The Words We Use
Language, or the individual words we choose, is another tool to consider in our quest for excellent performance. Language has massive influence over behavior. Words bring about responses in the form of images, emotions and feelings. Words can enhance focus or break concentration. Words make the same task seem impossible, challenging, rewarding or common place. Think about how these words can create different meaning to players.
Bad… as compared to… not as good as.
The effort put forth today was bad. The effort put forth was not as good as what we are capable of.
Correctly… as compared to… perfectly.
When under no pressure, the pass needs to be correct. When under no pressure, the pass needs to be perfect.
Hard … as compared to… challenge.
Our opponent will be hard to beat. This opponent will give us a great challenge.
Opportunity… as compared to… failure.
We failed to implement our training priorities into our game today. We have an opportunity to continue training with the aspects we have yet to master.
Losing… as compared to… learning.
Aggressive… as compared to…. active.
Get the ball off your foot….. as compared to….. find a good pass.
If you did a quick inventory of the words that your coaching staff regularly uses with players, you will find places where the consistency and quality of the meaning players put to your directions can be enhanced by word choice alone. Do coaches use the same words for the same meaning? So does stuck in mean the same as goal side? When one coach says push up, does another coach use press? Are you using words that will give you the optimal response? Can you substitute words that inspire, motivate, energize? Try having one member of staff, or an observer, note the word choices made in your training session, then feedback on yourselves regarding language. When you are planning training sessions with your staff, be sure that all everyone is using the same words to identify instructions or concepts.
Another consideration in word choice is our tendency to use vague phrases, or hints and tips, as opposed to direct and clear instruction. While coaches have a definitive idea of what a phrase means to them, many players are uncertain as to what is exactly being said.
“Find someone in the box” is a common phrase that can be characterized as a tip instead of real coaching. Who do I find, when do I look for them, how do I find them (on the ground, in the air), where am I on the field when I look to find them, all questions that enter the payer’s mind when trying to determine how to “find someone in the box”.
“Get wide” is another frequent instruction that often amounts to only a hint. When, where, how, what does it look like and feel like to “be wide” the way that my coach wants? These words, without clear supporting demonstrations, explanations and specific instruction in training environments, offer a player unlimited options to determine “what this means and therefore what I should do.” What exactly do you mean when you say “be creative?” What is your outcome when you say it? And how will you know that the players understand what you mean? And how will players know that they know what you mean?
Digging Into Less Than Ideal Performance
(Note the use of the word “digging” – would it affect your reaction to the topic if I substituted the word “examining”?)
Being aware of how players are interpreting the world will help you improve the performance of your team. Taken on an individual basis, for example, you may have a player that you feel has been given instructions and should know what is expected. But, the player continues to do things incorrectly. Frustration and disappointment often appear when your coaching and his behavior do not align. We often then “blame the payer” for not being coachable or talented.
Blaming the players is a pitfall that we often encounter. Take a step back and find out what the player is seeing and thinking. When the world is happening at game pace, the player is running the constant analysis of “what does this mean and so what should I do?” It can be that the player is not recognizing the time and space, and not able to make the decision you desire. His mind is processing through his filters and past experiences producing a different behavior than what you want. He is doing the best he can with the resources at his disposal. His mind is seeking the best option it can find. With the best of intentions, the player’s mind is not putting the same meaning to the moment that you are.
Help the player see that the answer to “what this means” is what you are directing – It means X and therefore you should do Y. Chunk it down into smaller parts (or up to bigger picture), use different words, paint a different picture, understand more by asking the player to walk you through his thoughts and decisions. Players can be overwhelmed by past experiences or fear. You will improve performance by interrupting the old pattern and replacing it with a new one.
Jennifer Griffin is a Sports Performance Analyst at Syracuse University for the women’s soccer program. She has also been part of the US Soccer Federation’s Per Diem Staff and was formerly a member of the Women’s Soccer Committee for the NSCAA. Jen’s soccer resume also includes having been a coach at the high school level for nearly 22 years.