Defining Your Coaching Language

Posted on Aug 20 2018

One of the key tools for any coach is their language and the ability to communicate to athletes in a clear, precise and concise way. Across all sports, the very best coaches are able to take a large amount of information and refine it to a phrase or teaching cue that makes it efficient and effective. The internet and social media are full of concise sayings and phrases from the likes of Wooden, Belichick, Krzyzewski, Ferguson, Clarkson and Summitt and their ability to fashion information into learning sets them apart in their respective sports.

With the world now smaller than ever, access to information, innovation, ideas and new concepts is easier than ever. But that can also create a level of “white noise” for the young coach and the challenge of not only selecting what to teach and emphasise, but just how to communicate that knowledge is significant.

Your coaching language will define your coaching. How you communicate, listen and engage is the essence of coaching and in our sport, the learning lives in the language.


Jargon vs. language

Perhaps more than any sport, our game is one of jargon. There are skills and concepts that have four or five different names and young athletes may be exposed to all of these as they move from club coach to rep coach to school coach to state team coach. While some suggest this is a negative and creates confusion, the reality is players are smarter than coaches often give them credit for and have the ability to absorb a wide sphere of information, now more than ever.

The advantages of jargon or coaching language is often it is descriptive, prescriptive and paints a picture with words. It can also make communication more efficient; when a word or phrase replaces multiple sentences to teach or describe an action or skill. The challenge for coaches at all levels is to turn jargon into language, to take these key words from “coach speak” to how you and your players communicate the game.

Defining and refining your language within the team or program is crucially important.

In such a dynamic environment, efficiency of communication is priceless and time invested in arriving at a common and invested system is valuable.

If there is clarity by all coaches and players in a team or program, jargon quickly becomes language and now there is effective communication taking place – perhaps one of the biggest challenges for coaches, getting players to talk on the floor.

Efficiency of language

By defining your coaching language and sharing that clarity with the athletes, the way you teach and the way athletes learn and respond can be more efficient. One way of streamlining your language for the game setting is to create terms of action words for various actions or movements. For example, if you define a dribble entry as a “push”, a middle ball screen as a “hit” and keeping the low post down in the pick and roll as “stay”, that action can quickly be defined as “push-hit-stay”. Three words define three different concepts and provide clarity for the group. It can also be quickly changed if the language for a “roll and rise” action in this setting is “lift”, the action becomes “push-hit-lift”. Hardly rocket science, but a valuable way to make your language efficient and prescriptive.

This will assist in practice and teaching as well. Once you have established your language cues, the players don’t have to sift through a lot of long descriptions or teaching points, rather react to the efficient language, which assists to embed the learning.

That is not to say the language has to be complicated, trendy or the latest from the NBA. Your coaching language has to suit your personality and teaching style and more importantly, be understood by the target audience – the players. Early in the season, time invested in clearly explaining and defining your key action words and the language of the team or program is valuable.

At the professional or international level where athletes train more and have more experience, a coach may loop four or five different language cues into an instruction and have every expectation for the athletes to respond accordingly. Rather than have to detail in the heat of a late game time-out an action such as running the Flow offence, with a shallow cut, into a Horns setting to a post dive and throw back for a three-point shot, it may simply be “Flow, Irish, dive, pop”.


Simplicity, clarity, understanding

So how do you define your language. In an association or program setting, the Director of Coaching or head coach may define it and the job of the team coach is to ensure their players understand the club philosophy. This allows for consistency through the program or association and provides a level of comfort for the players as they progress through teams or age groups.

If this is not the setting, the coach should first meet with their assistant coaches to outline not only the language, but the reasons why and the process that will be undertaken to integrate. The three stages of establishing the language should be:

  • Simplicity – complex is not always better, simple and descriptive words/phrases are key
  • Clarity – everyone needs to know why the system of language is in place and how it will work for the team
  • Understanding – what does everything mean?

When devising your own language as a coach, rather than mimic another coach or something you have seen on television, use what has worked for you. At the Under 12 and 14 level in particularly, use what resonates with the players. Avoid being stubborn, the idea behind defining and refining your coaching language is to make life easier for the players to learn, develop and perform.

Starting the process

A worthwhile exercise for any coach is to take some time to sit and write down their language in teaching the sport. What words and terms do you use to speak the game? Produce a “brain dump” of all the words, phrases and terms you use across all aspects of the sport, from fundamentals to concept to strategy. Leave it for a day, then revisit it and try to assess against the three tiers of simplicity, clarity and understanding. Then give it to a coaching colleague who does not work within your team or program and ask them to apply the same test. The big test is to give it to a non-basketball person and ask them to have a look at it and challenge you as to the why of it all.

Once you have completed your “filter”, take some time to write your new efficient language down and produce a document you can constantly refer to, but also share with your assistant coaches. The act of committing your thoughts to paper allows you to document your process and embeds the ongoing development of your language.

The document will obviously be dynamic and quite fluid, as you identify new, more efficient ways to describe and teach. You will learn from the athletes, they will be quick to demonstrate just how efficient your language is and you will know very early if there is a lack of clarity around what you say and how you say it.


Aspects to consider

When defining your language, some aspects to think about:

  • Avoid being stubborn – it is a type of communication, not the law
  • Players may have multiple coaches and play in multiple teams – they will be exposed to other language
  • There are 10,000 “correct” ways to teach our game – your way is not the only way
  • Do not expect 100 per cent compliance – it’s not the end of the world if a player or coach uses another term or phrase from time to time
  • As an assistant coach, fit in with the language of the head coach to maintain consistency
  • Think “action words” – the more descriptive and prescriptive the better, especially with young players
  • Make it fun and dynamic.

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