5 Things a Coach Should Never Say
As a long-time football coach, I am 100% maniacal about the words and phrases we use when coaching our kids. I have spoken to coaches all over the country about how we must choose our words and phrases wisely. Nearly everyone who has played a competitive sport can remember a word or a phrase a coach has said to us. We talk to our kids all the time and sometimes we say things our kids will never forget.
I remember talking to a coaching friend of mine several years ago after he attended a homecoming reception with one of his former teams. He told me kids remembered specific comments and conversations he had had with them twenty to twenty-five years ago. As a coach, you deal with an issue or a young player and then go on to the next one. It is part of what we do. However, these words can be a huge influence on our players for both good or bad for many years. We should never take these conversations for granted and understand our players are susceptible for better or worse just by words we use. For example, if you told our team of 99 young men they were pregnant, over half of them would be swollen up by the next morning.
Below are 5 things a coach should never say:
1. Don’t Fumble! I have never coached a player who wanted to fumble. It is sometimes a bit funny when we hear a coach (hopefully, an opponent) say, “Don’t fumble.” We don’t want to be Captain Coach Obvious. We teach our kids how to hang on to the football. The most uninformed fan in the stands can say, “Don’t fumble.” We are coaches, so instruct them how to do things correctly. “High and tight, two hands on the ball, 5 points of pressure”—these are positive phrases that teach our kids what to do.
2. Good job! This generation of kids is the most praised generation in history. They have been given trophies for finishing 8th out of 8. They have heard “good job” their entire lives even when it wasn’t such a good job. When a lineman makes a great block, we praise him specifically and call him by name: “Johnny, that was great pad level and a great slide step you made on that zone block.” Being as specific as possible makes it more effective than just saying “good job.”
3. You are really fast! We focus our praise on their effort and attitude, not their talent. They are born with talent. They didn’t work for their talent. As coaches, we need to be completely focused on what our players are doing with the talents, skills, and abilities they have. As Dabo Swinney, the head football coach at Clemson says, “Best is the Standard.” As coaches, especially high school, junior high, or youth coaches, our job is to get the best out of the players we have available. We want to make sure each one of our players are doing the best they can on a daily basis.
4. He’s a loser! Nothing turns my stomach more than hearing a coach describe one of his players as a loser. The “loser” tag is permanent. It is without hope, without purpose, without redemption. This word is banned from our locker room, our coaches’ offices, and anywhere around our football program. If our coaches are ever tempted to describe one of our players as a L _ _ _ _, they must replace that word with “potential winner.” Potential winner helps us to focus on the fact we are dealing with young people. Some of our “people” have a long way to go. Helping all of our kids is what we are trying to do, including the ones close to “there” already and those that are miles and miles away.
5. He can’t do it! The “C” word in this phrase is another one we have banned from the program. Like the “L” word, “can’t” is unchangeable. Most of our kids will never run a 4.5 forty-yard dash. It doesn’t mean we will not expect our 4.8 guy to cover their 4.5 guy on a post route. Coaching is about helping our kids do things they couldn’t do on their own. The better phrase to use is “at this time, Johnny is not able to run a 4.5.” It is amazing how differently we see our jobs when we use the right language and phrases in our everyday vocabulary. I have sat in hundreds of coaches’ meetings over the years and felt frustration, desperation, and hopelessness listening to coaches talk about how our players C _ _’ _ do this or that. Be realistic while knowing we are dealt a hand of cards. Sometimes the cards might be good and sometimes they are bad. Our kids deserve for us to play our cards the best we can under the circumstances.
These five statements sound and feel like real coaching. If I yell at a kid, “don’t fumble” or “catch the ball,” no one in the stands is going to question if I am coaching. Yelling unspecific or obvious things doesn’t help the player, but it can make us feel like we are teaching. The same is true in parenting and leadership. There are times we are saying things not to help those we are leading, but to give us the feeling we are actually doing something. Consider this: is yelling at your kids to “go to sleep” helpful? It sounds and feels like parenting, but is it actually leading to any solution? Human nature is such when we say “don’t fumble,” the only word our player hears is “fumble”. The old proverb says words bring either life or death. Consider the phrases you are using in your leadership and ask: Is what I’m telling them specific, actionable, under their control, and possible? If the answer to any of these is no, find a different phrase, a different approach, a different solution, or simply be quiet.
This blog is dedicated to the memory of the late, great, Mrs. K_ _ _ _ _ _, my 7th grade reading teacher, who told me over 50 years ago she would be surprised if I wasn’t in prison by the time I was 30. Thank you for those encouraging words, Mrs. K; I haven’t forgotten.