The Effects of Affirmative Communication
Just like athletes, also coaches need a wide variety of skills: technical know-how, social competences, extensive experience, and well-developed communicative skills. If they use positive wording in interaction with athletes (so-called “affirmations”), they can create an environment that enhances performance and learning within seconds.
“You must not put your flat foot on the ground, it makes you move too passively”, says the coach to his athlete. She listens to his instructions, visualizes them, and makes the same mistake again – despite her determination to avoid the incorrect movement at all costs. How can this happen? Very easily: before her inner eye, she saw the image of a flat foot on the ground, which was precisely what she should have avoided.
So, what did she do wrong? Nothing. Because her coach’s instruction was misleading. His statement was linguistically correct, but it created the image of the incorrect movement. The correct movement that she should have executed wasn’t even mentioned, which is why it was difficult for her to visualize it and put it into practice.
As a linguist and coach, I am interested in how communication between coaches and athletes work from a linguistic perspective. Specifically, I focus on the following questions concerning communication between coaches and their athletes: what wording is conducive to higher performance? How can a specific wording positively influence the learning of a new movement? What statements can strengthen an athlete’s self-confidence?
I Coach, therefore, I Communicate
The mosaic for achieving top performance in sports is complex and diverse. It requires a personalized training program with customized training stimuli, mental training, an environment that fosters performance in every situation, a medical support team consisting of a sports physician, physiotherapist, and a masseur, as well as the perfect equipment for all conditions. What is often neglected in the composition of this mosaic is the impact of language as a communicative tool which has an immediate effect on the athlete. Apart from non-verbal and para-verbal communication, we must not forget verbal communication. Yet, here we have negation again. This is why a positive wording, like “pay more attention to”, would be more suitable.
The Power of Affirmation
Why do we express an instruction with a negative form? A positive wording enables us to take advantage of the power of affirmation and employ it in interactions with athletes. This would strengthen their learning of movements, their self-confidence, as well as the relationship of trust between the coach and the athlete. In addition, affirmative statements create positive vibes that are conducive to high performance.
Here are a couple of examples from everyday training: How do the following statements sound to you?
|Negation / neutral statement||Affirmation|
|“Don’t move to stiffly.”||“Move more loosely and smoothly.”|
|“Don’t overdo it.”||“Train on your individual level.”|
|“How has your training been?”||“What has gone well today?”|
|“You must not cross this line.”||“You can use all this space up to this line.”|
If we remove the particle “not” and turn the statement into a positive one, it has a much more direct and powerful effect. Of course, the addressee still needs to receive, understand, and apply the meaning, but the chance that this will happen is much higher for affirmative statements than for negated ones. Targeted, affirmative expressions are a valuable resource for coaches to have an immediate effect on their athletes’ performance.
The Status Quo of Research
Verbal instructions play a pivotal role in the transmission of athletic motor skills. Jörn Munzert, a sports scientist specialized in sports psychology, analyzed the meaning of instructions in sports and found that motor skills research has rarely tackled the influence of language on the learning of movements (source). This is astounding because the area of mental training has been established among top and competitive athletes for a while now, particularly because it is backed by a broad research base. The influence of language on the learning and execution of movements, by contrast, has received (too) little attention. Still, there are a few exemplary trainers who do use language as a resource in interactions with athletes during training and competitions.
Annik Kälin Relies on a “Differentiated Common Language”
Marco Kälin, coach and father of Annik Kälin, Bronze medal winner at this year’s European heptathlon championships, strategically applies a “differentiated common language” in trainings and competitions. Together with his athlete, he developed a wording with which the athlete can focus on specific aspects of her movement execution.
In long jump, for example, the successful father-daughter team strategically avoids the phrase “don’t look at the bar”, which they reworded as a differentiated affirmation: “keep the bar in the corner of your eye”. In addition, they deliberately use metaphors like “Ehammer squat” – inspired by decathlete Simon Ehammer’s long jump flight technique – for her to visually and kinesthetically remember the correct “movement image”. Marco Kälin has recently won the Coach of the Year Award at the Swiss Athletics Night for his achievements as a coach in addition to his job as a practitioner.
Verbal Instructions are like Assembly Manuals
Verbal instructions in athletic motor skill learning can be compared to assembly manuals for pieces of furniture. Both require an instruction that must be understood and applied. Munzert explains that an unclear wording can entail the incorrect execution of a movement. A customized wording for each athlete, by contrast, simplifies the execution of the target movement. Just like Marco and Annik Kälin have developed their own “differentiated common language”, also other athletes can develop their own phrases that will help them get closer to executing the perfect movement – ideally always worded as an affirmation.
“Faster, Farther, Higher” is always the Goal
A coach-and-coachee team can thus employ such deliberately chosen communicative measures as an additional and valuable resource to guide the execution of movements and ideally enhance performance. “I coach, therefore I communicate” does not only refer to the immediate exchange of information between the coach and the athlete but includes in fact also a performative dimension. By means of deliberately chosen movement instructions during training and competitions, even the biomechanical execution of a movement that has been practiced hundreds or thousands of times can be honed – which ultimately is likely to lead to higher and highest performance or even a medal in the arena.