October 2016

Former Australian men’s gymnast Brennon Dowrick well knows the power of words.

When a young and very nervous Dowrick debuted in international competition in China in the 1980s, he fell off the pommel horse during a routine, knocking a chalk bucket toward the judges table. National coach Warwick Forbes tried to stop the bucket but it hit the table, showering Forbes and the head judge with white powder.

‘The crowd went into hysterics,’ Dowrick said. ‘But Warwick smiled, wiped his face, came over to me and said an amazing thing. He said it was not the best routine I’d ever done, but that I should forget the routine and concentrate on representing Australia and doing the best for the team. Every time I competed after that I remembered his words. Our team results got better and better and my own results improved too.’

Forbes’ words were positive, but would Dowrick’s response — or even his career — have been different if Forbes had said nothing, or worse, had reacted negatively?

Words can carry enormous weight, sometimes more than we think. They can often impact on people for decades, providing either the courage to press on, or to give up.

Every day in our sports clubs and organisations our words are shaping the reality of our club culture and of the individuals who take part in our activities. Often this has more significance than our clubs’ written words and codes of conduct.

What we say and how we act can influence participants’ attitudes, behaviours, performance and their continued involvement in our organisations. We can even impact on their quality of life.

More broadly this can also impact on how our clubs are perceived and supported by the community, media and sponsors.

All of these impacts can be positive or negative and it takes discernment to know when, how and even if to speak in some situations.

There are a number of techniques that we can consider to help us choose our response.

Think before you speak and ask yourself, ‘How will I sound to my listener?’ Communicate in a way that is fair, non-threatening, positive, and helps maintain the person’s self-esteem. When someone does something right, tell them what you liked about their actions. Whenever you do this be sincere, because incessant praise can be viewed as shallow and insincere.

If the situation is tense, sometimes it is more useful to say nothing and simply actively listen so that someone can vent their emotions. Often this can be followed up with a productive conversation.

If, however, it is you who is emotional, then let your emotions settle before providing a response. If you are irate, then wait.

Another technique is to ask thought-provoking questions instead of making statements. Some examples might be: ‘Why did that matter?’ or ‘How are you seeing the situation?’

It is also useful not to start sentences with ‘you’, but rather with ‘I’. This can help to avoid a blaming tone.

You can choose to be civil and respectful, even if it means changing the subject by agreeing to disagree.

If something does need to be said, it shouldn’t be said bluntly. It never takes long to think of a more diplomatic way to put hard facts, and this can make a big difference in how people receive information. Seldom is anybody won over by being belittled, irritated or nagged.

Hockey Victoria has published a highly informative and helpful 26-page booklet that includes tips for handling sensitive conversations, active listening techniques, communicating with Indigenous people and people with disability, and for creating an environment supportive of gender and sexuality diversity. What you say matters is largely written for coaches, but the messages and strategies resonate across all participants in a club or sports organisation.

You can find it at Hockey Victoria