give up on your dream if there are no suitable institutions near where you live, as there is also the option of online courses. Online programs fully prepare their students, with many of their graduates going on to have successful sports journalism careers.
A good example of how effectively these can work can be seen at St. Bonaventure University Online. Their sports journalism master’s teaches all the skills needed to be a modern-day sports journalist, and with a module called Art of the Sports Interview, it will equip students with the skills needed to conduct excellent in-depth interviews with athletes and others involved in sport.
Know your audience
For both the sports journalist looking to create interesting and engaging content and the athlete being interviewed, it is important to consider the audience. As a journalist, you will likely know the target demographic of your media outlet, and unlike many aspects of other forms of journalism, you will know that your audience are all sports fans. When interviewing an athlete you need to consider the level of knowledge your audience already holds and ensure that anything complicated is fully explained.
During the interview, you need to represent your readers, listeners, or viewers. This means asking the questions you know they would want to ask if they were present. In gaining the answers to their questions, you will make the interview more interesting and relevant to them.
You also need to consider what sort of story you are doing. If you are creating a short piece, either to camera for the news or simply want some quotes on a more general article about a game or event, you will need to keep your questions focused, getting straight to the heart of the story. If you are doing a longer, more in-depth piece your questions can be much more varied.
The first steps to creating engaging and relevant content and interviews take place before the interview starts. Get to know the athlete before you meet in person by reading their bio and understanding what’s going on in their career. If the athlete plays for a team, make sure you know about that as well. Good preparation means that you do not waste valuable interview time asking questions to which the answers can easily be found through a quick internet search and can instead concentrate on finding out something new. If interviewing an athlete immediately after an event or game, you may not know exactly what questions you are going to ask in advance. But by understanding their past performances you will already have some idea of what their success or disappointment means to them.
Don’t forget the practicalities
It sounds basic, but forgetting this step will render the interview pointless. Before interviewing an athlete, make sure your recording equipment is functioning. Whatever you are using to record the interview, whether it is audio or also includes visuals, make sure it is working, has everything it needs for optimal functionality and has sufficient power to work well for the duration of the interview. The last thing you want immediately before an interview is to be hunting for functioning equipment, leaving you flustered.
Keep it about the athlete
Your readers, viewers, and listeners are interested in hearing what the athlete has to say. In a good interview, a skillful journalist will allow the athletes’ voices to shine.
It is a good idea to keep questions as concise as possible. When time is limited, time spent asking a question in a convoluted manner means less time for the athlete to respond. Simple questions such as ‘why’ or ‘how’ can get just as insightful answers as a more complex question. Complex questions can lead to interviewees or the audience becoming lost and confused.
You should also avoid giving the athlete the answers. Your audience wants to hear what the athlete thinks and expects journalists to not put answers in their mouths. As an example, ‘How do you feel about today’s result?’ is better than ‘How disappointed are you about today’s result?’ because perhaps disappointment is not the overriding emotion and if you lead interviewees in their answers, your audience loses the chance to find out how they genuinely feel.
Although good preparation is essential, be careful that this does not become the focus of the interview. Your audience wants to hear from the athlete and is not interested in the journalist showing off their knowledge. Journalists’ knowledge should never take the place of athletes’ answers—the role of a journalist is to enhance athletes’ answers, not replace them. Interviewers using comedy can be similarly distracting from the focus of the interview.
To get a good, natural-sounding interview, sports journalists need to build up a rapport with their interviewees. As a sports journalist, over time, you may well build up a good relationship with athletes you interview frequently, but when starting out, it is always helpful to be courteous. It’s not your job to try to catch the athlete out or bring them down, and attempting to do this will simply make the athlete unwilling to talk to you in the future. Unless the athlete themselves decide this is relevant to their career, avoid questions about their personal life as they are entitled to privacy. So, while it may be reasonable to start an interview by congratulating an athlete about their recent wedding or birth of their child if this has been well-publicized, do not interrogate them about rumors of infidelity or speculate on their sexuality or financial difficulties.
Building up a good rapport with the athlete will make them feel more comfortable sharing the insights into their sport and performance that will make the interviews interesting and engaging and give your audience a glimpse into their authentic self. Both athletes and sports journalists have a lot in common in that for both, sport is both a profession and a passion.
While you will undoubtedly have some questions you want answered that you will prepare in advance, do not over-script your interview. An interview should come across as a natural conversation and by over-scripting it, you will miss the opportunity to let the interview flow naturally. The answers athletes give to your initial question may throw up more questions that your audience will want answers to, including questions that you may not have considered. In an unscripted interview, a good sports journalist will be able to identify the talking points raised by the athlete’s responses and ask the relevant follow-up questions. If you simply plough on with your pre-scripted list of questions you will miss many interesting insights and leave your audience feeling frustrated. During the interview, you should be actively listening to the athlete to see what further information you could elicit, rather than simply waiting until you can ask your next pre-prepared question.
It’s best to prepare a few open-ended questions in advance to start the interview and after that, let the questions flow naturally from the athlete’s responses. It is also worth finding out what the athlete wants to talk about. A question toward the end of the interview such as ‘Is there anything else you would like to share with us’ gives the athlete the chance to share the information they want or to ensure the points they want to make are made, giving your audience further insights into what is important to the athlete. Throughout an interview, a journalist needs to expect the unexpected and recognize that the unexpected information will often be the most interesting to your audience and spark the most interest and debate among sports fans.
Sitting down with an athlete for a long, in-depth interview for an article, podcast or show is a real opportunity to allow the audience to get to know them and can be a highly rewarding experience for both athlete and journalist. However, a long interview is also tiring. Consider the welfare of your subject at all times, making sure they can take a break if necessary and that they have something to drink, as talking for long periods can be thirsty work!
Consider also how you want to publish the interview. It may be worth serializing an article over several days to prevent it from becoming too long. Podcasts and shows too can be broken into short episodes to allow your viewers and listeners to more easily fit your content into their day.
Take the lead
As a journalist, you are trained in interview skills. Athletes, however, are not. While athletes with long and distinguished careers will have gained considerable experience in interviews, and the big names from big clubs will have media advisors and PR teams to advise them, many athletes, particularly at the beginning of their careers, may have little to no interview experience.
This means that as the journalist you may need to take the lead, guiding them back to the conversation if they are rambling or repeating themselves. Skilled journalists are able to do this while still making the interview sound natural and conversational.
Your audience will be keen to know the answers to tough questions, so do not be afraid to ask them. Following a run of poor performance, the athlete will probably be expecting you to ask them about it. Regardless, the interview needs to be truthful and so while it should always be polite, it is necessary to ask about the defeats, controversial decisions, rule-breaking, and poor performances when these occur. Give the athlete time to answer the harder questions, even if it does leave some awkward pauses as they formulate their answers. However, do not be aggressive in this type of question. It should be a chance for the athlete to put across their point of view, not for the journalist to rip them to shreds. Failure is something we all experience and through the athlete sharing their own experience of this, they can build common ground with the fans.
An upbeat ending
Even if the interview has been conducted following a disastrous defeat for the athlete, it is a good idea to end on a positive note. It might be that a final question is looking to the future, where the athlete can hope for a better day, or asking them what they have learned from their recent performance to achieve better results next time. No matter what the topic of the interview, always end by thanking the athlete for taking the time to talk. Athletes often give interviews shortly after a game when they are hot, tired, and thirsty and it is important for the journalist to show appreciation on behalf of the fans. You also want the athlete to leave feeling comfortable in the hope that they will be happy to be interviewed again by you in the future.
Mastering interview technique
As a sports journalist, interviews will be a significant part of your career. As well as the athletes themselves, you may be involved in interviewing managers, coaches, and even fans. Developing good interview techniques and strategies will begin during your training regardless of whether you train in person or through a high-quality online course. It is a good idea to take every opportunity to practice interviews and to ask for honest feedback on your performance. Over time, you will hone your skills, knowing instinctively which questions to ask and the best ways to put the athletes at ease during their interviews. Your own love of the sport will guide you into creating engaging content that fans love and that fuels their own passion for sport.