Making Non-Tangible Elements Tangible & The Use of Symbolism

I wanted to share a few short stories from a great coach who is also a good friend of mine.  The story is about taking something that you can’t see or touch and making it into something you can see, feel, smell and wrap your hands around.  It is often hard for people to grasp and cognitively process non-tangible things compared to tangible things.  Once you make something tangible it becomes “real” and easier to understand because it is right there!  When you hear a song it is easy to understand the words, but play it backwards and the words become gibberish.  However, put the songs lyrics up on a screen and play it backwards and see what happens.  Suddenly, now that the tangible visual context is added to the words on the screen, you will hear the words no longer as gibberish but as the actual words of the song that are projected on the screen.  The power of making things tangible and using symbolism is real and certainly an effective technique coaches should make use of.

A few years back my friend was coaching his university team who were struggling to score goals.  They were a very good team with lots of talent but the goals just were not coming.  He decided it was time to put a face to the “goal scoring problem”, with the purpose of empowering his players.  Located in the back of the equipment shed was an old soccer ball with the panel’s half peeling off of the ball.  The coach drew a face on the ball and presented the ball to the team as a symbol of the goal drought.  He told the players that there are 12 panels on the ball and each time they scored a goal, the scorer would rip a panel off of the ball to keep!  When all the panels were ripped from the ball they will have cured the goal-scoring drought!  The team made sure they put that old ball in front of the bench for every game that followed.  What happened after that was awesome!  The players got so excited to end the scoring drought they scored goal after goal.  The scorers would immediately run off the field to rip a panel from that old ball.  When there was just one panel left the team was crazed to see who would score that final goal so the drought would be officially over!  At last, the final panel was ripped off the ball as the team celebrated!  They had officially kicked the goal-scoring drought with 12 goals in four games!  I really like this story because the ball lived in the players conscious and sub-conscious minds as a constant reminder to stay focused and concentrated in the pursuit of scoring and ending the scoring drought.

The next story is truly one of symbolism.  Before every season starts the same coach takes out a chain that contains 11 links that represents the team.  He holds the chain up and try’s to break it.  The chain is too strong and won’t break.  The coach explains that the chain represents a team in which every member is strong, reliable and committed.  He then respectfully puts the chain back into his bag.  Right after the chain is placed in the bag, he takes out another 11 link chain but the middle link is made out if tinfoil.  The coach say’s “a chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link” and then pulls the chain as it snaps in half.  He drops the chain in on the ground and asks the players “are you going to be a weak link”?  The players get the message.  Before games he takes out the strong chain as he walks around the players, tossing the chain between his hands, saying not a word.  The players hear the “clink” “clink” and right away they are cued-in, getting the message that they will not be the weak link!

The last story is from a former Head Coach in Major League Soccer.  He had a tradition of keeping a can of “whoop ass” pills in his office for players to take before every game.  The pills were just silly Tic Tac breath mints but the players always took them.  One day before an important MLS game the players came rushing up to the coach and said “Coach you are out of whoop ass pills”, they were insistent that he fill the jar back up!  He thought how silly it was but these whoop ass pills symbolized a tough mentality for the players.  They associated this little pre-game routine as an important reminder to be ready for the game.

I like all these stories because the players understood the powerful messages that were delivered by the coach’s unique methods.  The imprint these techniques had on the player’s brains and the focus they created was impressive.

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