The Language of Coaching - Communicating with Athletes to Optimize Performance

Words hold a lot of weight. As parents and coaches, the effects of our words on our children and athletes are abundantly clear. What we say has the power to heal, hurt, encourage, and criticize. We’ve all had that coach or fitness instructor whose “tough coach” approach didn’t land, or maybe we’ve tuned out their endless lengthy cues. These coaching styles can easily break an athlete’s focus, take them out of the game and into their head, and can even lead to increased injuries as a result. 

During his 2015 Ted Talk on the Power of a Coach’s Words, Coach Reed Maltbie says, “Good coaches develop players who excel in the context of the game. Great coaches empower people who succeed Beyond the Game.” But did you know that your language with your athletes can enhance their performance? 

Nick Winkelman, the Head of Athletic Performance and Science for the Irish Rugby Football Union, deeply understands the use of communication to optimize performance. He suggests three simple tips on how to change your language when communicating with athletes to enhance performance and increase long-term memory retention:

  1. Say the most with the least amount of words

It’s important to give athletes small amounts of words to process rather than complete sentences not to strain their working memory during performance. 

  1. Use external cues rather than internal cues

Use external cues over internal cues. External cues mean that your instruction asks the athlete to focus on how they interact with the environment around them. Internal cues ask the athlete to focus on their body parts and how they move in space. The more visual the language is (external cue), the easier it is to process and remember. Some fantastic sports medicine research is out there that validates the effects of external cues on improving performance! 

Example internal cue for a push-up: “Extend your elbows fully as you rise.”

Example external cue for a push-up: “Push the ground away from you as you rise.”

  1. Use language that the athlete is familiar with
    1. This requires knowing your athletes well and knowing what language they would benefit from and what will or won’t resonate. 

If you recall, the Athlete Care Ecosystem centers on the athlete and is surrounded by coaches, athletic trainers, physicians and parents. By improving communication, we’re benefiting the athlete by building trust, transparency and a supportive environment. When we speak a language that athletes can understand, the athlete’s confidence will automatically increase as well. If someone gives you instructions in a way that makes sense to you, you get that boost of confidence in the task at hand, right? Try out these cueing tactics and language adaptations during practice and be transparent with your athletes about what you’re doing and how this may improve their performance!

Click here for more tips and tricks for adapting language to increase athlete performance. 

References

  1. https://www.injurefree.com/
  2. https://blogs.bmj.com/bjsm/2020/07/29/are-you-communicating-with-your-athletes-patients-in-a-way-that-optimises-their-performance-learn-top-tips-from-an-expert-in-the-field/
  3. https://coachingyoungathletes.com/2019/05/27/how-to-use-the-power-of-language-in-coaching/ 

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