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Are coaches talking a different language?

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When you coach, do your players understand what you are talking about?
When you coach, do your players understand what you are talking about?


Coaches: Are you talking another language to the players you teach?
By NEAL BROOKER – Squash Mad Columnist


As a squash coach and personal trainer I spend all week teaching clients and players. I have realised, from teaching the same skill to a variety of people, that to be a good teacher you must to be able to have different ways to teach the same skill as everyone learns differently.

Learning styles vary and include: visual (sight), auditory (hearing) and kinaesthetic (feeling). So ultimately, as teachers and coaches we must understand this and communicate with our players effectively.

The term, ‘communication’ seems to have become a buzzword within learning environments recently, but I question how many of us coaches are actually communicating effectively?

It became apparent to me that I wasn’t communicating effectively with my players during a junior session I was running at Cheam Squash Club.

The session was aimed at intermediate juniors, aged 8-11. I had set-up a pairs feeding drill to work on the drop shot. One player was ‘hand feeding’ the ball into the front corner, for their partner to come in and play a drop shot off it. In this instance the ‘hitter’ was finding the drill too easy so I asked the ‘feeder’ to make the drill more challenging.

I used the following command: “Make the feed harder.” The feeder’s response was to the throw the ball more powerfully (harder), which in turn actually made the drill easier; therefore, it had the opposite effect from what I was originally seeking.

In this instance, I used a poorly thought-out command or a ‘throw-away command’ as I now call them. I simply assumed the player would be able to interpret my command of “Make the feed harder” and actually throw the feed ‘softer’ – which is what I wanted. On reflection, I should have demonstrated or described the qualities that I was searching for to make the feed more challenging for the ‘hitter’.

From this moment onwards, I have found myself watching other coaches and listening to the language they use. Have you used some of the following instructions?

Example 1: One -to-One Lesson / Group Coaching

“Don’t overcrowd the ball” or “Don’t get too close”

Essentially, with these commands we are trying to get our players to stay further away from the ball. However there is no positive instruction for a player to actually follow, so we are just hoping that they understand.

Alternative: “Reach out with your hitting arm as you make contact with the ball.”
Or, if you are hitting a succession of feeds, start using one-word commands like “Space” or simply “Wait”.  

It’s important to give the longer instructions before the feed, not during it, as you are like to disturb the player’s concentration as he or she moves to hit the ball. They have enough things to concentrate on without you adding to the list and possibly confusing them while they are in the middle of the task.

Example 2: Advice in between games during a match

“Too many cross courts,” or “There is no structure to your game.”

Both of these coaching cues, again, do not offer the player anything positive to take back onto court. So ultimately I would ask the question, was it worth even going to speak to your player? The alternative I have provided below is very simple, but gives the player a process to follow to take into the next game.

Alternative: “Hit straight and counter drop every short shot played by your opponent”

Neal Brooker in action against Mark Fuller at the Nationals
Neal Brooker in action against Mark Fuller at the Nationals

When I am coaching I search for words / phrases which particularly resonate with that player. I have found players tend to over-crowd the ball, so to work on correcting this I may use a command such as ‘reach’ or ‘extend elbow’.

By following these commands players will be forced into creating more space between themselves and the ball. 

Another nice command I use when teaching the volley is ‘punch’ or ‘snap’ as it offers a nice description of the short, compact volley swing. I also the like the sound of these words when they are said as they sound almost ‘explosive’, similar to the nature of the shot we are teaching.

When teaching players to ‘cut’ the ball and add ‘spin’ I use the word ‘grip’ in a phase such as ‘get the strings to grip down the back of the ball’. I place extra emphasis on the word ‘grip’ to get my player to grasp the feeling of the strings hugging the ball. 

In terms of teaching new skills or developing a player’s technique, so that it becomes instinctive, I have found particular success in asking them to perform the desired skill / action without the ball.

If a player cannot perform the desired skill without the ball, it doesn’t matter how clear your coaching points are, they will struggle to perform the skill once ball is added back in.

This is due to excessive stimuli in the environment, including: tracking a moving object, moving to the object, making a decision based on a variety of factors, and then executing the skill – not to mention potentially having an opponent on the other side of the court!

These factors all contribute to preventing the player from solely focusing on the skill, which is what we were aiming for. 

This approach is training the player’s central nervous system, which ultimately coordinates, and influences all bodily movements.

It will allow players to make certain bodily movements instinctive, which is what’s required when players enter match-play situations and coaches cannot have a direct influence on decision-making and skill execution.

I’m a firm believer that coaches should be developing players so that they can make independent decisions under pressure when in a match. Addressing a player’s central nervous system in practice will mean skills and processes becoming instinctive and habitual. 

I feel coaches could benefit from using shorthand commands with stationary practice to develop players who need to think, process and execute skills under pressure.

Conclusions: As coaches we are always going to make mistakes, but we can only rectify these mistakes if we are aware that we are making them!

Reflect on the language and commands you are using and ask yourself honestly if your players actually understand your instructions.

Keep Reflecting. Keep Improving. Keep Coaching.


Neal Brooker
Cheam Squash Club Head Coach
Twitter: @nealbrooker

BSc Sport Development
UKCC Level 2 Squash Coach
Diploma Personal Training



 Picture courtesy British National Championships

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  1. Surely ‘Communication’ is about keeping it simple, and not confusing the matter with jargon that creates the need for further explanation. It is wise to remember that every person being coached is a unique individual, and should be treated accordingly, there is no ‘one size fits all’ ! As with any other competitive activity, a coach or manager is judged solely on the success or improved standard of those under their wing. With Juniors, I’m convinced that demonstration rather than mere instruction is more effective, and repeated until the input becomes a habit. In order to maintain the interest of Juniors rapid improvement is essential, three times per week on court is the answer. Parents need to understand this, and that a ‘once a week group baby-sitting service’ achieves nothing, practice is most definitely the answer. More Juniors lose interest and walk away from the sport because they lack the feel-good factor of achievement, as they say ‘a taste of success is the greatest motivator’. My suggestion :- keep it simple, ‘show not blow’, get the parents interest and co-operation, reward improvement and success, and remember that the coach/player deal is a partnership, not just a licence to print money with a Coaching Certificate.

  2. Thanks for your reply Eric. I completely agree, good ‘communication’ is about limiting confusion and the need for further explanations.

    Your suggestion of repetition in practices is vital in motor skill development, particularly in junior players. What I would add to that is that is, the focus of the repetition should be on ‘Quality over Quantity’, in other words make sure what is being repeated is correct!

    I would agree the use demonstrations is a very powerful coaching tool, providing it is being applied to someone who is receptive to that style of sensory input.

    I wouldn’t say that rapid (its hard to define rapid as everyone learns at different rates) improvement is the only way to keep juniors enthused. Yes, progression is important, but making players feel: valued, respected and believed in can also drive someone to stay enthused in my opinion.

    Ultimately though, we are singing off the same hymn sheet. You are 100% correct, a coaching certificate is not a license to print money, it is an opportunity to promote our sport and encourage people to participate, enjoy and excel in it!

  3. “Motor skill development”, “Sensory input”, “Making players feel valued, respected and believed in”, “Singing off the same hymn sheet” ? Sorry, Neal, but jargon, buzz words, cliches, and power-talk quotes most probably hinder communication rather than help. I do blame the education system for introducing the most baffling and bewildering dialogue, which I consider to be supercilious and often counter-productive as the meaning is lost on many who will not ask what it means in simple terms. Success as a Coach can only be achieved by reflected success, taking players to their highest potential level, across the board and not merely those with natural talent. Any school teacher can achieve good results from the six pupils with an IQ of 140, their challenge and responsibility lies with the other twenty four pupils in the class, that’s what they are paid to do, but so much easier not to bother ! For a coach to introduce a gap in intellect is asking for trouble, it doesn’t work, and doesn’t deserve to work. Keep it simple, is my advice. I’ve had a 50 year career in Sales, and would not have survived in it had I not kept my dialogue simple, and in management I would freak out if my team did not follow suit.

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