Beyond “Positivity” Part III: Coaching with Silence

Some coaches may think that when they’ve stopped instructing our athletes, they’ve stopped coaching. If you’re like me, silence on the field (or other sport setting) can feel unsettling. Resisting the urge to fill that quiet space is difficult. Coaches want to help athletes—to offer knowledge/experience that can assist athletes in reaching their goals. This feedback and encouragement can provide players with valuable information for developing physical skill, confidence, and motivation (Black & Weiss, 1992; Horn, 1985; Horn et al., 2010). We should be careful, however, not overlook potential benefits of using silence in our coaching. Silence can be a powerful tool for athlete development. Coaches who avoid constantly directing athletes can create space between the stimulus (e.g., game scenario or practice drill) and response (i.e., the athlete’s decision/action). In this space, coaches give players opportunities to actively engage in their own development. How might coaching with silence empower athletes, and what does this look like in practice? Consider two points on strategically using silence in coaching:

1) Silence can convey a coach’s belief in his/her athlete’s ability

2) Silence can shift responsibility to players to make decisions and solve problems.

Coaches who avoid delivering immediate instruction and create space for athletes to correct mistakes or solve problems can convey belief in their athlete’s ability. Recall from the previous post: constant instruction can indicate to athletes that their coach holds low expectations for them (Erickson & Côté, 2016; Horn et al., 2010). Allowing players time to respond to challenges and make adjustments (when competitive situations permit) can communicate a coach’s trust in his/her athletes—in their ability to respond to performance demands.

Coaches can intentionally present realistic situations for athletes to overcome in practice (Stuntz & Weiss, 2010). These optimal challenges importantly shift responsibility from coach to player, so that athletes learn to lead themselves (and their teammates) through adversity. In practice and games, coaches can also use breaks in play to ask open-ended questions that guide players to correct their own mistakes. For example, instead of delivering solutions up front (e.g., “Recover behind the defender!”), a guiding question that could help athletes arrive at the solution would be, “How could you recover in a better position?”. When coaches choose to step back and be silent, athletes can experience (and self-direct) their own “aha moments”. Silence is by no means a relinquishing of our duties; rather, coaches who integrate silence into the conversation can guide players to own their developmental process.

Silent treatment is not synonymous with the space that coaches create for athletes to take initiative. When coaches ignore players through passive aggressive expressions of disapproval for athletes’ actions or performance, such feedback may undermine the trust central to coach-athlete relationships. Especially when accompanied with the usual nonverbal cues (e.g., a disapproving sigh or nod), players may read silent treatment as a coach’s lack of belief in their ability. Such feedback can leave athletes feeling ashamed and likely to internalize their shortcomings, rather than ready to tackle challenges. Silent treatment may be particularly problematic with younger athletes for whom simple, concrete feedback is more developmentally appropriate and meaningful. While older youth athletes may accurately appraise silent treatment, more often such responses close lines of coach-athlete communication. Players are left to interpret a coach’s lack of attention on their own—perhaps differently from how a coach intends. Coaches who openly communicate can better ensure that youth athletes actually understand their expectations and instruction relevant to the task. Moreover, composed engagement in open communication and difficult conversations is a skill coaches should not just preach but model for youth athletes.

Working with players to understand where they are and help them envision where they could be is a great privilege (and responsibility) of coaching—especially when athletes can’t quite see their own potential. Over silent treatment, consider how silence might integrate into your coaching arsenal. When strategically used, silence can create space for athletes to tap into that potential and empower themselves.

2 thoughts on “Beyond “Positivity” Part III: Coaching with Silence

  1. Great post, Jill. I think, as a young coach, making yourself comfortable with silence is a really important learning process to go through. Often times I have struggled to do so, as it made me feel as though my players would think I didn’t have the answer. I often felt like in those moments maybe I truly didn’t have the answer. As if being silent and not providing them with the answers was not putting them in the best position to win. However, I have come to realize the power of those moments and the effects that letting your players navigate their way through certain elements of the game have down the road. These experiences, indeed, instill confidence and demonstrate the trust that coaches have in their players. It is hard to withhold information and to refrain from steering with your coaching joystick, but it shows a level of maturity as a coach that reflects positively on your players.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So true, Leigh! I’ve had the same experience as a young coach. In some cases, to be comfortable with silence is to comfortable with our own vulnerability. Players/parents/other stakeholders presume that the coach has all the answers, but we don’t always and we shouldn’t! What we should do is be willing to model how to navigate that vulnerability (i.e., with an openness to learn and grow) for our players. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts! Congrats on the awesome season!


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