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Deep Coaching - how to communicate more effectively with your athletes

Ian Smith looks at the influence sensory perceptions can have on how we interact with and gather information from our athletes.

"How do you feel about the future?" Perhaps we could more quickly achieve a meeting of minds if I asked:

  • "How do you see things working out?"
  • "What are the choices of telling you?"
  • "Can you taste the great opportunities ahead?"

All these questions are asking essentially the same thing, but each is phrased to appeal specifically to a different representative system. This needs an explanation.


We all interact with and gather information from the world and people around us through our five senses: seeing, hearing, touching (and feeling), smelling, and tasting. However, each of us will tend to rely upon just one or two senses in most situations to help us connect with the world and re-present it to ourselves internally for interpretation and understanding. These preferred senses are our primary or lead representational systems. They are essential, for they will be the first we use, will be consistent across time, and will enable us to assess rapidly and derive deeper meaning from our encounters and experiences.

You may be:

  • a visual athlete and will, for example, "see things for what they are"
  • an auditory athlete and will "get a real buzz from playing well"
  • a kinaesthetic athlete (touching, feeling people) and will "get to grips with the issue"
  • an olfactory athlete (understand the world through their sense of smell) and will "nose around a problem"
  • a gustatory (taste) athlete and will "get their teeth into the training program"

The point to remember is, that everyone uses their individually preferred senses first and more frequently than the others because these are the senses they use to learn about and process information from the world. Indeed, you rely more on one or two primary representational systems, no less than do your athletes, which is why we will connect more immediately if I talk to you in a language that speaks to your lead senses. Thus, I could ask you "how do you feel about the future?" or I could ask "how do you see things working out?" I will connect with you at a deeper, subconscious, level via the first phrasing because I know you process experiential information kinaesthetically (feelingly), or via the second phrasing because I know you prefer to interpret information using a visual representational system.

You can check your preferences. Think actively about the phrases that you naturally tend to use. When unprompted * do you:

  • See your way? Keep an eye on things? Look out for yourself? Take a long-term view? If so, you are likely to experience a visual preference.
  • Tune in to new ideas? Maintain harmonious relationships? Sound people out? Keep an ear on things? ** Keep an ear to the ground? If so, you are likely to experience an auditory preference.
  • Get to grips with a problem? Keep a balance in your life? Get a feel for things? Hold on tight to reality? Jump in with both feet? If so, you are likely to experience a kinaesthetic preference.
  • Pick up the scent of an issue? Turn your nose away from something unpleasant? ** If so, you are likely to experience an olfactory preference.
  • Get the flavour of a new experience? Keep things sweet? Avoid souring your relationships? Taste the rewards of success? If so, you are likely to experience a gustatory preference.
  • * By "unprompted" I mean you are not using clichés or buzzwords because they are currently fashionable; you are not using the language of whomever you are talking with because it is the language they are using; and you are not using "standard" phrases, metaphors or other figures of speech because they are a convenient shorthand. In other words, "unprompted" means without conscious thought or ulterior motive.
  • ** Listen out, particularly for such slight twists of common sayings as these. Usually, people would say "Keep an eye on things" and "Turn your face away from something unpleasant."

This idea of representational systems is not abstract, it is concrete. The words we freely, though mostly subconsciously, choose to use are often accurately indicative of our internal map of reality and which of the sensor systems will more readily motivate us to achieve a goal, even though a listener might pass off our words and speech patterns as merely idiomatic. But the more a coach is trained to identify a pattern the more he or she will be able to mirror their athlete's prime representational, or learning, system, and work at a level below conscious awareness. Thus, to coach a visual sprinter I would use sentences with a high "seeing" content, such as "let us shed some light on this problem," whereas to coach a kinaesthetic sprinter I would use sentences with a high "feeling" content, such as "notice your footfall and how the correct balance makes you feel as you go around the first bend."

I recently worked with such a sportsman, a golfer. My first step was to listen to what he said and to identify from his words and speech pattern his preferred representational system. I wanted to understand why, after several months of him using classic visualisation techniques with another coach, his game had not improved. It became clear to me, though it was a revelation to him, that he was strongly kinaesthetic. This led me to design a coaching programme centred on him, capturing consciously how his body felt when he prepared for his tee shot, swung well, and putt well. He also agreed to carry a small notepad in his pocket on which to write down his feelings. The words were random and barely grammatical, but they nonetheless provided a powerful source of reinforcing information. His jottings included words like "rhythmic", "light", "flowing", "balanced", "calm", and "smooth". After good shots, he wrote words like "confident", "powerful" and "relaxed". These and similar kinaesthetic words became his athlete's golf dictionary, and he committed them to memory. We called this technique "trapping the good", which had the effects of "releasing the bad" and, hence, developing his conscious competence. He now understands why, for him, visualisation was inappropriate learning and habit-changing technique. He is a "feeling" athlete rather than a "seeing" athlete.

Up to now, I have referred to the clues to an athlete's preferred representational system being word-borne. This is not the only source of clues. Another, perhaps more overt source, is the athlete's eye movements. This too needs an explanation.

How changes in their physiology will signal an athlete processes information. These changes will likely be systematic and indicative of the state. They can involve a posture, gesture, breathing, voice tone and tempo, skin colour, and eye movements. Eye movements, where an athlete looks, are also a good way of identifying an athlete's representative system.

Interpreting eye movements is not always as straightforward as it might seem. For one thing, eye movements can be fleeting, and the information embedded in them is quickly lost, literally in the blink of an eye. Watching an athlete's eye movements and testing for their prime representational system(s) takes immense concentration. Trained observers know that testing for the lead sense(s) requires them to use what is known as "clean language", that is questions or vocal prompts free of 'contaminating' content that might steer the athlete's gaze (or their spoken reply) away from what would otherwise be their innate eye position (or vocabulary). There are many anomalies to eye movements and their standard interpretation. An athlete's eye movements that seem to show either little consistency or appear to never go to one or more (expected) positions could mean they are blocking out perhaps painful memories associated with one or more sensory systems. When an athlete's eyes repeatedly move side to side or up and down, it could be because they are scanning to compare recalled and constructed images. But the point is if you actively notice an athlete's eye movements and actively listen to what they are saying, you will understand what they are subconsciously telling you about how to connect with them at a deep level. It is here that you will be able to facilitate lasting performance changes.

Five Axioms of Coaching

Representational systems are only one half of the story as the other concerns the coaching role. I want to share with you my perceptions of the role of the coach, which I class as the Five Axioms of Coaching.

1. Coaching is not telling, it is leading and facilitating

This means refocusing the relationship from I (the coach), you (the athlete), we (together) to You, We, I (in this order), and in which the athlete thus owns the issue (need or problem), solution and outcome, and is responsible for the coaching relationship and progress made.

2. Coaching is more demanding than teaching

Coaching demands of you high concentration, exceptional listening and observation skills, the ability to correctly interpret body language, a willingness to ask challenging (not confrontational) questions, rapport by which you can offer supportive advice that will be heard, an insistence that the athlete learns for him or herself, your resistance to doing for the athlete what he or she could/can do for themselves, repetition (using different learning methods and appealing to different representational systems), patience, and time.

3. The coach must be a consummate self-coach

You must be willing and able to self-debrief following a coaching session, self-analyse, and self-learn. You must accept feedback as a development opportunity. Remember, it is much easier to adapt your behaviour than it is to change someone else's.

4. All coaching sessions must be structured

Here I am not referring to content structure (e.g. warm-up, exercises, warm down) but to process structure. I use Sir John Whitmore's proven GROW model. In this:

  • " G stands for Goal(s) - What the athlete wants to achieve overall and particularly this session.
  • This objective can be expressed as a C-SMARTER goal, i.e.
    • C - Challenging (testing and stretching)
    • S - Specific (closely defined)
    • M - Measurable (recordable changes)
    • A - Achievable (within capability)
    • R - Realistic (relevant)
    • T - Time framed (achievement time/date)
    • E - Evaluated (against personal or external standards)
    • R - Reviewed (debriefed)
  • R stands for Reality - Acknowledging the athlete's current skill/performance and, against the objective, the consequent coaching gap
  • O stands for Options - Considering the different learning/development methodology choices
  • W stands for Will - Determining the athlete's real conviction/readiness

5. Coaching is an attitude

Successful Coaching is dependent as much upon you as it is upon the athlete's attitude toward themselves, other people, their environment, circumstances, learning, and setbacks. The athlete's maturity and self-empowerment characterise the right attitude. This takes us full circle to Axiom 1, in which the athlete must own the issue, solution, and outcome.

In observing and adhering to these axioms I find that carefully balancing push and pull questions, listening for and observing representational system accessing cues (words and eye movements), responding sensitively to body language, and using Cognitive Behaviour Therapy or Transactional Analysis, among several psychological assessment models, to understand and react appropriately to an athlete's emotional state, enables me to work at the depth of coaching that athletes themselves take me down to.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • SMITH, I. (2004) Deep Coaching - how to communicate more effectively with your athletes. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 13 / June), p. 1-4

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • SMITH, I. (2004) Deep Coaching - how to communicate more effectively with your athletes [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Ian Smith has qualifications in psychology and emotional intelligence assessment. He runs his training and development consultancy based in the UK, working with both corporate and private clients. Ian also works one-to-one with athletes, as their coach and counsellor, helping them to work through the immense pressures some of them face, due to performance issues, the media, relationship problems, fame, wealth, conflict, etc.