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In Defense of Language

I’d like to return to the idea that small changes in language can have big impacts on coaching practice. I originally explored this concept in What’s In a Word, where I mostly dealt with how different words can have differential impacts on skill acquisition.

Some of the concepts explored included-

  • External and internal focus of attention

  • Movement outcomes and movement effects

  • The use of analogy

  • Positive and negative orientated instruction

  • Communicating through feelings and thoughts

  • Kinesthetic and biomechanical and descriptions

Here, I’d like to examine how are words might not always be having the impact we expect, and how slight changes in phrasing can have significantly different effects, better facilitating our goals in coaching. It reinforces the concept that every word we say has influence, and the part of the skill of coaching is best managing that influence to in a positive manner.

Below are a few examples of how subtle changes, even one word, can have dramatic impact.

I’m Proud of You

This is a phrase used by coaches, parents, mentors, and many other individuals who guide others. It is often used as an expression of praise following achievement. While its use is almost always well-intentioned, it may not necessarily mean what we intend. The use of this phrase of often says more about the individual stating it than the person it is directed towards.

It reflects the values of the individual making the statement. It is a judgment. It is a statement of approval. They are approving of the actions of another.

You have behaved in a way that I value.

Whenever an individual accomplishes a task of merit, we are often quick to express our pride. What may be more valuable is support. Although this may seem like semantics, it has important implications on motivation. Despite its utility in the short-term, approval seeking will not provide long-term motivation, nor is it a particularly healthy orientation to drive an athletic career. For long-term success, performance motivation has to come from within. Swimmers need to do it for themselves.

While I’m not sure where I originally came across this idea, it resonated with me instantly. An alternative manner to express the intended sentiment is simply, ‘I am happy for you’.

A swimmer achieves a personal best- I am happy for you.

A swimmer gets into the college of their choice- I am happy for you

A swimmer wins a championship race- I am happy for you.

As opposed to our looking for our approval and evaluating their performances based upon our approval, swimmers need to develop their own ability to evaluate their own performances. Coaches can facilitate that process by asking simple questions-

How do you feel that went?

Were you happy with your execution?

Were you happy with your performances?

What do you feel went well?

What could have gone better?

Rather than being quick to attach our judgments to swimmers’ performances, let’s facilitate our swimmers in developing their own sense of success. Further, when we do express our opinions, let’s be explicit about how we felt as opposed to using opaque language that fails to produce direct communication.

‘You can do it’ versus ‘can you do it?'

I was first exposed to this concept by the author, Daniel Pink. When providing encouragement to others or ourselves, we simply tell ourselves/others that they can do it. While this type of encouragement can be an effective strategy, the particular phrasing is not really any more effective than any other supportive statement.

However, when the statement (‘You can do it’) becomes a question (‘Can you do it?’), magic happens. It forces an evaluation of the presented challenge and the psychological, technical, physical resources available. Swimmers must weigh the differences between the challenge and their resources and come up with an answer to the question.

If the answer is no, then all the encouragement in the world wasn’t going to make a difference anyway. There was no belief. However, if you ask the question, seriously evaluate your resources and the challenge, and come up with a yes, there is now belief that the task is possible. Importantly, that belief is founded in reality. That’s powerful. That creates buy in, an expectancy of success, and full commitment to the effort.

That makes a big difference.

While this process may appear to be cumbersome, it’s not. It’s not a formal analysis, it simply a snap judgment based on the perceived difficulty of the task and the perceived readiness to accomplish it. However, making the process conscious, and ensuring that swimmers are aware they are making a conscious choice about how to approach the task. It is most valuable during times when swimmers are really struggling.

At that point, more conscious analysis can be valuable for swimmers to convince themselves that they can overcome challenges. Over time, this process becomes faster and faster with less and less conscious input. It becomes a habit where overcoming challenges becomes possible as evidence is used to build confidence. This can happen before sets, before individual repetitions, and even during individual repetitions.

Initially, coaches may have to facilitate this process with swimmers by simply asking them if they can accomplish a given task. Over time, this process becomes internalized by the swimmer and integrated into their self-talk. There is a big difference between a swimmer who tells themselves, ‘You can do it’ as compared to ‘I can do it’. The former is a suggestion. The latter is a declaration. One can only arrive at a declaration after some deliberation. The evidence-based declaration brings belief, confidence, and full commitment to action.

Feelings and Thoughts

When asking for our swimmers’ feedback, we often ask what they ‘thought’. I would argue that we would be better serving our swimmers by asking what they ‘felt’.

A feeling is an instantaneous integration of visceral feedback. It’s pure and unadulterated. There’s no bias or contamination. A thought is a reflection, an interpretation. While thought and introspection absolutely have value, when looking for visceral reactions to events, thoughts can begin to bias the information swimmers receive and to bias the information that is delivered to coaches.

The phrase ‘listen to your body’ can be quite useful when the focus is on feelings, and less so with thoughts. The purity of feelings can be of greatest use when used to determine the feedback the body and the emotions are providing. Assessing the success of a repetition by how it felt will allow swimmers to directly access the feedback their body has provided them. This will guide future attempts. ‘Thinking’ about what just happened distorts that information and reduces the likelihood of successful future interventions.

The same can be said about practice sessions as a whole. When asked how they felt practice went, the initial, visceral reaction is the most accurate one. This reaction best informs about what should be done moving forward. Once swimmers start ‘reflecting’, they’ll be able to convince themselves of any narrative they like, for better or worse. Further, the information becomes much less useful for coaches.

Once swimmers start ‘thinking’, a filter has been applied. That filter might be to implemented to protect the swimmer emotionally, it might be applied to please the coach, it might be applied for any number of reasons. Simply, it’s an assessment, not a reaction.

As touched upon in What’s In a Word?, swimmers will race more effectively when processing their feelings as opposed to their thoughts. The ability to feel instead of think is reinforced on a daily basis by the questions and the feedback coaches ask.

When soliciting feedback, coaches can ask swimmers what they felt. Over time they learn to assess repetitions, races, practices, based on their initial reactions, as opposed to their interpretations. They learn to learn the language that their body speaks.

Most importantly, they can use this language to race. Racing is not about thinking; it is about trusting what you feel and reacting to how you feel. Engagement with these feelings allows for relevant focus on what matters and prevents swimmers from choking. In contrast, thinking heightens the possibility of choking. How we speak to swimmers on a daily basis can significantly affect who shows up when it matters most.


The words we use can have a major impact on the message we send and how they are received. Subtle shifts can create significant impacts in how our intended messages are interpreted. When we’re thoughtful about how our words may be interpreted, we can move closer to ensure cleaner communication that is free of long-term baggage.

Beyond the opportunity for misinterpretation, skillful word choices can have immediate and significant impact on skilled performance in the pool. While attention has been given as to how great coaches must be skilled in training implementation, skill acquisition, and psychology, the ability to use language to effect change is often underappreciated.

A small word can make a big difference.

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