The Power of Positive Semantics

/begin cranky old man rant

I wonder what language experts (historians, anthropologists, teachers, etc) think of America today. We are led by people who, frankly, are very sloppy with their words. I am baffled by this, because often your sloppy word choice results in people perceiving you as dishonest. Why not take a moment to think about your words, if for no other reason than to preserve your credibility and dignity?

Growing up I learned in order to effectively communicate one must understand the rules and precision of the English language. Nowadays I feel out of step, following rules no one is aware of and using words few people understand. Yes, I'm old and get off my lawn.

/end cranky old man rant

One language rule I ruthlessly enforce on deck, no matter how outdated or obsessive I'm perceived: tell people what to do, not what not to do. Positive Semantics is an important method for people to receive feedback. It's also a little harder to do, and therefore rare (at least in swim coaching).

We hear coaches, teachers, and all kinds of instructors say "don't do X" so often that we don't even notice. Rather, we don't consciously notice. Subconsciously and over enough time, we all eventually sense who is a positive and supportive person. We might not be able to put our finger on how or why, but...we sense it.

You can always positively state what you want. Always. And over the long term, it makes a difference- swimmers subconsciously want a coach who uses positive semantics. Who would you rather as a teacher, someone who essentially tells you "don't screw up" or someone who essentially tells you "do X right and make progress"...? The choice is obvious, isn't it?

If positive semantics is so powerful and effective, why is it rare among coaches? Because positive semantics costs.

An assistant once exclaimed "wow that's hard!" when she finally understood my requirement for positive semantics. I did not sympathize with the assistant, but her reaction enlightened me. I realized coaches generally don't do positive semantics because of the cost. It takes a moment of thought to positively phrase feedback, and thought costs time and energy. Many swim coaches either cannot or will not bear that cost. "Eh, s/he knows what I mean" is a common justification for sloppy and negative semantics.

We believe Positive Semantics is worth the cost. Because we dedicate ourselves to developing athletes over the long term, we want to build a challenging yet positive and supportive relationship with our athletes. We are willing to bear a short term cost for long term gain, and it starts with the words we choose when communicating with our athletes.

Positive Semantics is good for athletes over the long term. And if we think about it, it's good for everyone. Give it a try.

Courtney Faller