The language we use to frame our experience will define our experience.
Though it may seem obvious, it is clear that students, coaches, and professionals often fail to enlist the power of accurate framing for an optimal outcome. Worse still, we complain. Too often we identify problems as though the complaint itself is the solution. When challenges arise, we are quicker to point them out than we are to solve them. Naming the world in such a way is impacting the world more than one might think.
Consider this: When you first woke up this morning, groggy and tired, did you have to go to work? If so, how much energy did you bring to the initial tasks of the day?
When the topic of language comes up in professional development workshops, it will occasionally be dismissed as semantics. That’s absolutely true. Contrary to popular belief, semantics is not something to dismiss.
Semantics is the branch of linguistics concerned with meaning. Language is our way of dispensing meaning, and if the words we use do not match our intention or yield the hoped-for outcome, then we should reexamine them. We should strive to be accurate. As educators, we should pay attention to semantics.
Studies show that the manner by which one names their behavior can change the outcome of that behavior. Meaning matters. Ellen Langer, professor of psychology at Harvard University, has published a wide variety of those studies, including a notable study involving chambermaids. In this study, the simple act of understanding how one’s daily tasks were falling into the category of ‘exercise’ and then naming those tasks as such, participants “decrease in weight, blood pressure, body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, and body mass index.” The way we name the world influences our perception of it, which influences our outcomes.
To use the hypothetical situation in the opening paragraph, let’s once again consider our self-talk in the morning. Did you have to go work? Did you have the opportunity to earn income for you and your family? Better yet, did you have the chance to positively impact the world through your efforts and have some fun while doing so?
“The way we name the world influences our perception of it, which influences our outcomes.”
What you’re really saying.
“I have to go to work.”
- A declarative statement about something you are obliged to do and, depending on your relationship to the word work, an obligation to something potentially undesirable. *
“I have the opportunity to earn an income.”
- An acknowledgment both of opportunity (you don’t have to go to work, after all – there would be repercussions, but you don’t have to), and benefit (financial income).
“I have the chance to positively impact the world and have some fun while doing so.”
- A comment imbedded with agency, purpose, and optimism.
True, it is hard to use this language at some jobs. Working the night shift in a used-diaper factory might make optimism more difficult than being an entrepreneur, one might suggest. Though inequality in the workplace surely exists, and systemic injustices are embedded all around us, the point remains: the language we repeatedly use to frame our experience will define our experience, and impact the outcomes.
The language we use cannot determine the nature of our profession – we cannot call a surgeon a sailor and make it so – but it can determine the way we interact with our profession. Whether one works in a steel mill, an office building, or in the White House, the way we interact with our profession will play a determining role.
I have to go to work.* This can also be a statement of encouragement. On the first day of a new job, this can be a declaration of excitement, embedded with the optimism of a new charge, a renewed sense of responsibility. In athletics, “time to go to work” is oftentimes a statement which identifies that the task must be taken seriously; it is a rallying cry for participants to focus on their goal – this too is full of excitement and promise. Language is essential, and context-dependent.
Legendary neuroscientist Antonio D’Amasio mentions in his essential text, Descartes’ Error, that “images are probably the main content of our thoughts,” stimulated sometimes by “words or other symbols, in a given language, which correspond to a thing or progress,” (D’Amasio, 1994, 107-108). This is crucial to understand. Consider this example: for Person One, the word ‘dog’ brings up an image of their childhood puppy; for Person Two, the word ‘dog’ conjures the rabid, snarling St. Bernard from Stephen King’s Cujo, which their parents allowed them to watch at far too young an age. If Person One and Person Two know each other well and understand this difference, then puppy can and should be differentiated from big, snarling dog.
In the American English, we pronounce the letter Z something that sounds phonetically like zee; in Ireland, also speaking English, the letter Z is pronounced zed. Two unique phonetic representations, in the same language, indicate the final letter of the alphabet (which is, itself, a phonetic representation).
You give someone you care about a gift on their birthday, right? In Germany, gift means poison. The same phonetic symbols conjure distinct mental images based on how, and where, they are used.
It is important to be specific with your language. It is also important to understand the context of language, then use it appropriately.
If this seems like a lot of work, you might be right. But it gets easier, and it is worth it. After all, the alternative would be accepting the fact that your impact will be diminished, the quality of your life not quite what it could be.
“If this seems like a lot of work, you might be right. But it gets easier, and it’s worth it!”
What to do about it.
At the 2019 National Association of Kinesiology in Higher Education (NAKHE) Conference, professors Brian Culp (Kennesaw State) and David Cutton (Texas A&M Kingsville) gave a presentation on two overlapping concepts that might prove useful in this effort: Self-Talk and Mentoring.
Intentional self-talk is an essential tool for personal or professional performance. As we have outlined, the context-dependent recognition of why, when, and how to use language is a skill to be developed over time. That can be a significant challenge. So whenever possible, enlist help; find a mentor.
The value of a mentor, like the value of language, is clear. Business leaders call mentorship the “key to success” for young leaders. Thought leaders have held tight to the value of mentorship to guide them down their path: Plato was mentored by Socrates, Aristotle was mentored by Plato, Aristotle was called upon to mentor Alexander the Great, among many other leaders. The list goes on. Throughout history, it was not only those who needed help, but those who showed great promise who enlisted the guidance of a mentor.
If you are a leader, hoping to use self-talk and effective language as a strategy in your practice, consider finding a mentor. A mentor, in this capacity, can hold you accountable. A mentor can challenge and support. A mentor can serve as mirror to your own ideas, not changing or challenging them, but allowing you to see them through fresh eyes.
Whether enlisting the strategy of effective use of language in daily life, to progress in sports, or for improved outcomes with students, Professor Cutton recommended a few steps.
- Become aware of the current use of self-talk
- Observe and actively reflect on the self-talk
- Act to change self-talk depending upon individual environments
The strategy is simple. The application of this strategy can be complex. It first requires the desire, then a level of awareness to tune in to your methods, then the discipline to create a plan and follow through – it works, but you might need support. As Professor Culp says, that’s where the mentor come in.
Coaches as Mentors
Athletes, by nature of the structure of sport, should never be without a mentor. Coaches are mentors. Rather, coaches who accept the charge of mentorship are mentors, others are just whistleblowers (challenge extended). If you have a group of young people who look up to you, embrace this role.
We have all heard the truism that sports teach life lessons. Let’s not default to that so quickly. It is not basketball that is teaching life lessons, it is being part of a basketball team and within a culture built by a coach that has the potential to teach life lessons. Please do not assume that this is happening automatically.
It is only through language that life lessons can be imparted. That language can be nonverbal, of course, but that’s a discussion for another day. Verbal language, which conjures mental images, which leads to self-talk, which ultimately leads to behavior, is an essential skill for a coach to hone. Work hard at this, coaches.
Years from now, if your student-athletes go into a board room thinking those they engage with are villains, if they hate them just for walking in the door, then something has gone terribly awry – no matter how many games they won as a teenager.
The language you use will define the experience of your athletes. Coaches, if you want to create Good Athletes, you’ll have to be intentional.