Have you ever tried to coach without using the word “don’t”?

I’m not sure where I first came across this idea. A coaching colleague of mine says he got it from John Kessel, and I may have done so as well. I had John as part of my CAP II cadre many years ago.

In any case, if you haven’t tried to coach without saying “don’t” consider it a challenge from me to you. It will force you to communicate with your players in a more action and solution oriented way.

This accomplishes a couple things.

First, if it’s something mental it avoids putting unwanted thoughts in their head. Here’s a quote from the book The Brain Always Wins.

Avoid, too, using the word don’t when giving instructions. It’s difficult to process a negative, so we tend to focus on what follows. If, for example , we say to you, Don’t think of the color of your front door right now it’s almost certain that you already have. We created the opposite outcome to the one we intended simply by using the wrong word at the start. If we want you to avoid thinking of your front door how should we go about it ? Easy. Avoid talking about it in the first place. Do, however, use any positive words especially when accompanied by smiling, encouraging, open gestures.

Putting it in volleyball terms, if you would rather your player not miss their upcoming serve, instead of saying “Don’t miss” you could tell them “Over and in” or “Good serve”.

Secondly, if it’s an issue of execution, you are providing a potential solution to their problem, not just telling them something they shouldn’t do. There are a whole lot of things you don’t want to do in execution, but there might only be one thing you do want to do.

Telling someone “Don’t do X” just tells them that X is among the numerous things that won’t work in this situation, but it might not get them much closer to doing what they should do. Telling them “Do Y” actually takes them right to where you want them to be.

Now, I’m not saying we should always just be telling players what to do. In certain situations, yes, for sure. Beyond that, though, I’m a believer in guiding players to find the solution for themselves. They’re more likely to internalize it that way. So instead of saying “Do Y” I try to guide them in the right direction with questions and suggestions.

Give it a shot. It won’t be easy. You’re going to have to be very conscious of what you say, and potentially rework a lot of your coaching language. If you can do it, though, it will make you a better, more effective coach.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Talent Strategy Manager (oversees the national teams) and Indoor Performance Director for Volleyball England, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy. His volleyball coaching experience includes all three NCAA divisions, plus Junior College, in the US; university and club teams in the UK; professional coaching in Sweden; and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. He's also been a visiting coach at national team, professional club, and juniors programs in several countries. Learn more on his bio page.

    2 replies to "Can you coach without saying “Don’t”?"

    • Kelly Daniels

      I just read the title of the article and was already on page with I assume was going to be the information. I’ve been using this technique for quite a few years. I try to spread the word with other coaches I work with to identify a different way to say what you want them to do, vice what you want them NOT to do. My spiel, is children do not like to hear ‘Don’t’ that comes from parents. So when they start hearing it from coaches the same mental block seems to be initiated. It’s seem to work for me when they know what is expected vice what is NOT expected.
      Believe me it’s normally around parents that I clue in other coaches. This way parents are used in a manner to support my technique. AND be in a position to hear how the technique can work for them with their athlete(s). I had a parent admit the following season that she’s use the technique and found that her daughter and son “listens” way more now than before using the ‘Do vice Don’t’ technique.

      BTW…In your serving analogy, during practice we use “Be aggressive” as our keyword. The training is low and to the endline or corners. To some it means serve short or serve the weakest passer. It really doesn’t have one meaning for all. We training what it means for each server. Only when a specific game plan for serving does it mean one thing.

      ‘Be aggressive’ goes to my ‘Do vice Don’t’ technique. Errors are measured against out of system and aces together. So the athletes know an error can be washed by out of system and aces, thus feel more comfortable being aggressive.

      Again GREAT job on this article!

      • John Forman

        Glad you like it Kelly. Yeah, if you work your communication the right way a single word or phrase can mean different things to different players and/or in different contexts. What I really like about forcing yourself to avoid don’t is that it makes you work intentionally on your communication. You can’t be lazy with it, as allowed by just saying don’t.

Please share your own ideas and opinions.