I’ll be honest, my team and I are having some struggles this year. We are in the midst of our season (rowing being a Spring sport) and things are not going quite as planned. We have hit a series of challenges, but I’ve committed myself to saying only positive things about our efforts, our athletes, and our coaching. No “Man, we can’t race,” or “What’s wrong with us?” or “Ew, we aren’t fast.”
There’s a lesson here I’ve learned … the word choices of the coach are immensely important.
Ours is mostly a verbal profession. I’m sure you’ve noticed that. We depend on words to deliver our messages, instruct, motivate. Words are our most powerful tool. I once tried a silent practice, where I could not talk, one of those experiments we try. I made it through seven minutes of frantic hand waving, cryptic notes, and agony until I finally caved and the words came flying out.
That experiment gave me an immediate sense of “I better be very smart about my words because they are my painter’s brush.” Sure, there are painters who don’t use brushes, such as spray cans or fingers, as sometimes in coaching we use video or drawings. But the overwhelming core of coaching happens verbally. Which brings up …
COACHING HAS IT’S OWN LANGUAGE
Do you speak like a coach? Coaches phrase things in unique ways, sometimes positive, sometimes competitive, and often a bit in-your-face. Those words are designed to get a message across. However, if things are not going well, disappointment builds, stress mounts, and coaches can use words that don’t help and often make things worse.
“I’m trying some new things.” <- Helpful
“They won’t listen to my great ideas.” <- Not helpful
“We seem to be on the right track.” <- Helpful
“These roadblocks are killing us.” <- Not a helpful
“The lessons we are learning now will be ones we use all our life.” <- Helpful
“What’s wrong with these kids. They don’t get it.” <- Not helpful
Ignore this at your own peril.
You’ve probably noticed, many people, and many coaches use negative words and statements as their primary word choices. Seldom do they advance the cause. Bobby Knight’s book, The Power Of Negative Thinking is widely read. I started to read it once and had to put it down, quickly grabbing my well-worn copy of Jim Thompson’s Positive Coaching. Too much negativity from Coach Knight. I needed the positive. Our athletes are no different.
Here’s what I know: the words I send out into the world have power. They are the Lego instructions for my players and team. When I say something positive, guess what gets built? When I say something negative or I complain, you can imagine what is constructed.
There is a place for critical words. Words like, “You need to improve this part of your technique,” are acceptable and expected. But there needs to be a balance between critical and supportive language.
What is your ratio? For example, coaching college rowers (in which any season I could have fifty percent athletes new to the sport), the ratio I try for is 3:1, being three supportive comments to each one corrective statement.
Doesn’t always happen, but that’s my goal.
Why that ratio? Because I’ve found it works well with them, and me. I think younger athletes would need an even high ratio. And I know from experience, that at the advanced levels of sport, that ratio can run well into the negative zone, where you hardly, if ever, hear supportive comments.
During the course of the day I try to be selective of the words I use for myself:
- “I can accomplish …”
- “I am making progress …”
- “I am focusing on …”
Those have power and direction. These word choices become even more important during the competitive season. As the team is challenged this season, I’m relying on words such as:
- “Our plan is …”
- We expect to …”
- The next step is …”
There is commitment and vision in these words. I stay away from words such as:
- “I try to …”
- “Why can’t we …”
- “If only we could …”
There is blame and despair in them.
Positive talk is a powerful tool. See, what I did right there? “Positive talk is a powerful tool,” is an example of what I mean. That statement is positive, has vision, and gets a message across. Works a lot better than, “What’s wrong with you! Stop the negative dribble!”
You should coach as you best see fit, and my intent is never to get someone to change their coaching. It just that the whole idea of positive talk seems to be a secret. I just want to shed some light on the power of our most important tool — our language.
* * * * *
- 6 Differences That Make A Great Coach
- Down The Dark Road Of Demeaning Coaching
- Coaching From The Shoulders Of Giants
- 5 Things To Do As Soon As You Lose
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