Intuition through silence

The communication we use as a PE Teachers or sports coaches can shape the behaviour of our students. Our four main methods of communication within PE are instruction, feedback, questions and silence. They all have their uses and contexts, but silence is a powerful and underused tool, one I have been trying to better understand in finding my way as a silent coach. In a recent post by Stuart Armstrong he likened the benefits you can get by using silence to super powers, the key one he mentions for me, is that of sensing what is happening and developing intuition as a teacher or coach. Today I worked hard on being silent, mainly immediately after setting students a task. My initial instinct is to give instruction and over corrective feedback straight away, however silence afforded me the following information about my students:

Being silent I saw who took control and who sought to hide.

Being silent I was able to see how the group reacted to a twisted ankle. Which ones showed concern. Which ones laughed.

Being silent I was able to judge which ones put effort in, which ones were super competitive and which ones didn’t try at all.

Being silent I could tell who took responsibility to organise, who prepared properly and who messed about.

Being silent I could hear how they spoke to each other, who was kind, who was critical, who was generous and who was rude.

Being silent I could see how they dealt with problems of fouling, cheating and of illegal contact.

Being silent I witnessed how they overcame the problem of one team dominating against all others.

Being silent I observed those who offered to referee, those who didn’t say no when it was their turn and those who actively avoided it.

Being silent allowed me to listen to how they spoke to each other during the game and when at the side coaching and observing.

Being silent I could see what happened after a foul and whether they called it and checked the person was okay, or just walked away laughing.

Being silent gave me better insight their self talk, who was positive and who was negative and critical.

Being silent gave me the chance to see how some celebrated good play and some celebrated others failure.

Being silent allowed me to monitor who shook hands with their team mates and opposition at the end of their games and those who walked away muttering and swearing under their breath.

Being silent highlighted those who wanted to play by the rules and who wanted to deliberate cheat to win.

Being silent provided with with the opportunity to study who talked to their teammates how to improve tactically in attack or defence and those who blamed everything on everyone else.

Being silent I was better able to perceive those who took every shot themselves and those who brought others into the game.

Being silent ensured I saw those who worked hard in attack and then didn’t work at all in defence.

Being silent emphasised those who pointed out everyone’s mistakes but got upset when theirs were pointed out.

Being silent brought to my attention those who quietly got on with the lesson to the best of their ability.

Being silent underlined those who chased down hopeless causes and those who gave up when the outcome was in the balance.

Sometimes the act of teaching or coaching means you don’t pay close attention. If always focusing on providing instruction, offering feedback and asking questions you might not sense the real behaviours of the people in front of you, the ones you really want to know and either encourage or shape for the better. In PE and School Sport the need to respond to information presented by the individual and unique nature of our students is a relentless challenge. Not all of our decision can be from the teaching PE ‘manual’. Through silence you can start to take in information you wouldn’t necessarily get when in constant verbal communication. Information that might help develop intuition and allow you to make more natural, informed and better decisions and judgements for the learning of your students in the long run.

5 thoughts on “Intuition through silence

  1. This hits the spot! Your observations show us the worlds of activity happening on the surface, below the surface, behind the scenes, and normally just out of “sight”. Your experiment in silence confirms that attending to what happens in the group, in the game, in the relationships can tell us volumes about our students, their struggles and wins. This is of course a hard lesson to get comfortable with as teachers. It’s seems like we’re not doing anything if we’re not instructing, correcting, asking. And yet, in our performance-based field, what we can actually see and analyze is the data we have to work with. Staying silent affords us just that much more bandwidth to see what’s happening on the other levels of performance. Thank you for offering this excellent window into your work space.


    1. The experiment is helping me to attune to my students a little more and see where they require support through direct instruction and feedback, those that need some direction through questioning and those that just need me to get out the way. What I’m finding difficult is picking the right time to do these. At the moment I’m working hard on staying silent after I set a task with explicit outcomes and constraints. I then step back to see what happens, but I feel that is a little mechanical, which is what I wanted to get away from. To try to become more natural in my decision making on how to communicate with my students. Definitely a work in progress.


  2. I am really enjoying the series of “Silent Coaching” articles. Staying silent at the right time allows the coach or teacher to witness the natural flow of events without imposing themselves on them. We sometimes need to stand back, watch and let things happen to really learn about our athletes or students. I have found that setting the environment and then turning things over to the athletes can be a really powerful way of engaging and empowering them. There is a time for a coach or teacher to be “front and centre” but also a time for them to be quietly watching and guiding from the sidelines. Choosing to be silent also is valuable in providing a coach the space to contemplate an effective response or whether to respond at all and to ensure that any response is, in fact, a valid one.


    1. I’ve always felt that ‘it depends’ was a cop out answer to many of the questions I have about my teaching and coaching, but as I get older I think it’s more justified especially if we follow it up with ‘on what’. There are times where instruction and feedback is desperately needed but then so is silence. i think getting better at picking the right one, for the right person or group in the right context is what separates good teachers from excellent teachers. I don’t think we can learn that in manual, but through building experience. Thanks for your comments Darren, as always very much appreciated.


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