Language In Coaching: How To Create And Use Terminology
This article will try to give some insight into creating a helpful terminology for coaching, mostly relating to the coach’s game model, utilizing basic insight about the game itself.
A specified terminology helps the coach to give their game model meaning for their players and a tool in the everyday coaching process – on and off the pitch. Hereby the article starts with some general information about language and its application in human life, in order to help build a more specific application of language for improving communication and thus, players.
The main point of this work is to connect Action Language and Football Theory together, so the coach can utilize terminology in his coaching process that is individualized without becoming abstract Concept Language but a clear and concise Dialect of Football Action Language. Not only should the ensuing terminology be based on the game of football, but it should relate to the coach’s interpretation of its fundamental principles and be relatable to practice. Whilst this article is obviously neither the finished product nor complete, it should still be able to give some useful advice regarding coherency and accuracy in coaching.
Language: What’s The Matter?
Language is an inherent part of our lives. It enables interpersonal communication through cognitive processes and constitutes an expression of information, as of our feelings and sensations. Thus, language is a tool to describe information, independent of the information itself. The main difference of language – compared to other means of sharing information – is the structure of it. In that regards language as such is created to be functional and describe phenomena relevant to the people. This functionality stems from a code that is agreed upon by its users to carry meaning through signs. These coded signs are mostly communicated through sounds in speech, writing or other nonverbally means like, for instance, gestures as in body language. Language, and consequently the language of football coaching, can be referred to as a connection between a sender and a receiver who communicate with each other through specified codes that carry meaning in form of speech, writing or other means.
In football and, especially in football coaching, language is very important to convey relevant information for the purpose of the game and of leading a group. Language is a very important tool to either improve or entertain the players. Coaches, but also clubs/academies often purposefully create a parallel language to utilize a different meaning or different codes in order to enhance this effect. The specificity of this language is also affected by such factors as actions related to training and competition, outcomes of such actions, prior understanding, cultural context and interpersonal relations.
On the other hand, football tends to sit in its own lexical circle of language because of this, a fundamental objective language is not clearly defined within football. Having a clear and defined language inside a football club leads to better communication and understanding, thus making everything simpler – in an ideal world. At times, especially in the public discourse, the lack of an objective football language underneath this introduced terminology can be harmful. Yet, this terminology and changed description of football actions can be very beneficial and is the norm, not the exception.
Why Does Language Matter?
In the end, coaching is about the transfer of knowledge. With more clarity in terms of understanding the coach and / or the game, the player should be able to transfer knowledge easier to his performance. Considering that communication is not just verbal, but – especially within the context of football – is derived from the interaction between the laws of the game and the means of the game (ball, player and opponent), is always contextual.
Also it shares a lot of relational information due to its physical nature and owns a non-verbal language of itself, so to say. Whereas non-verbal communication (like posture, mimic, gestures, etc.) in everyday life can differ in detail from culture to culture, football has a non-verbal communication that stems from the laws of the game and the possibilities of the means of the game themselves. So, the laws of the game create the context of our language, the physical nature of the game will make it always relational to the motorical output and the means of the game will always be the ones communicating and, thus, interacting, very often reciprocally.
Comparing this to the graphic above, we can change the task with the game, the perception/information as the one-way-equivalent of the two-way-process of communication/interaction (of information) and the action/movement is the relation to the physical performance or reality of the game. A very simple example could be the following: if a player lifts his head, looks far into a direction and then starts to extend his leg backwards a lot, he will probably hit a long ball towards this direction. In doing so, he transfers information non-verbally to every observer speaking this language, mainly the Opponents and Team Mates. In order to exclude the opponents from this language, a different language can be created within the team (for instance, using deception in the aforementioned situation or playing ‘blindly’ in pre-rehearsed patterns).
The basic idea is clear; language is a means of which to share information, Football is about making actions, the language used to describe actions varies from context to context, from coach to coach. Especially in science “Concept Language” has taken place – which is not necessarily a bad thing. Concept language is hereby used to describe words or constructs that bundle a lot of actions and interactions under a simple word, to transmit less detail and more fundamental aspects of information faster and easier, mainly under experts of a defined field. Action Language on the other hand is the language used to describe only relevant details in a clear, concise and objective way, transferring details without judgement often with a more direct purpose. In the end, Action Language only uses the most important information of a specified field and simple terms. An interesting and important quote comes from Terry Winograd, who mentioned a similar idea with Fernando Flores 1987 in Understanding Computers and Cognition:
The first is its focus on linguistic communication as the basis for understanding what occurs in information systems. Ultimately all information is communication: not an abstract system of bits and bytes but a means by which people interact.
The second principle is that language is action. Through their linguistic acts people effect change in the world. In imposing a language-action framework on information technology, we emphasize the action dimension over the more traditional dimension of information content.
Philosophical works like Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action or Wittgenstein’s famous quote in 1922 (“the limits of my language are the limits of my world”) add further detail and interesting perspectives to this idea. In football, the work of Jan W. Tamboer in Football Theory published by the WFA is creating an own distinct definition of Action Language or, rather, Football Language:
Football is a practical matter. It is all about making actions, doing, it is not about words, but rather about actions. For all that, there are very few activities worldwide, which are spoken and written about on a daily basis, more than football.(…) the game is the reason that on a daily basis many words are used to discuss the sport. All these words, both spoken and written, could be summed up under the heading of “football language”. However, from here on in, this term will have a more limited meaning.(…) Football language is spoken primarily and created by those directly involved.(…) That the football language is not at all uniform, consistent and clear in all cases, is illustrated almost weekly by various football analysts on television. Not rarely do they contradict themselves, use identical terms in ever-changing meanings, and make use of an inscrutable secret language. Often it seems that it hardly matters what exactly has been said.(…) That the leading top coaches not all speak the same language, is not in itself an issue. Their language can demonstrate a deliberate choice to communicate a particular viewpoint. Due to this, the coaches distinguish themselves from each other, and that creates not only clarity, but also keeps the discussion lively and meaningful. The use of very personal jargon or the repetition of the same view point, keeps the football language dynamic and amusing. However, not in all cases can the differences in language be attributed to a well thought thru choice for a particular view point. The language used is often not more than a colorful mix of words and concepts, which one has adapted more or less ‘naturally’, from other coaches and other professionals in the game, supplemented by knowledge that was gained during various coaching courses and from conversations with colleagues.(…) it is usually not easy to place the many scientific data and concepts in the already colorful mix of football language, which are available to him (or her). It is hard to recognize the forest through all the trees. Coherence and consistency within the football language is not possible without a certain theory, in which a vision of football is described. Such a theory can be referred to with the term of football theory. Football theory is not the same as the sum of scientific disciplines such as exercise physiology, biomechanics, and sport psychology or sport sociology. Football theory takes its starting point of reasoning in the football activity itself and attempts to put its key characteristics into words. It focuses on an analysis of the ‘fundamentals’, the logical structure of the game of football. After describing these ‘fundamentals’, the data from the aforementioned scientific disciplines can be judged on their value and meaning.
Later on Tamboer argues that coherency and consistency of these fundamentals is needed to make the information conveyed by this language transferable and shareable. This action theoretical vision shall carry meaning in relation to the context, which is the game of football in this case. So ideally, Action Language helps to create competent exchanges, between coach – coach, coach – player & coach – analyst, by forming objective actions rather than jargon and abstract forms.
Please note: Due to the nature of the game every information is contextual, relational and situational. Therefore every football action is by definition an interaction within a specific culture emerging in a very dynamic and complex game, yet the fairly simple word of football action will be used consistently in this and subsequent articles.
So … Why Do We Need Terminology Then?
In terms of a specific application, a different terminology can be used to improve players’ understanding or enhance execution (by, for instance, emotionalizing or sensitizing). Usually “terminology” refers to a specific domain and its language. Thus it can be compared to (or confused with, if you like) “concept language”. There should be a very important distinction made though. Ideally, terminology – at least in our use in this article for football practice purposes – should be based on action language, not opposing it. To speak metaphorically: Terminology is not a different, competing language to action language, but only a dialect of how to speak the football action language.
Why? Terminology helps with labeling, categorizing or summarizing of created concepts usually, whereas in football the domain is specified and all the labeling, categorizing or summarizing is based on a clearly defined objective language from the game and its actions itself. A very simple example where terminology may be useful is the transfer of a coach to a different club or even country. The identity of the club, the culture of the context and obviously the players will never be the same. A small change in terminology may help to sharpen or broaden the focus of the players when adapting to a stylistic change. Comparing the stereotypical British and Spanish styles of playing – even if nowadays mostly untrue, as most stereotypes are – could lead to an adaptation in coaching terminology when changing between leagues.
Pep Guardiola himself for instance spoke of a wholly different context at Bayern Munich – a team winning the Champions League the year prior with a fairly complete style – compared to his time at FC Barcelona and needing to teach them the base of his football language nearly from scratch.
The coach makes a clear distinction between the notions of ‘the core idea’, ‘language’ and ‘people’. For him, ‘the core idea’ is the essence of a team and its coach. More than a single concept, it is the synthesis between a particular belief system and the group’s stated mission. It can be summed up in a phrase often used in Pep’s playing days by Johan Cruyff, the man who has been like a father figure to him in the course of his career: ‘The idea is to dominate the ball.’‘Language’ is the way in which the core idea is expressed on the pitch and is the culmination of a training regime which uses a range of systems, exercises and moves to reinforce understanding and mastery of the basic concepts.And finally, ‘people’. The quality of the ideas and the complexity of the language are of no consequence if your players are reluctant students. Essential though it may be, it is not merely sheer talent that matters here. The player must also be completely open to learning the secrets of the language, to practise them and make improvements where necessary. They must have complete faith in this process. In Guardiola’s view these three concepts, the ‘core idea, ‘language’ and ‘people’ are fundamental parts of any playing model and can determine a coach’s chances of success or failure. (from Martí Perarnau’s fantastic book about Guardiola’s time at Bayern)
In La Masia the applied language (i.e. terminology) is totally different to the Red Bull Akademie in Liefering, for instance, as the interpretation of the football action principles has a different focus. Yet, terminology does not have to be systematically prepared, but – just like rules – can be introduced ad-hoc.
Yet, as aforementioned, terminology should still be based (at least mostly) on the game’s language with some connection to psychological terms in order to shape player’s execution towards this specific action. As such terminology should start from the football actions and its principles, relate to the means of the game in its formulation, be clear and concise (in order to be coachable with an ideally immediate effect), connect emotions through associations as directly as possible to the interpretation of the principles.
A possible way to create the terminology would be to define a game model based on the football actions, going through each component of position, moment, direction and speed within the reference points of the ideal and practical solution possibility. Utilizing insight from computational thinking, the three A’s can be quite helpful in doing so:
- Abstraction: Problem formulation;
- Automation: Solution expression;
- Analyses: Solution execution and evaluation.
Further categorization (transition phase or not, which zone on the pitch) and details (position-specific) can be employed here. In the end, it is only a question of amount and quality of information transfer.
How Does Terminology Relate To A Game Model?
In this article it was already mentioned that a defined game model based on the football actions could prove to be helpful in creating a properly worded terminology. The possible actions in football are hereby separated into winning the ball / protecting the ball, passing / intercepting passes, offering / blocking passing options or reducing opponent’s cover / covering team mate. For each of these four football actions there are principles in terms relating to their components of space/time on the pitch within the game. The interpretation about how to ideally apply these actions within these principles would be a good starting point in order to create a proper terminology – our “dialect” of the football language.
A very simple example should help in understanding this. For the action of “winning the ball” we would prefer doing so very high on the pitch (position), do it very early (moment), blocking a passing option simultaneously and going very fast at the opponent (direction and speed). If we want to give our players a terminology that follows this, we could deduce for our ideal behavior the following words, applied when we feel it might be important to correct or sensitize them:
Possibly, we would not only focus on our ideal behavior but also which mistakes can happen if we try to do our optimal action but fail – for instance, starting too high and open a pass into our back (position), starting too early (moment) and not forcing the opponent to pass where we want him, going to directly and not isolating the opponent from a team mate (direction) or sprinting so fast at the opponent that we are easily dribbled past (speed). Therefore we can either add another positive wording or use corrective, negatively formulated action in order to give our players a solution space where they can find the solution on their own based on the emerging situation:
Moment: “don’t speculate”
Direction: “don’t rush”
Speed: “don’t topple”
This is just one possible example. Depending on the context (age of players, culture, game model) a different terminology might be more useful. To stay within this scenario: If we want to press deeper, a wording like “hunt” would not be necessary. If we do not want to press the opposing center backs, but want to win the ball behind our center forwards, we could create an additional terminology specifically for the players upfront. In the end, there are two main points: The game model has to be defined properly and using action language, whilst the terminology has to be based on this definition. In order to do so, the use of this terminology has to be consistent; if we correct mistakes wrongly or use different, unclear wording imprecisely for the actions, there will be confusion which will decelerate or worsen the learning/teaching process.
For a similar perspective and perhaps more readable or understandable explanation of it read this article about miscommunication by fcevolution’s and WFA’s Raymond Verheijen.
Most of these sections so far have been written by RM.
Some Research And Examples Behind The Power of Words
Language is perhaps the most important ingredient in coach-player interactions (Flaherty, 2005; Sieler, 2014). Yet, the extent to which coaching can change a player’s internal and spoken language, the role of language as an “individual change agent” and its role in coaching success seems to have largely escaped scientific examination by researchers. On one hand, language infiltrates most domains of human reality (Heidegger, trans. 1986) and on the other, positive change in the domains of a players behaviour, thinking and being, is probably the ultimate goal of coaching itself (Grant & Cavanagh, 2011; Stout-Rostron, 2012). Gessnitzer, Schulte and Kauffeld (2016), showed how some coach linguistic behaviours enhanced self-efficacy, and other studies included some of the ways in which language could be used to bring about a change whilst coaching (Drake, 2014; Kibby, 2007; Sammut, 2014; Sieler 2011; Smith, 2008; Stojnov, Džinovi, Pavlovi, & Frances, 2011). In a way, coaching could thus be separated into coaching on and coaching off the pitch while leadership is the balance between improving and entertaining the led team. Language is the main transmitter for both actions in both distinctions.
Dictionary definitions state that language is “the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way”. But many language scholars now agree with Chomsky (2017, p. 298) that language evolved for interpretation and thought in a way that is uniquely human and should be seen as “meaning with sound”. Central to this understanding is the idea of language as an interpretive act, constituting meaning, not only describing it (Wittgenstein, trans. 1986).
It is here we must highlight the importance of wording in coaching, one example I (GJ) will use is the term; “opening up”. In terms of absolute clarity, in a “footballing” context, opening up could be taken as the method of the player to move into a position, to receive the ball whilst focusing on their body shape. In another context, the use of the term opening up, maybe on an emotional level, asking an athlete to show their feelings to the coach or a player. One area that I often see the importance of wording neglected is that of rule-construction in coaching. My (RM) favorite example is “to push-up”: Say it to your center back and he might join the midfield or forward line, say it to your forward and he might start to press higher / earlier, say it to your chubby assistant manager and he might feel insulted.
For example, imagine a session with three zones and the coach constructs a rule of “you must move the ball between two of the three zones before you can score”. For the players, if the coach has not clearly defined what the word “move” means in this rule it can be confusing, as move could be interpreted as either a pass from one zone to another, or a dribble across zones. Whilst it is fine to use the word “move” in this context, the coach should understand that “move” can encompass both dribbles and passes, the ambiguity of move in this context allows the players to construct their own solutions to the rule, it is here we can highlight the importance of wording as the practice will look very different if the rule is “move”, “pass” or “dribble”. All changes in the design of a practice will usually impact perception, decision making and, at the end, execution of the football actions.
As mentioned in our previous piece about how (not) to constrain your principles in coaching, we advised the use of questions and rules that allow players to find their own solutions and not close off too many solutions with our own coaching. Highlight certain principles within session design but ideally without compromising behavior in other phases of the game & never compromise a principle for another. In terms of wording, we should also be wary about the impact our wording and its intentions might have. Every coaching, in whatever form, is a communication that will influence not only perception, decision making and the consequential execution, but also motivation, emotion and the consequential response.
So, not only should our coaching actions focus on improve protecting and passing the ball, giving a passing option or reducing the oppositional cover (and its space-time components), but also think about each part of this football action (perception, decision making and technique) and the person executing it – as in, how this person is motivated, feeling and responding to the demands of the context. Our words should not only be chosen based on the general terminological agreement of our game model, but also situationally on the coachee:
Which motivations does the player have? In the end, if you use Murray’s theory of needs or Alderfer’s ERG theory does not matter as much, because from a basic point of view people will do something for themselves, for someone else, competing with others or because of idealistic reasons – and this should be remembered in personal interactions. These motivations are, mostly, consistent and not changed to a single incident but impact most situations we face in coach-player-interactions.
Which emotions does the player experience? Ekman’s theory of emotions incl. the facial-expression research is often taken as a starting point, but the amount and type of activation or deactivation (positive/negative) can be already enough to have a clue which type of coaching might be necessary in a given situation; as emotions are mostly changing and highly interactional.
The response happening at the end is a communicative action that will lead to a new situation in our coach-player-relationship but also in terms of the players’ knowledge and skill acquisition. Theories on cognitive change and response modulation from emotion regulation research can be helpful in this regard.
The nature of coaching could be described as an inexact science, it is imperative to understand that coaching is an interpersonal process, (e.g. Abraham & Collins, 1998; Strean, 1998; Lyle, 1999), using action-language can go a long way to help improve understanding between the coach and the footballer, helping to clear up and remove ambiguity from this complex and dynamic relationship. Remember that any form of communication (not only verbal) focuses on an action of some description and therefore cannot function without context. In our case this context is the work with the player; the process of training and coaching.
Applying Wording To Coaching
Coaching is a process happening within training, ideally with the training design supporting our possible use of coaching. At the end, the structure of the game and its actions is identical to the football training: We are creating a situation (our communication with/to the players), the players experience this training and, ideally, improve on their (re-)actions.
Through preparation before the training (for instance, video analysis or thorough explanations of the drill and its targets), coaching during the training (by using our coaching terminology, correcting mistakes, giving feedback, but the training design in general) or reflecting after the training (by themselves or with one of the staff) this improvement can be created. Our feedback can be categorized in a simple 2×2 grid with reinforcing or not reinforcing something and doing so with positive or negative wording.
Consequently, optimized practice football coaching could look like below:
- 1. The coach defines and outlines rules and guidelines for the players within their game model.
- 2. A detailed description of the tasks is then made using action language.
- 3. The coaching is then about improving the technical and tactical understanding of the players within these guidelines with the focus on executing the defined football actions more often throughout the entire game.
It should be noted that this article lacks a more detailed explanation of some concepts explored and analyzed to give a more objective picture regarding not just football theory, but also football practice incl. aspects of motivation, emotion, response and principles of training. These might be explored in a future article more thoroughly, some basic information has been already shared or introduced in here.
This process of communication is very important as we are coaching players not only on, but also off the pitch. A more conceptual language can lead to a simpler process in other departments but within the coaching of players, action language should be preferred. Ideally, this can evolve two different ways:
1. An objective language that derives from the game itself and stems from very simple language based on the football actions and thus becoming an “interactional language” where there can be no misconceptions and each action being tied to the actions of the other players on the pitch.
2. Create your own terminology and teach it to the players, where you can assign useful keywords to actions, ideally associated with the preferred volition or emotion to enhance the process of creating a playing style or even a team identity.
It’s important to remember that both approaches are valid and understandable, there is no “silver bullet” and we must ensure we select the most appropriate method for both our players and the wider context. A rule of thumb to implement here could be, when defining terms for group understanding of the game model, use verbs rather than adjectives, adjectives can then be used later to embellish once a shared understanding between the coach and players has been created.
With the help of well-designed training forms, coaches can encourage their players to develop game understanding and tactical consciousness by reﬂecting on games, through self-reflection, peer to peer reflection and group discussion. Coaches should be asking questions relating to “what” (which football action), “who” (which football action done by whom), “where” (position, direction), “when” (moment, speed) and “why” (perception and decision making as facets of game insight), and not just “how” (execution), to deepen the level of their players’ reflections.
When relating language to practice, it’s worthwhile to consider learning theory and the impact effective communication can have alongside session design. Bruner (1961) for example, would argue learning (in a sporting context) occurs best through engagement with modified games or game-like activities with the players discovering or constructing essential information for themselves. This learning takes place as a process of adaptation at a nonconscious level to form a basis. We as coaches can then guide learning experiences to consciousness through language (explicit coaching).
This means the marrying of “getting the game right” (through effective design) and supporting the game with direct instructions/explicit coaching (through effective language) are both perhaps necessary to form conscious learning, language enables the coach to orient the players conceptual construction thus making certain outcomes potentially more likely. Learning is not only “mastering” a domain but learning how to solve problems within action via reflective practice – hence the reason why problems tend to look simpler when we reflect on them once solved.
An aside at this point Light and Fawns (2003) believe “that games can be taught as a form of conversation in which the mind, expressed in speech, and the body, expressed in action, embody the ideal holistic learning experience that simultaneously provides for cognitive, affective, social, and physical learning.” Again relating back to the point made earlier that language is not always linguistic, important for coaches to reflect on, what are your players telling you through non-verbal communication of their football actions within training and games?
Taking the above and embedding it into practice, football sessions should intend to have as many aspects of the game of football afforded as possible, with as few as needed per session. These aspects should all be able to influence each other to create a “complex” learning environment, the players should have to make decisions between their actions and follow-up actions whilst in training.
The session should not try to completely replicate itself – every identical repetition only teaches you what you have already done, and in a complex game like football; how often does a situation present itself in the exact same context? This is akin to driving a car over the same stretch of road over and over again to learn to drive, will you get better at driving or better at driving that specific part of the road?
Always creating the same situation allows the player to focus on the aspect of “trying”. Differential learning and differential repetition allows the football player to focus on the error as the “trying” is presented in a different context each time. There are times when players may need to become good at driving over a specific part of the road, and that should not be disputed, but this probably shouldn’t be happening the majority of the time in training. The best way to describe this is, it’s not a process of repeating “the” solution, rather a process of repeating the process to find a solution.
Implicit learning (in this case, through the session and it’s design) gives way to learning information in an incidental manner, this kind of information is often complex and unexplainable, it’s maybe worthwhile to note how “The unconscious mind is a terrific solver of complex problems when the conscious mind is busy elsewhere”. It’s important at this stage that coaches should be aware that errors can be considered “good” as they lead to (some kind of) learning & that ideal technique does not exist in football (technique is functional, situation-dependent, infinitely variable and highly individual), football is not gymnastics, you are not graded on how well you have executed a football action, errors will happen and coaches should be prepared for that in their planning. Yet, we will neither teach the players anything nor will they learn as well as they could, if there is no reference.
In a spectrum of an organized training process, we would have street football on one side, a class room on the other. Neither are optimal, yet how much we shift into which direction depends on the context / situation. Players neither learn optimally without coaching, nor do they without playing. And the players will also not improve if they are doing all the decisions alone, nor will they if the coaches take over all their decisions.
Incorporating these principles into your sessions allows the footballer to find the best possible personal solution for different situations and for their own biomechanical and cognitive structure. The easiest way to include all of the above into coaching practice is through the use of games, whilst remembering the best possible learning environment is the combination of cleverly designed game & action language to coach explicitly the correct situation. Finally, remember to talk with your players, ask for, give and take feedback. Ask questions of them and use them to suggest the best solutions to the problems generated in training and games – after all we design everything to help the players.
“The most we can hope for is to create the best possible conditions for success, then let go of the outcome.” – Phil Jackson
Most of these latter sections have been written by GJ.
Now What’s The Point?
Starting from some basic input about Language moving to general and specific application of it this article has tried to relate terminology – i.e. the categorization and description within a specified group, perhaps the team or a whole club – to the game of football and its principles. The goal was to offer a possibility to connect the Action Language approach which takes the game as starting point with an applicable wording for coaching purposes of an individual game model.
As many teams, clubs and federations have sought to create a terminology for its players and coaches over the years, the football world (practitioners and theorists inside and outside of the game) has created a lot of unclear wording and concept language over the years – incl. our own site, very often not beneficial. Based on this reflection we tried to share a possible improvement; not only in terms of football theory and wording, but also its relation to practice (game model creation and coaching) from a perspective that does not try to define an output, but to support the possible process of input for the coaches.