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Coaching and the Language of Learning

By sports coach UK Coach Education Advisor Jon Woodward

My 3 year old daughter and I were driving the other day and she was intently playing with my iPhone listening to music and playing games. Questions arose from the back seat:

“I can’t find the Frozen app – where is it?”

“Why is Frozen not downloaded on your phone?”

“Do I need a signal to listen to Spotify?”

Whilst the word Frozen will send a shiver (no pun intended!) down the backs of those who have children (no, I don’t want to build a Snowman...), I was more interested in the words used – downloaded, signal, Spotify, app – these are words that would have been non-existent to my 3 year old self, and even further removed from my parents generation when they were that age.

Whilst these words are common place in todays society and understood by most, it got me thinking around the language used around coaching sessions, games and matches. On any day in any sport, you will hear phrases, ‘sport slang’ and expressions that coaches, players and spectators use to describe the game and its technical and tactical skills. “Square ball”, “Go Wide”, “Squeeze the play” and many more have been heard in my career as a football coach. I have taken to listening to other sports to realise we all speak a sporting language that some will understand, but do our participants?

As a coach educator, I promote the concept of simple, basic, easy to understand phrases when delivering coaching sessions and when speaking to children. Here are some of my top tips:

  1. Listen to yourself - Have you ever really listened to what you are saying? You may understand what you mean, but do you really? And more crucially, do your players? Always check that your players, and fellow coaches, understand what you mean.
  2. Listen to others – Building on from above, listen to what your coaches and players are saying. It is a great way of checking for understanding, but you may also be confused as to what they are saying. Make sure you check for your own understanding as well their.
  3. Count your words – don’t over talk! You can often get your point across in under 30 seconds, so don’t use 5 minutes to make the same point. Be brief, let them play and if you need to repeat the information, be brief again... and maybe try a different way of explaining.
  4. Count your information – don’t overload the information. Give players a single piece of information to develop at a time. This avoids confusion over your message, and can always be added to when progress is needed. You build a jigsaw piece by piece, and not all at once.
  5. Paint the Picture – do you even need to talk? Demonstration is a great way of sharing information.  If you can’t demonstrate the skill, there are lots of ways to show it: for example, the players themselves, video clips. Tell me and I may forget, Show me and I may remember, Involve me and I will understand.
  6. Don’t talk.... – your players may already know it and/or can figure it out by themselves. So why coach something that is already happening? Let them play and set them problems to solve and adapt to.

Obviously, the emphasis on the above points varies from group to group, and with individuals within the groups. It isn’t all about just talking, or just showing or giving the players the opportunity to solve problems on their own, but a balance of them all. The right intervention at the right time will develop players and their understanding.

Nobody said it would be easy, did they? Happy Coaching!!

Jon Woodward is a Coach Education Advisor at sports coach UK. He is a parent, coach and coach educator fulfilling various roles with various sports – and can be found tweeting (@JonWoodward74 ) and blogging about coaching and life