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Choosing the Right Words

Feb. 15, 2011, 6:47 p.m. (ET)

I have been reflecting on the lack of specificity in most coaches’ teaching, as well as the choice of words we often make by habit.  I am reminded of this as we are scripting some free videos to share this year, but mostly it is due to the difficulty I see coaches go through and how their own old habits are repeatedly slowing down successful learning and retention.

Fixed vs. Growth Mindset Words

At one end, there is the choice of words which focus on things we can control. Carol Dweck’s Mindset shows some great research on this, where choosing words like “You are so smart” – something that is not in a person’s control --  makes for kids who cannot excel at later levels because they have not focused on things which they can control. These words that are controllable revolve around things like effort and mastery, etc.  In volleyball, I am certain that telling developing players that they are “good spikers” or “great players” slows down their development.  The level of “great” is such a long continuum, which allows a player who is 14 and under to be “great” using skillsets which at a high school level simply will fail…for there is so much more speed and range as you move up the ladder.  We need to reward and pay attention to using words more like “hustle,” or “hard work” and even deliberate practice, while also showing how their mastery is increasing. Feel free to use my frequent opening “the way we play the game here” quote told to my players for decades before the start of lacrosse, volleyball or any sport I taught – “I don’t care if we win or lose, but NOBODY will outhustle us…” 

Specific Words not Just Rants or Raves

Second to change is the amazingly large amount of feedback and feedforward we give, which is simply non-specific.  “Good!, That’s it!, Way to go!, Nice Try!, That’s not it!, I like it!, You got it!,” etc. Please, stay upbeat and encouraging; simply be a better teacher and BE SPECIFIC about what you are happy about. Your players, having learned about “how we learn fastest” from you at the start of the season, should be part of this process, by saying back to you every time you are not specific “This ‘IT’ coach you are so excited about, care to be more specific?!!!!”

Professor Obvious Words

My story on these words to eliminate revolves around many coaches, and my timeouts of the past. After we shanked a streak of passes, I would call a time out and bring the players together and say…”We need a pass”….No kidding Sherlock Holmes, gosh we thought we were supposed to spray balls all over the court. PLEASE, stop being an observer and be a teacher.  There is no need to say “You gotta hit the ball in!” if you are a real teacher/coach. Give them feedforward using words that guide them to improve their next similar contact, and let it be. Find the teachable moment in the performance, as you are a teacher first and foremost, even when there are the streaks of errors.

The 1,000 Words in a Picture

As a picture is worth a thousand words, we are working on these “words thru pictures” by using technology in this day and age that allows for so many words in just the images of their skill performance.  From using the GREAT computer software program of Dartfish at the highest level, to phone video and pocket video camers, we need to use these 1,000 word options to teach more.  There is a Casio EX-FH25 digital camera I use which records at 1,200 frames a second. Even at 400 frames per second with this camera, you can REALLY see what is happening and the errors in timing and judgment.  Jim Coleman created a Tivo based system over a decade ago which, given the cost of such used devices on Ebay, now allows you to create a low cost, one speed only video station. You can teach in real time, and they see what they see. Or you can edit/just show when the player does it right. The images of a player doing it right are very important, worth collecting and worth re-watching, far more than any single error performed. Building a positive image in the athlete's mind is a crucial learning tool.

This does not take into account the core principles of reading and best options. In reading wrong, a performer who knows the skill, or their coach, will think they might have poor technique. The real focus should be on how they still made a successful performance DESPITE the misread (even if the technique is not perfect)  – the sign of a highly skilled player. Remember this great “set” by Eric Shoji? In best options, that a player can hit a shot cross court, into the block, but not choose the right option in time of hammering line or sharp angle or off the top of the block, again may need the coach’s words of reminder or new option teaching to bring that out.

Tone of Voice

The importance of words also carries the manner in which they are delivered… This has been a favorite teaching/parenting/coaching poem of mine for many years.  Not sure who wrote it, but it says a great deal about how those words are delivered.

It’s not so much what you say
As the manner in which you say it
It’s not so much the language you use
As the tone in which you convey it.
“Come here!” I sharply said,
And the child cowered and wept.
“Come here,” I said
He looked and smiled
And straight to my lap he crept.
Words may be mild and fair
But the tone pierces like a dart;
Words may be soft as the summer air
But the tone may break my heart.
For words come from the mind
Grow by study and art
But tone leaps from the inner self,
Revealing the state of the heart.
Whether you know it or not,
Whether you mean or care,
Gentleness, kindness, love and hate,
Envy, anger are there.
When, would you quarrels avoid;
And peace and love rejoice?
Keep anger not only out of your words
Keep it out of your voice. --  Author Unknown
 

Add in your body language as you deliver your words and you can really think you are helping, when in reality you are harming.  I’ll just use one favorite example on inflection, to make a final point about delivery – “Let’s eat grandma…or….Let’s eat, grandma.” I think the punch line is something about how punctuation can kill…

Car Ride Words

It is simple. Say the following. “I LOVE to watch you play.”  Then be quiet. Win or lose, the rest of the conversation needs to come from the PLAYER, not the parent or coach. Talk about the things you can control, which includes, “Where do you want to eat?” or “What is your homework level for tomorrow?”

Words Worth Changing

So what specific words do I think we coaches need to eliminate from our vocabulary when developing amazing leaders? Here is my list, most of which I put into the IMPACT manual long ago, in order to help novice coaches not make the same errors I had…in most cases the principle is to change from negative phrasing to positive, largely due to the way the brain works – which is only in a positive imprinting way. Let’s see….

Don’t  -  This is my #1 word to reduce or eliminate.  Simple. Stop using it. You just can’t “teach” a negative, as the mind stores everything as a positive. The old classic about “Don’t think about pink elephants” then lets you determine what shade of pink they are and if they are wearing party hats.  I oft tell a story of serving backwards into the crowd at a match overseas, after two teammates served into the net and I was commanded to “Non batte la palla nella rete”  - yep, my coach said, “Don’t serve into the net…” I did what I was told, I did not serve into the net. We simply must, time and time again, talk about what the desired result is, and focus on that, rather than what not to do. This article is a challenge in that way, for some negative examples keep creeping in….

Should  - Replace it with WILL. There is a big difference when you speak to yourself with will, as things will go that way, while “should” simply gives more reasons not to make it so. “Should” mean’s “might” to your future actions while “will” means it is going to happen.  I am not even going to go into the past and the option of saying “would,” for that is even worse…

Try  - Yoda and I agree, eliminate the use of this word.  He said, “Do, or do not. There is no try…”  The word try just gives players and coaches an excuse for not doing it. When we say, “Try to do this,” the players can fail to do it and then say “but I tried….”  - No, the real answer is, you did not do it. So use goal setting and scoring to take a player’s average from .5 out of 10 to 5 out of 10, and in the end to averages like 99 out of 100 even.  This way “doing it” is a road on the Citius, Altius, Fortius path of achieving excellence and becoming the best player one can be.

You  - Change it to “I” or “We,“ as “You” is threatening. “I” puts it more on the coach/parent and “we” is best as it is tied into creating the team culture you want. So in the process of being the best Socratic parent/coach, ASK Questions about the six friends, rather than tell them what you think or believe. In the gym, we can say “Why did….”; “Where might…”; “How did…”   In advance of the competition “What are our team goals again?...” rather than telling them what they are.  In the car ride home, if you MUST talk to your child and not just listen to music, ask “I’d like to know more about what….”  This poem is one I use every day in guiding my kids, players, staff and myself to cover things well.  I have six friends//Who serve me true//Their names are WHAT, WHERE, WHY//HOW, WHEN and WHO.

But  - Change it to AND --- “That was the fast armswing we want!, but…..”   So what is coming? Yep, a slam on what was done, some flaw in the positive, specific feedback you are sharing. It slams the door on the feedback and all the player is hearing is…. “But….whatever you say, likely negative/correctional here…”  They do not hear the good, just the bad. Changing the word to “and,” or simply saying it without “but” and giving positive feed-FORWARD. For example - ….”now let’s keep that fast arm and start doing new shot variations,how about a line shot or do you want to incorporate some other option? ” can work wonders, by asking a question/letting them influence their own direction and by never having the word “but” slamming the door.

Can’t - This one is a no brainer to eliminate too, but we need to guide the self talk of players to not use all these words with themselves. Sometimes it is like “trying” where can’t becomes a focus on “how many out of X” trials is done to be defined as “Can,” and then sharing with them over time how the number of successes are growing. We need to make it clear to them at the start of a new variation or totally skill that you are not focusing on the errors, only the successes, and that you are asking them to do something they are ready to do  and CAN do, just not 10 out of 10 times…yet…..Oh, and since mom was a first grade teacher for decades, let’s remember it is “May” when asking for permission, not “can,” for we are pretty certain, having reduced the use of “can’t” from your vocabulary, that you will be able to…

Also, since I’m on a poem trifecta here (wait till I tell Terry Pettit about that!), let’s share this good one by Edgar Guest remarkably called “Can’t,” knowing that when I tell it, I change the word trying to doing…

Can't is the worst word that's written or spoken;
Doing more harm here than slander and lies;
On it is many a strong spirit broken,
And with it many a good purpose dies.
It springs from the lips of the thoughtless each morning
And robs us of courage we need through the day:
It rings in our ears like a timely sent warning
And laughs when we falter and fall by the way.
Can't is the father of feeble endeavor,
The parent of terror and halfhearted work;
It weakens the efforts of artisans clever,
And makes of the toiler an indolent shirk.
It poisons the soul of the man with a vision,
It stifles in infancy many a plan;
It greets honest toiling with open derision
And mocks at the hopes and the dreams of a man.
Can't is a word none should speak without blushing;
To utter it should be a symbol of shame;
Ambition and courage it daily is crushing;
It blights a man's purpose and shortens his aim.
Despise it with all of your hatred of error;
Refuse it the lodgment it seeks in your brain;
Arm against it as a creature of terror,
And all that you dream of you someday shall gain.
Can't is the word that is for to ambition,
An enemy ambushed to shatter your will;
Its prey is forever the man with a mission
And bows but to courage and patience and skill.
Hate it, with hatred that's deep and undying,
For once it is welcomed 'twill break any man;
Whatever the goal you are seeking, keep trying
and answer this demon by saying: "I can."

Stay Positive

When young we learned that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” The intent there is to teach players to let harmful words flow off of them like water on a duck’s back. I have used the example of what if they said it in another language you did not understand, would the words still hurt or bother you? Since you don’t know what they are saying, those words wouldn't effect you. So pretend they are speaking in a tongue you cannot decipher – even if you can – and move forward beyond those harmful words. Sarcastic words (did you know the words roots are from a Greek word that means “To tear flesh”?) also have no place in coaching youth. Still, as this article on words shows, a coach is also still using swear/harsh words, which simply have zero tolerance for use in coaching young athletes…

Lots of words, and hopefully you have learned some better options for using our amazing language to become the best teacher you can be. I will close with some Latin – “Fac Diem Meam,” is on a golf hat in my office that a friend gave me on behalf of a famous great actor. Google it (and tell me when google became a verb).  Citius, Altius, Fortius – now those are some words we all should know and use daily on our path of excellence.   As always, thanks for coaching, parenting and teaching. Holler at john.kessel@usav.org if you have any other word thoughts or future suggestions.  Please take a moment to tweet this story or share it with friends through Facebook.  There are handy little buttons at the top of this blog to make it easy!

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