5 Coach Sayings That Can Be Retired
Many popular leadership phrases are either untrue, unhelpful, or unsafe.
It is a core part of human evolution that stories are passed from one generation to the next in order to further our species.
In fact, as Lisa Feldman Barrett points out in 7.5 Lessons About The Brain, humanity has deferred much more of its development to storytelling than we previously thought.
Humans are born with the neurological capability for almost everything we’ll need in life, but those capabilities are only switched on and honed when our early caretakers show us what to pay attention to, how to act, and why. “We have a nature that requires nurture,” as she points out, suggesting we are an amalgamation of our genetics and how our primary carer teaches us to interact with the world.
This phenomenon also plays out in sport, where our coaches teach us what to pay attention to, how to act, and why. Often, unconsciously, we continue the chain of storytelling without much thought.
However, there is a glut of coach sayings that have gone unpruned and have slipped into the realm of being unhelpful (or worse) to our players.
Here are some coach sayings that we believe can be retired from the popular vernacular, and a psychological explanation of why they’re unhelpful:
1. “Unless you’re uncomfortable, you’re not growing.”
Aside from the fact that there are countless examples of where this is decidedly untrue (plant life grows without pain, for example), we also know that one of the main mechanisms of injury is pushing past your current capacity. Beyond that, we know that the best performers actually reach their peak not by focusing painstakingly on their weaknesses, but instead maximizing their strengths.
This isn’t to suggest that all discomfort should be avoided - quite the contrary. But, distorting that into the idea that growth isn’t possible without discomfort is a dangerously misleading path to take.
2. "We deserved more from that game."
This, and the counterpart theory that “the game doesn’t owe you anything,” not only creates a strange relationship with the game and performance, but lacks any degree of specificity so as to be meaningful or developmentally relevant to players.
What we’re left with is a sense of confusion about what exactly we are owed (or not), what contributed to that sense, what worked, what didn’t work, what we can learn, and what we can do differently next time (to name a few). That, and it’s quite literally impossible for the “game” to invest in a reciprocal relationship with you.
3. "How you do anything is how you do everything."
Doing everything the same is a very energy inefficient approach to tasks. As expertise improves, it should get easier for athletes to execute, which means they can redistribute those saved resources to something else (learning a new technique, for example). If everything is being done the same, this suggests that no learning is taking place (efficiency isn’t increasing) and that resources shouldn’t be reallocated.
This is also just a lie. Most people don’t apply themselves the same to brushing, flossing, and rinsing, let alone everything they do.
The goal shouldn’t be to do everything the same - the goal should be to dominate the things you care most about and that make you greatest at what you do, and to do that, we need to reinvest energetic resources from areas where we are not as invested.
4. "It will come down to who wants it most."
While we can appreciate the simplicity of distilling a competition down to pure effort, this simplicity ultimately ends up being a lie. Even if your team does want it most, there are always factors beyond the control of the team that influence the ultimate outcome.
Effort is an important determinant and something we’d like our players to attend to, but the best coaches balance an emphasis on effort and playing hard with honesty and what will truly be required to win. Players are smart enough to know that “who wants it most” won’t always get it done - they’ve heard this saying since they were kids, and have had plenty of experiences losing even when they wanted it most.
Over the long run, helping them build a more honest and accurate game model (e.g., way of understanding competition, factors that contribute to performance and winning, team’s strengths and weaknesses) will allow them to better adjust to the game as it unfolds, rather than focusing solely on just “wanting it” more.
5. "No-one cares. Work harder."
If your athletes know you don’t care about them, why would they want to perform for you? Humans are inherently relational beings - feeling connected to others and a larger purpose is a huge factor in our motivation. Severing that aspect of motivation by saying that “no one cares” not only undermines the athletes’ motivation and performance, it undermines their sense of connectedness to the team, and increases the likelihood your athlete will engage in self-protective, self-serving behavior… not exactly what we’re looking for, especially in team sports.
Work harder as feedback is far from substantive. If I am giving the best effort I can, but still making mistakes, how will “working harder” fix that? How does that help me improve as an athlete? Is the thing you are asking me to work harder at really an effort issue?
This tends to be a statement coaches make when they feel like they’ve done the work of teaching as well as they can, and the athlete can’t execute (along with “they can’t do it.”)
Are there other popular coach sayings that you could eliminate from your vocabulary? (The answer is yes - this list could’ve easily been 10).
What is a more human, more helpful way of saying what you really mean?