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The Power (or Pointlessness) of Silence...

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Silence may appear, on face value, to be a strange element of coaching practice to refer to when we think of power or effectiveness. Admittedly, when observing my own coaching practice, I was surprised at first glance to find that silence was my most prevalent behaviour. Initial reactions to this may be if you stay silent are you actually coaching? However, when we consider the usefulness of silence within other domains and disciplines it is easy to see the potency of such behaviour and how this can be pivotal (or pointless) in the coaching arena.

Take counselling, or the role of a psychologist, for example; how critical can silence be, in not interrupting a client who is beginning to open up and experience cathartic release, through offloading their thoughts, struggles and emotions for the first time? Or in marketing and advertising, how powerful can silence be, which precedes the build up to a big moment in a film trailer? The impact of silence is equally profound when we pay respects to a cause or individuals and use this time to reflect. Similarly, in healthcare after delivering a diagnosis, silence may at times be the best option, to allow time for emotions to play their role and for information to be digested, whether positive or negative.

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Positivity, or negativity, when considering silence (as with many, if not all coaching behaviours) is largely affected by the context that we are operating within and its constraints or enablers. Take some contexts I currently coach within – cricket and football refereeing – where a large proportion of coaching behaviours cannot (or should not) be delivered as performance in competition is occurring. 

Critical moments for intervention generally come pre-match, post-match, or during intervals (i.e., drinks, tea, lunch, half-time). Hence, silence is typically our most prevalent behaviour during competition. Should then, our practice as coaches within training sessions replicate these types of environments? My argument would be yes, to a point. Clearly coaching sessions are a crucial opportunity for us to develop a multitude of outcomes with our athletes; therefore constant silence would most likely negate important moments to intervene.

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When silence is astutely and cleverly contrasted against and interjected with other coaching practice, however, this can open up many avenues for effectiveness. I would argue, personally, that silence must be coupled with observation, and even the careful consideration of our physical positioning as a coach in sessions, or at matches. If we are positioned too far away from our athletes, this can easily become misconstrued that we are not observing, or interested in, what is unfolding.

Couple this with an athlete performing in an excellent manner, and it can easily lead to frustration on that athletes’ behalf in the sense that “the coach didn’t even see me do that”, especially when issues around player selection arise. Observation then, affords us the opportunity to make use of other coaching behaviours.

When we question athletes the power of silence can often be neglected. How many times, when we ask a question to our athletes and there is no immediate response, do we feel the urge to jump in and give the answer, or probe with another instant question? In many cases this perceived awkward silence is only awkward for the coach. Our athletes are often simply crying out for time to process the question and construct a coherent response. Resultantly, the power of silence again becomes apparent, so as to not interrupt a key thought or idea. On the contrary, I accept, silence left too long can threaten the coach’s integrity in terms of athletes beginning to question the extent of their knowledge, and this often results from a poorly constructed question.

We must also never ignore the power of silence in allowing athletes to make their own mistakes and learn from them independently. Sometimes the last thing athletes want to hear, and be reminded of from the coach, is the very thing that they have already worked out in their head. Equally, if athletes are finding it impossible to understand what is going wrong, we must never underestimate the power of breaking silence and providing a critical question, piece of feedback, encouragement, or support, for example. Accordingly, coaching, and its application, is frequently referred to as an art, as opposed to purely a science.

Many of us will have experienced a subtle action from a coach when we were under intense pressure. Even a smile or a ‘keep going’ gesture can go a long way in showing we have someone that cares about us and help us to refocus. Athletes often remember us for how we make them feel, as opposed to what we said. 

“How you make people feel after they meet you is more important than what you say. Their experience with you becomes your business card” – Naveen Jain

As with many theories, or research-driven practical applications guiding coaching, a blanket, or silver-bullet approach often doesn’t account for the intricacies, individualised nature and complexity of each coaching context in which we operate, day-in, day-out. Instead, when implementing evidence-based recommendations, we must be responsive to the ever-changing conditions and political factors which can define the very effectiveness of our practice as coaches.

Consequently, we are required to read and respond to an infinite list of moments or instances, which occur to us, our athletes and other key stakeholders associated with the coaching process. In a session last week one of my athletes had sadly recently lost their grandparent. Instead of asking upfront how things were, my reading of this scenario told me that silence and letting the athlete remain engaged in activity, was best for him at that time, while keeping an eye on his overall welfare and body language.

This silence was then coupled with praise, positive feedback and sometimes corrective feedback at what I felt were key moments to make the player feel as if it wasn’t different to any other session. This highlighted to me, the need for and importance of structure in coaching at times; novelty and ‘keeping it fresh’ is not necessarily always a good thing.

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Simply asking how things were may have brought back negative emotions for the athlete and disrupted his enjoyment and immersion within the session. Allowing the player to remain engrossed within a game or drill can often aid escapism from life and its sometimes cruel events. As it happens the particular athlete I was working with showed remarkable courage, character and maturity well beyond his years, to even turn up to the session, let alone go on to give his all and provide some excellent suggestions and contributions to the session. It is moments like this which constantly remind us of the potential and aptitude of coaching in going further than simply supporting learning and development of performance. We must therefore be specialist-generalists.

Throw into the ring the perception of others as we use silence and this adds another layer of complexity again. For example, parents paying good money for their children to attend your programme. “I’ve paid all this money and all the coach is doing is standing there”, “they’re not even coaching”. Potential methods to overcome this perception and explain our intentions often become incredibly difficult to convey, but when key stakeholders understand and align with our intentions, silence hopefully becomes more of an appreciated notion for all.

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In summary, silence is not necessarily a ‘best approach’, nor is it a ‘quick fix’; it is instead hoped that ideas and challenges posed through some critical reflections in this blog stimulate thought around the articulation and effectiveness of silence. After all, it can be one of the most pointless tools in our armoury. At the same time it can also be one of our most powerful.

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I hope you enjoyed reading my first ConnectedCoaches blog. All feedback welcome please add a comment below.

This blog is also available as a podcast on a number of platforms including Itunes. Listen here.

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Comments (4)


Wonderful book by Susan Cain "Quiet" on the subject. Recommended.

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Great Read! I have learned so much other the past 9 years of coaching and sometimes wish I could turn back the clock with all the new information I have I would definitely start again.

Last weekend I attended my step daughters football match and observed from the side line what the teams and their coaches were doing. I watched as one team was very quiet in play and was winning, coach very quiet and taking it all in each stride, coach just watched and allowed the girls to play, whilst the other team very vocal getting rather frustrated and angry at each other, shouting and screaming at team mates the coach shouting and screaming at his players. I stood and observed more and found myself looking at how I used to be years ago as a coach shouting at athletes they actually didn't listen to me hence the reason the coaching sessions was so bad. I remember the advice I was once given by a more experienced coach. " If the children needed shouting at they can go home and listen to their parents" I took his advice on board and changed the way I spoke to athletes / players, since that day I no longer shout at players / Athletes. For me if I was given this advice maybe earlier my coaching might have been better. I did really want to go over to the coach with that same advice but I felt it wasn't my place to say anything and who was I to judge.

Unsure if the quiet coach / team would have been more vocal or even shouting if his player wasn't winning.

As an ex- athletes 800 meter runner I remember my coach during competition shout at me from the side of the tack, this I hated and really wanted to tell him to shut up as he was putting me off but I never did out of respect for him. I have learned that silence can be good and to just let the players get on with their game and play, allow athletes to perform without shouting.

I have refereed at Basketball games and observed coaches shouting and scream at players on and off court, why not choose time out to talk to the players.

Now in training I observe the players in silence, bring players in if things aren't going well, give feed back. I don't need to shout whilst they are playing. Allowing players to take ownership of their game be responsible for their actions whilst in play and giving them constructive feedback off pitch.

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2674 views and only a few likes and comments,
that's alot of their time to read the article, and seconds to tick a like box,
perhaps for the coaches that don't bother or find it pointless,
i'd like to know, what their silence says about them?

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Thank you Ralph - a first class post. A Coach can be defined as a person who CO-creates & Assists CHaracter-Building. Silence is an essential and integral element of this process.

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