Thursday, 23 May 2024

Words Matter

Research has shown that feedback is the most impactful change a coach makes. It’s crucial to make your feedback more effective in practice, competition, and life. In this article, we will explore the power of words and their influence on coaching and teaching. By being mindful of our language, we can enhance our communication and bring out the best in our players.

Nonverbal Feedback

First and foremost, let’s address the importance of nonverbal feedback. Your body language speaks volumes and should align with your coaching philosophy and effective teaching methods. To gain insights into your nonverbal communication, consider recording yourself during practice and competition. Reflect on the videos and ensure that your actions reinforce the messages you intend to convey. As the late John Wooden once said, “No written word, no spoken plea can teach our youth what they should be. Nor all the books on all the shelves. It’s what the teachers are themselves.”

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Feedback

When providing feedback to your players, ask yourself whether you are teaching intrinsically or extrinsically. Are you simply telling your players what to do, or are you actively engaging them by asking for their input? By fostering a collaborative environment, you empower your players to take ownership of their development.

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The Power of Language

How we speak to ourselves and others matters. In our quest for growth and improvement, it’s essential to choose our words wisely. Avoid using absolutes like “never” and “always.” Instead, embrace the idea that failure is part of the learning process. View setbacks as opportunities for growth. In both writing and coaching, certain words can be eliminated or limited, such as “you know,” “really,” “honestly,” “absolutely,” and “very.” By being mindful of these words, we can communicate more effectively.

Be Specific

While encouragement is important, specificity in our feedback is key. According to studies, legendary coach John Wooden was specific more than 75% of the time. When praising your players, go beyond generic phrases like “That’s it!” or “Good job!” Add a comma after your encouraging statement and provide specific commendations. For example, say, “That’s it, the way you swung like a pendulum!” or “I like that, as you went from slow to fast!” This level of detail reinforces positive behaviors and helps players understand exactly what they are doing well.

Choosing Our Words

Certain words in coaching and parenting have become deeply ingrained in our language but can hinder progress. Let’s examine a few of these words and explore alternatives that promote growth:


The word “try” often serves as an excuse for not taking action. When someone says, “I’ll try to be there,” it leaves room for potential failure. Instead, encourage a mindset of commitment and success by replacing “try” with “I will.” Eliminating this word and focusing on positive outcomes can make a significant impact.

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The word “but” has a tendency to negate anything said before it. For instance, saying, “That was a great play you did, but…” diminishes the effect of the compliment. To ensure your players receive the full impact of your praise, substitute “but” with “and.” This simple change allows the compliment to be heard without dilution.


Never ask a player to do something impossible. Instead, provide them with realistic goals and measures of success. For example, say, “Since this is new, I am looking for 1 out of 10 success as you first learn it.” By removing the word “can’t” from our coaching vocabulary, we create a more empowering learning environment.


The word “don’t” has a way of directing our focus to what we should avoid. It’s similar to the classic example of saying, “Don’t think about pink elephants,” which inevitably leads to thoughts of pink elephants. Instead of highlighting what we don’t want, shift the focus to what we do want. This approach encourages faster learning and directs players’ attention towards desired behaviors.


In team and individual sports alike, the use of “you” and “your” can inadvertently create a sense of threat or distance. By replacing these pronouns with “we” or “I,” we foster a spirit of collaboration and teamwork. This simple linguistic shift can have a profound impact on team dynamics.


The word “should” often carries a judgmental undertone and can hinder progress. When players use this word, it often represents self-criticism. Instead of dwelling on negative emotions, focus on the reasons behind decisions and acknowledge that growth is a process. Encourage problem-solving to facilitate proactive changes.

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Words to Keep

In our gym, let’s embrace the power of the words “why” and “yet.” Understanding the “why” behind our actions fuels empowerment and deepens understanding. Additionally, adopting a growth mindset by recognizing that certain skills are not mastered “yet” encourages continuous improvement.


Words hold immense power, and their impact on coaching and teaching cannot be overstated. By being mindful of the language we use, we can create a positive and empowering environment for our players to thrive. Remember, how we use words may cost us, but when wielded with expertise, care, and enthusiasm, they become powerful tools for growth and development.


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