One Word Can Make A Big Difference
My 3-year-old daughter was struggling to put on her sock. She kept catching her toes on the opening. She was becoming more and more frustrated.
Time to intervene.
“Open the sock’s mouth really wide….Put all of your toes in its mouth…..Now make the sock swallow your whole foot.”
Winner. On went the sock.
The words had an immediate effect.
I didn’t have to physically assist. She did it herself. With the help of words.
One Word Can Make A Difference
My daughter was capable of the skill. It just needed unveiling through a little verbal nudge.
How often do we as coaches (or parents) see a child struggle with a skill and automatically assume “they are not up to it yet”? But the issue may not be with the child – it could the teaching.
As once tweeted by Coach Reed Maltbie:
“So important we tailor words more appropriately. We can be the most intelligent, knowledgeable, skilled coaches on the planet and teach with total brilliance but one word can prevent learning. One word.”
Avoid dismissing an athlete’s abilities if they don’t get it the first time. Of course, there are times when an athlete really is not yet capable of a skill or movement. But give them a chance. Try changing your angle of approach. Experiment with your coaching language. It is one variable that I suspect remains largely untapped by many coaches.
Why Certain Language Works
In hindsight, the “sock” cues were effective because they were brief, relatable, meaningful, novel analogies.
I used three separate cues of no more than 8 words each. The less information that needs to be processed, the more likely it is to get through.
Keep your cues compact and concise.
My daughter could understand and interpret the cues. Cues will be more effective if they can tap into experience or imagination. This will vary from person to person, and from age group to age group.
The better you know your athletes, the more potential you have to curate great coaching cues for them. Make sure that your cues are compatible with the individual.
The cues represented an interesting, age-appropriate, funny description of putting on socks. They absorbed my daughter’s attention. People can only learn something that they are attending to.
Avoid bland cues. Always try to dress them up with a bit of humour or link them to something that is significant or compelling to the athlete. Use cues that captivate.
The words presented a fresh, new take on putting on socks. This provoked her interest and refreshed her energy for the activity.
Avoid using the same coaching cues all of the time. Draw an athlete’s attention with new and unique images. Be creative with your coaching cues.
The words I used were linked to an image of something with which my daughter was already familiar.
As Nick Winkelman states:
“It would seem that new information is best understood through the lens of something we already know.”
Try to use cues that compare a skill to something within the athlete’s prior experience.
The Power of Language
Don’t underestimate the power of language in coaching.
Taking time to craft your language to resonate with your audience will make you a better coach.
The 5 C’s of Great Cues
Be conscious of using your coaching language with purpose.
Create cues that are:
- Concise (Brief)
- Compatible (Relatable)
- Captivating (Meaningful)
- Creative (Novel)
- Comparable (Analogies)
I would love hear your best coaching cues. Share them by leaving a reply/comment or by using the contact details below.
Thanks to Nick Winkelman (@Nick Winkelman) and Coach Reed Maltbie (@Coach_Reed) for providing some of the inspiration for this article.
PS After the “sock” incident I also taught my daughter to do up buttons by describing the skill as the button hole “swallowing the button”.
This Is What You Need To Know About External Coaching Cues
How to Use Coaching Cues Most Effectively
10 Awesome Analogies That Will Make You a Better Athletics Coach
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Darren Wensor is a sports development professional, coach educator, specialist coach of young athletes, and founder of the blog coachingyoungathletes.com. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, or via email. Check out Coaching Young Athletes on YouTube, the Coaching Young Athletes podcast, and the Coaching Young Athletes E-Book Series.