A few recent experiences have prompted me to reflect on the importance of the use of language in coaching. Particularly the influence a coach can have when dealing with youngsters and therefore the position of responsibility he or she is in.
The example I’d like to give happened some years ago but is appalling and hilarious in equal measure. I witnessed it at first hand as it was a football match my 12 year old daughter was playing in for a local team. I should also emphasize that, as a lifelong Derby County fan, I know nothing, repeat nothing, about football. I like watching it and playing it, but wouldn't know where to start coaching it. It's testament only to my ability to keep my mouth shut and let qualified football coaches advise her that she now plays for Aston Villa and England u17s.
Ignoring the advice hurled from the touchline by parents during the match (anybody who watches their kids play sport this will know there’s a book waiting to be written on this topic alone) there was some instruction from the coach. Together with gesticulation and arm waving, this consisted of single words. Pressure! Closer! Tackle! Run! I didn’t understand it and neither did the players – it was non-specific, seemingly directed at the match in general rather than at a player or passage of play, unhelpful, confusing and for some of the players, upsetting. Whilst being all of these things, the one thing it wasn’t was unusual. The coach had form for this.
Soon enough, a ball was lofted high over the midfield and came down from some height directly towards to the left-back. She had time to look at the ball, glance at the coach and then look back at the ball as it continued its downward path. She was caught in two or possibly three minds about what to do and simply took a flying swipe at the ball with her left foot. To give her credit, despite having her eyes closed, she made contact with the ball, volleying it out to the touch line. Okay, perhaps it wasn’t the most graceful passage of play and maybe Ashley Cole would have dealt with it differently, but remember this was a 12 year old grass roots football player.
After a short pause, unable to control himself any longer, the coach shouted ‘WILL YOU EVER LEARN TO TAKE A FUCKING TOUCH!?’ (I’m not sure about the question mark as I think it may have been rhetorical). As you can imagine, silence fell then inevitably the tears and recriminations started.
Aside from the obvious, what had he, as a coach, done wrong? I guess for a start, he hadn’t taught his left-back how to deal with the high ball. Or maybe he had but she didn’t have the experience, skill or confidence to put the technique in to practice. Of course, that’s entirely secondary: techniques can be taught, skill levels developed with purposeful practice and, even then, mistakes can still be made.
For me, his most serious crime was use of ‘bad’ language. Not the profanity – that was unhelpful and inappropriate for the environment - but he failed, by the misuse of one of the most powerful tools at his disposal, to get the right message over in at least two fundamental ways.
Firstly, Touch, Closer, Pressure and the like are just words. They don’t mean anything out of context. If you want somebody to do something it needs to be explained, demonstrated, practiced and improved by clear feedback. In the match environment, he would not have been able to give that feedback but he should have taken it back to the training pitch and used it there.
I presume ‘take a fucking touch’ roughly translates to ‘bring the ball under control before dealing with it’. Something along those lines may have been more helpful?
Secondly and more importantly, the player was scared of her coach, scared of making mistakes, scared of being shouted at in front of her team mates. So were the rest of the players on the team. That’s not an environment you can learn in. Furthermore it undermines rather than supports confidence which in turn has a negative effect on performance and just makes the whole process unenjoyable. You’re unlikely to become a creative and daring athlete if the response from your coach to you trying something new is going to be ‘what the fuck do you think you’re playing at?’
Without dispassionate and timely feedback in an environment where mistakes are learned from rather than used as a basis for criticism, people will not progress: more likely they will walk away. In any sport, language should be at least supportive rather than harmfully critical. It’s the coach’s job to develop a healthy learning environment where athletes feel comfortable to ask questions and try new things – to make mistakes and learn from them without fear of criticism. This applies to adults just as much as it does to children.
On a final note, I’m not claiming to be a paragon of coaching virtue here – I get this wrong just like everybody else and the heat of competition gets to all of us – it’s just a plea to mind your f*%king language I guess…
The ramblings of a cycling coach...