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The Power of Why

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power of why Nick Ruddock

Let’s cut straight to the chase …

Why?’ is one of the most powerful words in the human language.

The question ‘why?’ can provide you with answers to questions you believe you don’t know the answer to.

But ‘Why?’ can also be one of the most confrontational, aggressive words too, and as as result of this, it is often used poorly in coaching.

Let’s look at some good and bad use cases for the word ‘Why?’ and how you could be using it every day to reflect and learnt.

Starting with the bad …

‘Why’ can be a threatening word, particularly when providing feedback or questioning an athlete. It seldom provides a great answer in response. Here are some examples …

  • Why are you bending your legs
  • Why are you doing it like that?
  • Why are you not concentrating?
  • Why are you late?

I’ve witnessed many coaches use this way of providing feedback and communicating with their athletes after each and every repetition. Why did you do this? Why did you do that? Why didn’t you do this?
It’s a poor question, particularly as athletes who actually respond are often seen as argumentative. The question is likely rhetorical, and what’s the point in asking rhetorical questions when you are trying to increase understanding and engagement?

Coach:     ‘Why are you bending your legs?’
Athlete:    ‘Because I wasn’t tight enough on the springboard’
Coach:     ‘Are you answering me back? Do you think you’re smarter than me now?!’

(If the above chain of events seems unlikely to you, it’s a situation I have witnesses on a number of occasions!)

Whilst it’s great to empower an athlete to think for themselves, and have a greater understanding of their own performance, there is a better way of doing so than use of the word ‘Why? in this context.

The language ‘Why did you land on your back?’ could be better phrased as ‘Any idea what caused you to fall onto your back?’

Same intentions, but less threatening, and creates an encouraging platform for communication and discussion. It’s the little hacks like this that help to build rapport between athlete and coach.

This slight adjustment is great for empowering the athlete to independently be aware of their errors, and understand the corrections required so they can (to some extent) be able to coach themselves.

Now, in contrast, the question ‘Why?’ is great when used in a personal, reflective context.

At a young age, we’re often taught the ‘Who? what? when? where? why? and how?’ philosophy, to ask questions which give a clearer understanding of a given situation, and for good reason too. The best way of finding great answers is to ask great questions.

The better your question, the better your answer.

Let’s look at some GREAT ‘why’ questions that you can all ask yourself, some on a regular basis too:

  • Why do I deserve success?
  • Why do I coach?
  • Why did my athletes underperform today?
  • Why were we so successful/unsuccessful this season?
  • Why do some coaches repeatedly produce fantastic results?
  • Why am I not achieving my goals?
  • Why do I always make poor food choices?
  • Why should an athlete choose for me to work with them?

Additionally, asking the question ‘why’ multiple times from the same root question is a great way to dig down to the actual source of a problem, as in the example below:

  1. Why have I not achieved my goals?
    Because I haven’t had time to work on them
  2. Why?
    Because i’ve been busy doing other things instead
  3. Why?
    Because these other things are more interesting
  4. Why?
    Because my goals are boring and uninspiring (BINGO – This is the answer you needed. It’s not about time, it’s about prioritisation, and we tend to prioritise the things we value or need most.)

Consider your use of the word ‘Why’ in your coaching and make sure you’re optimising it to give the response you want!

If you have any great ‘why?’ questions please share by leaving a comment below.

If you enjoyed this you can find all my other ConnectedCoaches blogs here.

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Comments (1)


As Nick mentions in the later part of his post "Why" is a word that can be used to drill down to find the root cause of a problem.

During personal development training at work away from sport I was exposed to the problem solving technique known as the "5 Whys". In very simplified terms the idea is that by asking "WHY?" at least 5 times times you get to the root cause of a problem you're trying to solve.

If the conversation had gone something like the one I've envisaged below maybe the root can be identified rather than the coach feeling like the athlete is back chatting them:

Coach: ‘Why are you bending your legs?’
Athlete: ‘Because I wasn’t tight enough on the springboard’
Coach: Why do you think you weren't tight enough on the springboard. (Now I have to make it up not knowing a huge amount about what sounds like a vault)
Athlete: I wasn't balanced when I hit the springboard.
Coach: Why do you think you weren't balanced when you hit the springboard?
Athlete: My last stride on to the springboard was rushed or too short.
Coach: Why do you feel rushed?
Athlete: I get to my last stride at different times some times I'm too close to the spring board.
Coach: Why are you getting to the springboard at different times?
Athlete: I don't start from the same place every time.
From there it may be possible to to work together to work out the right length of run up and starting point.

Perhaps a lot depends on the athlete & coach relationship and agreeing before hand about the use of "Why" as a blunt tool rather than more subtle questions with exactly the same meaning?

If my memory if correct the power of good questioning is part of the two part conversation in Stuart Armstrong's Talent Equation podcast with Kendal McWade from April / May last year.

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