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Are you having a laugh? Coaches can be on to a winner with a good sense of humour

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Jurgen Klopp

It is important to have a bit of banter with your participants, as the rewards of creating a fun and entertaining environment are significant. But knowing when to establish a playful mood and when to can the laughter is a constant balancing act. Following a few simple guidelines will ensure the smiles don’t turn into scowls.

  • An injection of humour can defuse tension and optimise performance.
  • It can help you build a good rapport with your participants.
  • This can make them eager to please, more relaxed, and easier to keep focused, increasing participants’ speed of learning.
  • Adding more laughs to your sessions can increase fun, camaraderie and a sense of social belonging.

Jürgen Klopp’s facial expressions bear an uncanny resemblance to cartoon character Wallace, the Wensleydale cheese-loving inventor who lives with his trusty canine companion Gromit.

His wide sunny smile, with both sets of gnashers on perpetual parade, is his trademark look and provides a clear clue to his fun-loving personality.

The twinkle in his eye just confirms it. Klopp (pictured above) has a great sense of humour. You can have a laugh and a joke with him.

And don’t worry about comparing him to a comedy clay figure, because that’s OK, it’s absolutely fine; he will see the funny side and laugh it off in his own inimitable way.

Now, if you attempted to caricature Crystal Palace boss Alan Pardew, well, that would definitely not be OK.

Any jocular motive may end up smacking of ridicule and be destined to fall as flat as a bellyflop. He would likely accuse you of laughing at him, rather than with him.

Because the public persona Pardew has built for himself during years of interacting with the media is far more abrasive.

The moral of the story: Humour is a balancing act. Handle with care.

What one person may find funny, another might find offensive. There is a fine line between humour being inclusive and divisive.

‘Read the person, not the player’

As a coach, injecting humour into your sessions can have very different consequences, depending on when you choose to joke around (the secret of good comedy, after all, is… timing) and who you direct your banter at.

Football coach Gary Fowlerhits the nail on the head in a previous ConnectedCoaches post when he says: ‘I think a coach’s ability to use humour productively is a direct reflection of their ability to read the person rather than the player.

‘Just as players react to different motivations and interactions, people respond and react to humour in different ways.

‘An example. I knew (one participant) was a bit of a character and could give it out. Handing out bibs, I gave her an orange one, commenting that it would match her hair, which she and her classmates laughed at. But to make it better, she quickly asked did I have any grey bibs for myself! Her sharp wit coupled with me knowing her personality allowed me to quickly form a good rapport with her class, leading to a great session.’

Gary appreciated that, had he targeted a less confident individual, the exchange could have come across very differently. As it was, the girl’s self-esteem was not damaged by being singled out; it was, in fact, boosted.

I asked him for some more sense of humour success stories.

He told me that, when coaching in schools, he will typically stop the game if the children play act or dive like footballers on television, taking one of two approaches:

‘I stop and get all the classmates up to the window and ask: “Can you see him?” “See who?” they reply? “The sniper that took out Jonny?” The point is made and we crack on.

‘Or I do an Oscar-style speech on behalf of my colleague who can’t be here today after a terrible injury – getting the classmates to play violins etc. We laugh and move on.’

And were there any times when an attempt at humour fell as flat as a punctured football?

‘Do you remember years ago there was the video of elephants kicking around a huge beach ball? One baby elephant knocks the ball flying and the other stumbles over the ball and falls? In my teams this became the phrase for a bad touch: “You’ve got a touch like a baby elephant”. A funny way to make a point which everyone laughed at.

‘I had a lapse one day as I was coaching my girls’ high school team and used the phrase to a child who was slightly overweight, which didn’t go down too well. It was insensitive but down to inexperience on my part as a younger coach. It was a good way to learn though and ensure humour isn’t just randomly spouted but thought through.’

Comic relief

There are huge rewards to be had by having a sense of humour as a coach.

Playfulness is infectious and, exercised at the correct moments, can, as Gary found, help you build a rapport with your group.

The more they feel relaxed in your presence, the more they will be likely to listen to instruction, and the more they will be eager to please.

Of course, there is a time to be serious and to knuckle down, but even Shakespearean tragedies contained comic relief as a means of taking the edge off building tension.

A humorous interlude to break the monotony of a particularly technical session or repetitive sequence of drills will ensure the all-important element of fun is not stripped out of proceedings.

‘If you don’t make it fun for the kids, you might as well stop right now, because the kids lose interest so quickly,’ says Rachel Whyatt

‘You really need to show your human side instead of a drill sergeant. In any case, I want to have fun too!’

And Danny Newcombe agrees that humour is essential for keeping ‘our enjoyment and love for the game’.

He adds in the conversation thread on the importance of a sense of humour in coaching: ‘I find that self-deprecating humour is a very useful tool for removing the “role” barriers between the coach and athlete – although it does open you up to plenty of banter once the players feel like they have the green light! 

‘The balance will depend on the personality of the coach and the context in which they are working, which is the tricky bit.’

Remember when former Hull City and Fulham midfielder Jimmy Bullard appeared on I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!?

He was the strong favourite to win because of his vivacious, playful personality and reputation as a bit of a joker.

But his jungle life was cut short when he completely overstepped the mark with his level of ‘dressing room banter’.

His exchanges with former X Factor contestant Jake Quickenden were difficult to watch. They were, apparently, all in the name of banter, but came across as rude and aggressive. He totally misread the situation through a lack of self-awareness.

The art, as a coach, is to understand the subtleties of humour. When the joke is over, move on and refocus. Failure to do so with younger children will mean things quickly get out of hand as they struggle to contain their enthusiasm.

Funny business

Humour can both enhance your authority as a coach and help you get closer to your players, a fact emphasised in the Sports Coach UK research document ‘Balancing the Use of Humour in Coaching’ that John McIlroy posted on ConnectedCoaches.

‘By allowing certain people to be humorous, including themselves, coaches were able to set clear hierarchies within the group. In situations requiring intense focus, like just before a game, the coaches would portray a more serious image to enhance their authority.

‘When in more relaxed situations, coaches used humour to decrease the distance between themselves and the athletes, thus appearing more human in the athletes’ eyes.’

Again, it is a case of walking that tightrope and maintaining your balance, making sure you are not perceived as a figure of fun but rather an authority figure who likes to have fun – open to a spot of clowning around, but not a clown; witty, but not sarcastic.

‘It is important to strike that balance,’ adds Rachel. ‘With the older age groups, too much humour and you start to become their friend. I’ve found you lose control and the discipline goes (if that happens) so I tend to tone it down a lot more.’

You don’t need to be an expert in the study of human behaviour to be able to exploit the full range of benefits having a sense of humour can bring to your sessions.

Just be conscious of the fact that positive moods generate positive action and that having ‘a bit of a banter’ can be the key to getting the best out of your participants.

If it’s not all fun and games at training, perhaps you should consider cranking up the humour a notch or two and see where the extra laughs take you.

Can you provide an anecdote illustrating how having a good sense of humour has benefited your coaching sessions, or how an attempt at humour went awkwardly awry?

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Comments (1)


A really useful article with research based links! It reminds us of the importance of humour as one key feature that supports how to build positive relationships. I feel that emotional intelligence on behalf of the coach/educator/teacher is crucial here on a number of fronts: (i) so that self-deprecating humour can be used comfortably (ii) the need to know your individuals well and to gauge the right time for a touch of humour. Primary school teachers and 5-11 age-specific coaches are often brilliant at this as they put an emphasis on creating an enjoyable and stimulating learning environment appropriate to that age group.
PS: If you haven't seen any of The Nativity movies this festive season you should - they really emphasise my points above :-)

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