‘Coachspeak’: Reflections on Language

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As an (Irish) English teacher who coaches, I am intrigued by the language in sporting environments:

Yorker. Crooked feed. Swish. Panenka. A forty-five. SECONDS OUT. Box, Box. 1st and 10. Tomahawk. Deuce. Hook. Albatross.

speak the lingo? Name all the sports…HInt: No sport is used twice…

All sports have their idiosyncrasies that perplex the outsider. While not seeking to exclude, these new idioms can reinforce the creation of a unique identity.

While there are certain terms that will be considered ‘dogma’, others could be explored and reflected upon. As Brian Friel tells us in ‘Translations’:

“But remember that words are signals, counters. They are not immortal. And it can happen [that we become] imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of… fact.”

Hugh, Translations – Brian Friel

Are we “imprisoned” within the linguistic artifacts we inherited from our sport’s past? Do we need to change some to represent the sport we now play? As coaches, how do we use language? Are we ‘speaking in tongues’ or do we use terminology that connects with players?

Below are some of the ideas and questions I consider as a rugby coach before, during and after sessions; I hope some are useful for other sports too.

Planning for Interaction:

Very often we design sessions that focus on action. Perhaps we should consider – to borrow from Dr Ed Hall – planning for interaction too.

When we think what interactions may occur in terms of language, there comes a multitude of opportunities for us to consider:

  • Player to player; Player(s) to coach; Coach to coach(es); Coach(es) to player(s);

For example, what might you hear in an overloaded attack vs defense game? What words and phrases can you use? Here are some (coaching) verbals prompts:

Shadow – Support the space – Target – Push the Pass – Info – Where’s the space? – How do we score now?

Some of these will be clearer than others but more importantly they were expressions the group heard regularly and used freely. For example, ‘Shadow‘ is an abbreviation of ‘Get in their shadow‘ i.e. Stay close to the player who made a line-break.

Key Questions:

What key words and phrases will be helpful?

What technical areas can you draw your players’ attention towards? What terminology will work best?

Will the words resonate with the whole group? Who might need some support with your messages?


These three pillars will form the basis of ‘how’ you choose to interact with those around you in a session. It is hard to appreciate ‘what’ you say without reflecting on each carefully. A good way is to record yourself via audio or video. Chatting with Dr Anna Stodter, she learned a lot about how she thought she used questioning – until she videoed her session. If you do not have a Go-Pro, you can use your phone and headphones or get others to observe and record your session.

Key Questions:

How many questions do you use? Are these are open or closed in nature – why? What questions could prompt novel thinking for your players? Where and when in the session might your questions have most impact?

Do you always liaise with players through commands or orders? What instructions do you use as coaches to remind players of specific concepts? e.g. ‘Eyes!’ with a former team meant ‘Look around, something is on!’

Does your tone change? When and why? Will this be shaped by your emotions or expectations of what you want to happen?

Jargon: Clarify, Redefine and Ban

We all fall into the jargon-trap so easily. We listen to pundits on tv, podcasts and engage in pub-chat and we babble jargon from several orifices.

“I am a barbarian here because I am understood by no-one…”

Don’t be like Ovid (At least not in this instance)

Jargon is fine IF everyone knows what it means – then it stops being jargon. Redefine if necessary. Ban vacuous terms that simply confuse players. A good way to do this is play ‘Jargon-Bingo’ by choosing the worst examples. If anyone, coaches included, uses these terms, a forfeit ensues.

Key Questions:

What words and phrases do we use and what do they mean?

Why do we use these specific terms?

Does everyone know what they mean? Do they encapsulate who we are and what we are hoping to achieve?

Design your own ‘Vernacular’

Having remedied ‘Jargon’, you can start to explore the variety of language you can create as a team.

It is important that you co-create this vernacular with the wider group of players – not just conferring with your coaching or leadership groups. If you try to impose language on a group who do not understand ‘why’, they are likely to resist it. Ask them what calls work best for them. Consider what works and promote and celebrate those who use your language in training and matches.

Key Questions:

Why do we call those moves X or Y? Is there another way to express ourselves?

Let’s Get Figurative: Metaphor & analogy

This is an area that can help convey complex ideas in a succinct manner. For example: telling players to “Get your foot in the hula hoop” for foot placements in tackles; “Pinch the penny” for strong scaps in scrum position; “Aim for branches (not tree-trunks!)” when encouraging players to run at space/arms rather than bodies. Metaphors can aptly ‘paint a picture’ (see what I did there?) for players:

The work of Dr Nick Winkelman explores this in greater detail with the idea of ‘Cueing’ – I would strongly recommend.

Key Questions:

What metaphors do you use to break down technique or convey complex ideas?

Can players come up with analogies that work best for them?

What comes to mind for individuals when you use certain metaphors?

A ‘Masterly Use of Silence’: Say Nothing

Language is powerful and we should consider how to use it. We also must be aware how and when to not use it at all. There are plenty of opportunities for you to intervene but the question is: should you? By doing so, you may actually be depriving the players of self-correcting or amending: skills they need to hone for games.

Key Questions:

Where might silence work best in your session?

Can you challenge yourself to limit how many interventions you will indulge in?

Advice from Dr Ed Coughlan is to ‘Bite your lip”: If you notice something once or twice, could you leave it until it happens a third time before bringing everyone’s attention to it?

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