top of page
  • Writer's pictureHugh Lawrence

Divided by a common language (and a post script)

In a 1988 speech Chair of the US Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan said disarmingly, “If I seem unduly clear to you, you must have misunderstood what I said”.

For those who have coached for any length of time, miscommunication through jargon or poorly phrased directions leads to all manner of athlete under or non-performance.

I recall a time in my basketball coaching career working with an American colleague to improve a fast break play with 16-17 year-old New Zealand school boys. He directed the boys to go stand at the “foul line”. For those not familiar with basketball, that’s the free throw line. Three went to the baseline, two went to the three point line, one to half way and the rest stood around looking blank. They were new to American jargon. Had he used the other phrase used by American commentators in New Zealanders (but not much in the US), “the charity stripe”, they may have left the gym.

This leads me to the issue of language and how we communicate. If you are an older coach (like this writer), phrases of your childhood will be a foreign language to today’s young player. When I suggested to one player that a lack of fitness was his “Achilles heel”, he said his Achilles tendon was fine. For those of you who still don’t know what I was talking about, the story of Achilles can be found here.

An early mistake for most coaches is talking too much and at athletes. As I’ve noted in earlier posts, athletes don’t learn from coaches, they learn by doing. So the more you talk the less they’re doing. Clear, precise, concise and unambiguous instructions and/or correction is a central art form of great coaching.

My approach is to ask athletes to comment first after executing a drill or skill. Their immediate feedback tells much about how they feel, but the language they use may tell you much about whether or not they understood what you asked for in the first place. Moreover, to some extent, the quality of response (performance and comments) you get from your instructions has much to do with how much your athletes respect you. That’s hard to deduce and requires well-developed self-awareness.

The command and control style of coaching is largely past its ‘use by’ date. For many young (and not-so-young) athletes, school is over. They wish to have mature adult engagement with their coaches. However, the coach is in a significant position of power. Athletes will be cautious about questioning the coach if it is perceived that selection or assessment of competence is at risk.

In general, differences between coaches on technical, conditioning and tactical matters are less than we may think. The greater differences are often the ability of a coach to inspire and motivate athletes to train and compete. This intersects with my earlier point about “doing” to achieve learning. I consider myself a ‘teacher-coach’. In other words, I expect my athletes to learn something along the way. This includes refining or correcting skill, acquiring new knowledge, and experiencing success more than failure. Greta coaches also put these learning experiences in the context of the athlete’s life.

Teaching effectiveness is not simply measured by how much activity takes place in the coaching session. Simply being active (busy) can hide all manner of problems, such as a failure to carry out what was asked for. We must be cautious, however, to avoid simply measuring the amount of activity in a session as a measure of teaching success or whether the applied skills the coach is after are or are not being executed i.e. learned. How many of us critically evaluate whether training or competition success or failure is a direct result of our instructions (positive or negative)?

The risk is that physical activity becomes the only measure of what is happening or the only measure of lesson outcomes. Providing physical activity with students is easy. Good instructional programs are not. Motor skill competency and activity/game skill competency can be measured but requires the development of tools that are valid and practical and can be used reliably. And those tools exist.

Post script to my ‘consent defense’ post last month on sport violence and the inconsistency of penalties for off-field versus on-field violence. On 8 September, the New Zealand Herald reported that “A stomp and a punch ….. marred the final seconds of a top schoolboy rugby match,” with “a Christchurch Boys' High School hooker red-carded for the double acts of foul play.” As reported from video footage it showed “….a Christchurch Boys' High School's reserve hooker stomping on an opponent's head during the breakdown. The same player then punches another player in the push and shove that developed after the incident. The match referee red-carded the player, telling his captain: ‘He needs to understand he can't do that’.”

Stomping on someone’s head usually attracts prison time. My guess is that the police will not press charges and nor will the injured party.

In the 2017 case of the New Zealand Police versus Mark Anthony Nathan, Judge P I Treston remarked about an assault that included head stomping; “It is important for the Court in sentencing you to hold you accountable for the harm done to the victim which was significant. Your responsibility must be underlined and I must of course denounce your conduct in the strongest possible way because this was a largely unprovoked attack. I must impose a sentence which will deter you and other like minded violent offenders from this sort of behaviour because part of my job is to protect not only the individual victim but also the community at large”.

(picture source: the

20 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page