Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

05.25.16“We spend hours, sometimes, thinking about our words”

Driggs: “We spend hours, sometimes, thinking about our words.”

Last week I posted a very short clip of a famous soccer/football coach, Dick Bate, running a training session. In it you can see that he has carefully planned the words he will use to describe the concept he is teaching.  And he uses those words every time.  Because he has planned the phrase to go with the skill he can:

  • Remind players in training how to execute as the situation in which they will execute it is about to occur, thus increasing the likelihood of their encoding success.
  • Remind players at future training sessions or activities how to execute the skill and activate their prior learning simply and easily.
  • Potentially remind players how to execute during the game. This is critical because perhaps the most overlooked fact of sports coaching–possibly any kind of coaching–is that you can’t teach players new things during the game. All you can do is remind them of what you taught during the training.  Trying to “talk to them” or “explain to to them” while they are playing is likely to reduce performance and unlikely to result in sound execution.  But if you have a code, a phrase, that reminds them of what they’ve learned… then you can activate training knowledge during the game.


You use the phrase “get out and get down” consistently to describe what you do to close on offensive players.  You use it over and over in training.  Then in the game you can remind players “get out and get down” or just “out and down” and they can draw on their training.  Anything more complex than that is probably counter -productive.

Thus it was not surprising to get a note about the topic from a colleague, Jim Driggs, a basketball coach who’s worked as a head and assistant coach at several collegiate programs and is currently at RPI.  What he wrote is fascinating. The italics are mine:

It’s a critical piece of coaching. The best coaches that I’ve been around created a shared language that was instrumental in teaching. Those phrases or words stick with players and coaching staff. We spend hours, sometimes, thinking about our words.  If you haven’t planned the words/language then what you actually do in a session will be diminished.

Perfectly put. And I think he’s right that the value of a perfect phrase warrants hours of reflection to get it just right.  After all, if it’s good you’ll have it and use it for a long long time.

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