According to dictionary.com, a “cliché” is “a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse.” Anyone who has spent even a short time involved in sport, at any level, knows that the field of coaching is filled with clichés.

Coaching clichés are quotes that are usually attributable to nowhere…and everywhere. Some famous coach said it, or someone’s youth coach said it. In reality, both are probably true. Clichés often become common phrases for coaches to use. They help coaches to fill space in a rant, speech or feedback to their athletes. When coaches don’t know exactly how to phrase something, they often use a cliché. Why? Clichés tend to be pretty universal – everyone (sort of) knows their meaning. They’re usually succinct. And they’re usually easy. They’re definitely overused. And because of this, they often are ignored by athletes. Athletes hear the same thing over and over (“Give 110%!” – one of my personal favorites), and they eventually learn to tune them out.

Sure, some things that coaches say are not actually what they mean. They use clichés metaphorically – for example, “we need to give 110%” (coach means “play hard” because, obviously, this is physically impossible). Coaches say “let’s go out there and kill the other team” (again “play hard”, but perhaps also “want it so bad that perhaps you’d also consider committing a felony”, so maybe a bit stronger than just “play hard”). Or another cliché, “you have to want it as bad as you want to breathe” (meaning: “you need to be motivated and work hard, because that’s what it will take to succeed”, but not many of us can actually quantify “how bad we want to breathe”, especially since our body and brainstem do most of the work for us).

At the same time, a lot of coaching clichés are based in truth (at least partly). However, it takes some serious cognitive effort (read: “brainpower” and “concentration”) to actually discern what our coaches mean, and which ones are truthful and which ones are not. Frankly, I think many coaches aren’t actually sure which ones they mean or which ones they say for motivational purposes.

Many coaches and athletes forget that clichés are based in truth. Coaches throw them around in practices and games; athletes hear them so often that they often don’t listen. As I wrote in a previous post, coaches are notorious for using their speeches to meet their own needs – frustration, confusion – but may not always be thinking of the athlete’s needs when they speak. Clichés are a perfect example of this. Coaches use clichés to give advice or to motivate. Yet, athletes tune it out or don’t really listen to it, because they have heard them so many times before. And then the advice or motivational words fall on deaf ears.

For example, a common coaching cliché in basketball might be “forget about that missed layup (or insert your own sport’s mistake here)”. When this is said, the scenario is usually something like this: Athlete misses layup. Coach notices missed layup and athlete’s ensuing frustration. Coach says “forget about it”. Athlete (still thinking about missing the layup) responds to coach “Uh-huh.” Coach turns back to game, thinking that they have given good advice. Athlete turns back to game, still thinking about the missed layup, and not focusing on playing defense/running the play/stopping the fast break, etc.

Both the coach and the athlete made a mistake here, in relation to the cliché. The coach used the cliché, assuming that the athlete heard it and processed it (which the athlete did not). The athlete heard the coach saying some words, but did not actually listen to or process it, either because it was an overused response (see definition of cliché) or because they were too wrapped up in their own frustration to process it.

However, the coach telling the athlete to “forget about it” is GREAT advice, but easier said than done. And coaches may not even mean “forget about it” (after all, how can you forget about the fact that you just missed a wide open layup??). What the coach does mean is “Yeah, you missed that layup, but right now you’re playing defense and if you’re thinking about the layup, then you aren’t thinking about covering your player and he may score on you, which is doubly bad for you and for our team.”  The coach didn’t say that though, and the athlete may not have gotten it.

This advice also assumes that the athlete actually knows how to “forget about it”. However, many athletes do not. And many coaches don’t know how either. They also may not know how to teach their athletes to forget about it.

This is where sport psychology comes in. How does one “forget about it” after a mistake? Well, there are lots of options, including self-talk, imagery, cognitive restructuring, and utilizing deep breathing/relaxation for refocusing.  Usually, it’s not about forgetting, but moving on productively.  In Part 2, I will go through a number of common coaching clichés, while also providing some suggestions about how coaches can use them more effectively.

I am, by no means, advocating for the end of coaching clichés. I am advocating that coaches be more diligent in using them. In doing so, they will notice serious dividends in their athletes’ responses.

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