Cultivating Growth Through Language

Synopsis: When growing your kids classes is your number one concern, considering the language you use and it’s context can make or break your audience. Age, ability, competitive nature and subconscious comparisons are all issues you must comprehend when communicating your delivery and facilitating encouragement.  

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As I wrote in my introduction to this website, over the years, I have made a tonne of mistakes and thus lost an incredible number of children from my classes.

I have barked at children for talking during class when in actual fact the chatter was most probably an indication that it was time for a water break, I have made an example of children who haven’t grasped a particular technique when quite obviously, the weakness was in my coaching not their comprehension and I have frequently nagged children as to their absence from training without understanding they have lives outside of my academy.

In retrospect, one main factor I would always choose to go back and improve upon is the combination of my communication and its delivery, whether that be the manner of how I have spoken, the context I have expressed opinion or even the level of interaction I have used, I often look back and cringe:

Did I really say that?

Language and the way you use it to respond or articulate instances to children in your class must be on point. It should be selective; where sarcasm or slapstick mockery can work as encouragement for one child it may well shatter another’s confidence and passion for what they originally signed up for. An emphasis on victory, focus and tenacity is brilliant for competitive children but repetitiveness could unintentionally drain a less spirited child into resignation.

Being conscientious and monitoring the type and degree of communication you use will undoubtedly improve responsiveness. This responsiveness will present itself in varying guises but ultimately if you can recognise its affect you will begin to understand how language can cultivate learning and the growth of your kids classes.

For me, cultivating growth through language, has two parts: nurturing growth itself with positive reinforcement on an individual level and its use in fostering an environment for continuous growth to take place for the collective.

Winning vs. Losing.

At my academy, we have a competitive junior section. The juniors that choose to, regularly enter championships across the country and in the last 12 months several my juniors have competed, placed and won at league events (tier III competitions), regional events (tier II competitions) and national/international events (tier I competitions).

We currently have a number of Junior National, British and Junior European Champions on our mats and quite rightly, we celebrate their accomplishments. However, for as many of those children that “win” there are an equal number that do not. Indeed, I have several students that are yet to win a competitive match and have entered competition after competition.

So, the problem posed is how do you herald the success of one child over what could be perceived as the failure of another? If you are not very careful, one child’s happiness is easily another’s sorrow. If you win all the time you are a ‘winner’, but does that mean if you lose you’re a ‘loser’?

Constant comparison is not healthy.

In my last post, I spoke about my own son and how difficult it has been to coach him. The process continues to be demanding from my point of view as I must constantly employ a level of impartiality and fairness during every class. His autism plays a role in his ability to interpret technical nuance and details associated with acquiring skill thus, time spent at each level of progression is marked more than children I would consider more naturally athletic or academic.

There are other children at my academy who I recognise comparing themselves to others in the group, principally when it is time to reward progress in the form of promotions. Without overt questioning, I see children (and parents) bothered by being overtaken in grade, something that in truth, is very natural.

So, here the question presented is how do you attribute and explain one child’s progress when comparing it to a perceived deterioration or lack of progress in another? When a child hasn’t progressed as quickly as the next who’s fault is this? Responsibility surely sits somewhere.

Above are two examples where you have to be very careful about how you approach the situation and indeed connect with the individuals concerned. Years ago, when I began training as a child, drill was arduous. You soon understood that attrition was the key to getting better, sometimes quantity came above quality and that your instructor was not overly concerned with your feelings or what he said to you. However, class growth was never a number one concern and to my knowledge I am the only individual still training today!

There are times and situations where a competitive environment among children and fostering this is superbly conducive, I know some tremendously gifted coaches that breed this so naturally, their academy’s compete with some of the very best in the world. Indeed, I too have separate classes for children that have a competitive component and they do very well. However, I am not here to offer advice on developing such an environment, a theatre where the elite, tenacious and ultra-confident thrive. This post is concerned with offering advice to grow your kids classes on a very general level with language.


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I’ve already pointed out that under some circumstances a child will quite readily associate losing at something as being a ‘loser‘ – however irrational that may seem. Being overtaking in grade, despite a perceived comparable effort will also compound frustrations unless your coaching ability has the answer, this is where language cultivates learning and growth in your kids class.

Coaching children is a very different skill to coaching adults. Children require attention every step of the way, a guiding hand from the moment they step into the dojo to the moment they leave. Adults and older children on the other hand, are different. Give an adult the tools to learn and with gentle guidance they can achieve great ability with little help, explanations can be short and to the point and feedback can be given from a far. Children require step-by-step instruction, especially from early ages and or early level. Oftentimes, literal hand-to-hand guidance is necessary and this is where language and its role in encouragement and growth is so important.

Celebrating the Win.

One area of my own coaching I am very keen to improve upon is how I celebrate winning. Podium placing’s and championship results are now common at my academy nevertheless, they are attained by a very small proportion of my student base – those same elite, tenacious and ultra-confident children I mentioned earlier, which is why I consider how we celebrate their victories in the class setting.

I constantly look and encourage self-critique, ownership and attempt to promote the logic of learning.

Once we have celebrated any accomplishment as a class we’ll talk openly in an attempt to make every child understand that victory was achieved because “you tried hard”, my aim is to breed an appreciation of perseverance and the journey it took to get the “win”. At this point it is very easy to talk about how “easy” the competition was and that “you won because you are better” however, this only focuses the end game and does not cultivate the journey that will need to be re-created time and again.

Incorrectly focusing on ‘winning’ widens the gulf between ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ – never reinforce ‘better’ and ‘easy’.

Constructive conversation allows for discussion with those children that may have entered the same competition but came up short or those children that have dreamt of winning but never have. By discussing all victories in terms of perseverance, persistence and effort and promoting guided personal assessment and ownership I am cultivating growth through language.

  • “Where did YOU feel the pattern of play switch in YOUR favour?”
  • “What were the small wins that lead to YOUR victory?”
  • “Was there a particular area of the game YOU felt strong?”
  • “What do YOU think you need to work on to improve?”
  • “How did YOU feel when you won?”

All of the above are examples I use in open discussion that breed personal assessment and analysis. As much as the victory is still being discussed it has been taken down from a ‘height’ that some children in the class believe they will never reach, now, victory for them is far more accessible and within reach if they listen to the insights being examined and are brought into the discussion.

During the last competition we entered as an academy one of my juniors won his first ever competitive bout.

His attitude is first-rate, a wonderful kid with exceptional manners and a work ethic that is hard to match. However, for whatever reason, his commitment had not paid off and until this point, success hadn’t surfaced. Watching him win was a great feeling, I literally saw the pressure lift from his shoulders. His match was an extremely tight affair so in analysis we focused our reflection on how he felt in victory but discussed how even the match was and that our improvement must not only be made on overall ability but ensuring the tiny technical nuances are focused upon each time he trains – marginal gains.

I am using this example as this same student has had to deal with so many more defeats. He has had to listen to the praise and celebration for those that have medaled and those that have become champions of their own division’s.

Dealing with Loss.

Empathy is the key. Stoicism is never the answer.

Much in the same way ownership is passed across in success the same is done for a loss.

  • “How did YOU feel during the match?”
  • “Was there a part of the match where YOU felt YOU had made a mistake?”
  • “What do YOU think switched the balance of play?”
  • “How did YOU feel before the match?”
  • “Where do YOU think you need to improve YOUR game most?”

My main goal here is to explain how proud I am of their endeavour and I mean it, there are hundreds of children the same age, same grade and same weight who do not step up and compete.

Here I spend more time discussing the loss than any victory in the room and I ask them to compare themselves not to their opponent but to where they were last week, last month and last year. There will have been improvements, undoubtedly. If you choose this method, be sincere – most of the children you coach hang on your every word!

You will notice that ‘Dealing with Loss‘ is much the same as ‘Celebrating the win‘, please understand that I have no desire to create an environment where every child ‘wins’ or receives a medal for taking part, I’ll leave that to the school sports day. Determination, attrition, commitment and perseverance are still among the most important virtues we breed as coaches as they maintain integrity however, I am acutely aware of safeguarding the environment for growth at neither the detriment of personal success or failure.

At the very same competition I mentioned above another junior of mine entered and lost, he hasn’t won a bout since he began competing. He is gutted every time, I can see this as his coach but he continues to train and persevere knowing that some day this commitment will pay off. Each time we return to class following a competition we’ll discuss the successes of the day and the comparable disappointments. One major point of discussion is his level of anxiety, each time he competes he becomes more and more in-tune with the arena, the crowd, the noise, the feel of the mats, the rules and the nerves – this is a success and he is on his way…

No doubt we have work to do on a technical level but together we have cultivated growth through language. He feels it, I feel it, the whole class feels it…

Key points.

  • Think about what you say, how you express opinions and how you interact.
  • Extinguish the win vs. lose mentality.
  • Encourage the small wins at every opportunity.
  • Open discussion promotes growth.
  • Ownership of learning should increase proportionately with the age of your audience.
  • You are not here to produce people that “used to do Jiu Jitsu…“, the children you coach are in this for the long haul, so should you be…

If you are genuinely interested in growing your kids classes you should always be looking to improve the atmosphere and environment where that growth takes place. The way you communicate, the context of your language and the level of your interaction is fundamental to this. In an upcoming article I’ll suggest methods you can utilise as forms of encouragement that will ultimately reinforce the positive environment this change in language has created.

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