“Sticks and Stones” : How they influence learning in sport

Apr 25, 2011
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“Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me!” You are probably all familiar with that ridiculous rhyme that is thrown about as if it is some sort of protective device against verbal bullying.  Name calling, slurs, and insults do hurt, of course, and people with disabilities and challenges have almost certainly had their share of such experiences. Unfortunately, sports do not have a long history of promoting acceptance, inclusion, or recognizing the value of special needs athletes. The combination of intolerance and exclusion tends to encourage athletes to use harsh and judgmental language to ridicule the performances of an athlete that does not measure up to a particular standard.

Throughout our lives we learn various coping techniques when faced with such language. We may either ignore comments or confront the person that delivered them. We can attempt to rationalize the comments or counter them with equally harsh language. How do such words influence the individual’s level participation or learning in sport?

The field of Neuroscience is now discovering that the impact of strong language is far more profound than first thought. Advanced brain imaging tools (e.g. functional magnetic resonance tomography – FMRT) are now allowing us to look at the brain’s responses to different influences.  A fascinating study from Thomas Weiss at the University of Jena (in Germany) has shown that just hearing words like “tormenting”, or “grueling” are capable of activating areas of the brain that correspond with the processing of pain. This is where the psychology of “self-fulfilling prophecy” kicks in: Hear it, believe it and you will likely experience it!

Neuroscience is also recognizing the importance of Brain derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF); this is a substance that helps students to solidify neural connections when something new is learned. What is particularly interesting is that students who feel insecure or threatened in their learning environment (in our context: the sports field), have lower levels of BDNF. So, not only does harsh language hurt us at a social level (I doubt there is anyone who actually enjoys being ridiculed), but it also influences our ability to learn.

Effective coaching requires excellent communication : Choose your words carefully!

Author: Gary Barber