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Four Words and Phrases a Coach should Never Say to an Athlete

Do or do not, there is no try

Master Yoda

Coach standing by trampoline
Coach Alexandra looking onto the trampoline

Let’s think of this post an extension to all the tools we have available as coaches. Whether we are coaching trampoline classes or instructing someone in the wonderful science of physics, we need to be mindful of the language we use to pass this knowledge to our pupils. There is, in fact, no other tool available to humans to measure and deliver knowledge, and to access other peoples’ mental and emotional states. Think about the challenge of teaching a particular skill without being able to utter a word. But before we proceed to gracefully attempt to eliminate several words and phrases from our lexicon, we should remember that language is much more than the words we use to declare statements. Body language and other aspects of a person’s communication vastly affect the meaning of the things we say, and at times the entire outcome of an interaction.

If language has such a profound impact on our behaviour, should we, as coaches (of performance) be fully aware of what we say to our students?


I have included four of the most damaging words and phrases I have encountered throughout my coaching and business career. For each one of them I explain why they are harmful and provide substitutions that have worked for me and others whom I have helped to become instructors in different disciplines.

1: TRY

Of all the dirty words in the English language, this seemingly caring and harmless way to ask a student to attempt something new is the most cringe-worthy. It is fraught-full of contempt and disrespect for the person receiving the request; it is vague and devoid of personal responsibility – it simply implies the possibility of failure – it shows no confidence in our students’ ability.

Inherent in Master Yoda’s exclamation is the profound knowledge that one cannot simply try to be successful; one must DO what it takes to get there.

Likely borne out of an attempt to be politically correct, or to perpetuate the illusions of fairness throughout all aspects of culture, the phrases “try your best” or “As long as you try”, have been allowing members of our society, and sadly mostly our youth, to contemplate failure as a viable outcome of effort, and to celebrate mediocrity as the same.

Instead of saying “try this” when asking a person to do something for the first time coaches should always request that their athletes attempt it, always keeping in mind that having done something more than once disqualifies the person from attempting it again, and makes clear the responsibility to get it done. Our students must always receive the request to do their work, to get things done, making it also clear to them that their coach is confident that they can. As a business consultant I have personally refused to work with individuals who use this dirty word too often.

2: DON’T

The most hindering command to performance as it triggers several mechanisms in the mind of the listener that make it extremely difficult, and sometimes impossible, for the person receiving it to comply with it. This little gem of transformational grammar is directly responsible for triggering the Ironic Process of Mental Control that Dr. Dan Wagner identified and proposed in the early nineteen-sixties. Wagner explains that processes that undermine intentional control of mental states are inherent in the very exercises of such control.

The best way to test this is by asking yourself or someone else NOT to think of something. The most cited example includes a black cat – don’t think of a black cat! If you didn’t, after reading that last sentence, well…The principle is that our minds need to construct an idea before we can negate it. If we are constantly telling our student not to bend their legs, or not to move from the center of the trampoline, we are adding unnecessary mental stress to brains that are already thwarted by an inherent inability to think clearly due to other natural processes. This word and any similar commands are responsible for delaying the onset of progress, and may at times produce diametrically opposite results to what is desired. Instead, all requests should be made positively, we should ask our students to do exactly what we want them to do, in fact, and all commands should be given in their simplest form with elaboration/clarification provided only if required.


Let me preface this part by agreeing that the word “better” is in and of itself benign and can be very helpful in motivating performance when used in a very limited context. This context can only refer to progress that has already been achieved by the athlete or student. We can congratulate an athlete by acknowledging that they did their skills better, or that their jumps were better than before. We should not simply tell an athlete that they must do a particular skill better. This is open-ended and leaves too much room for interpretation of what constitutes a “better” skill.

Without technical advice this word is far too subjective to mean anything practical to the person in training. I propose that “different” is a much better word to use if a coach needs to use a term to imply changes in performance. When we ask someone, in any field, to do things differently we set up the cognitive expectation of direction and advice. If I am asked to do something differently, then it follows that I must be told how. Using this will engage the student in actively seeking the advice of the coach. I maintain that coaches should be volunteering a great amount of technical advice from the offset of the coach-athlete relationship, yet, too many are simply dispensing commands to improve without offering a method to achieve this outcome.

4: CAN’T

And last, but as they say, not least; the proverbial insult to all performance disciplines and to progress in general. This isn’t new to our society, and our norms of education and success; however, after its vehement denouncements became nothing more than simple platitudes, people are still throwing it around like the harmless and efficient contraction that it seems to be. And if that run-on sentence didn’t confuse you, you may have a better grasp on language than most. We know that can’t is a dirty word when said by someone wanting to learn to perform, but we seem to ignore it as such when employed by those in positions of instruction. As teachers we should never tell our pupils that they can’t do something. This word implies that a limit has been reached, that the student has arrived at an obstacle that they are incapable of overcoming, and because of a coach’s place of authority in the student’s life it may solidify this limitation as truth – the repercussions of which may be disastrous.

If a student insists on performing a particular task that they are not ready to attempt, then coach should be able to redirect the student’s intentions without reference to their physical prowess; instead other reasons should be offered for working on other aspects of training. It is much more efficient to simply direct the student to the more important task with direct commands and simple statements.

These words are by no means the only linguistic mistakes we make as social people, but they have the most negative impact on performance of any type. I will submit that lessening their use will improve more than [your] coaching results – it will make you a better communicator in general.

By Coach Jose (A.K.A. Peyton Dracco), for Pulsars Gymnastics

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