Pep Talks 101 - The Language Today’s Student Athletes Understand

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Everybody wants to win, right? There is no glory in being on the team that didn’t. Or is there? Without going chest deep into the ‘every kid's a winner and gets a trophy’ model of sports (which most youth basketball is not built on), there are strategies to make sure that you are communicating with your team members in a way that makes them feel good even when they don’t win. He wasn’t a basketball player, he was in baseball, but Ernie Banks said this about losing: “the only way to prove that you are a good sport is to lose.” The message to kids is that sports is as much about being a good sport as it is about winning. Afterall, in sports, there is only one team each year that can be the champion and learning how to lose well is just as important as learning how to win.

Inspiring Words for Coaches to Use

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Take football star Tom Landry’s words and use them. “I’ve learned that something constructive comes from every defeat.”

 

The same goes for kids who are not the stars. Derek Jeter, another baseball legend (who is a little more contemporary) espoused this wisdom, “There may be people who have more talent than you, but there is no excuse for anyone to work harder than you.”

 

Many of these wisdom-inspiring quotes from athletes will not necessarily resonate with the student athletes that you are currently coaching. They require a contemporary relevance for the words to resonate when mixed into your pep talks. The trick is doing it in a way that today’s student athletes actually hear, connect with, and understand. Every time you give a pep talk it should be intentional, focused, and done in a way that lifts them up, inspires them, and with the aspiration that what you said at that moment just might reinforce them well past the season and throughout their lives.

 

Modern Language that Kids Use

 

So what do kids hear these days? What words catch their attention, especially in the ever-evolving world of slang (made even more difficult to keep up with thanks to social media that most have access to)? There are a few really good resources that can help you stay up on the slang that is being used. And while, as an adult, you might sound foreign and out of place if you decide to heavily incorporate it into what you are saying, you can use it to get their attention and to make sure that you understand what they are saying to you. These include:

  • The Urban Dictionary which contains all of the words and phrases that you will find scattered throughout the lingo kids use when they talk to each other

  • McAfee’s Texting Slang Update which provides a not quite comprehensive list of the words and terms that you will find exchanged between kids on social media and phone to phone

  • NetSanity which has an on-line guide to teen slang

 

A simple way to put this into practice is to take a great inspirational sports quote, like that from the movie, Hoosiers, “If you put your effort and concentration into playing to your potential, I don't care what the scoreboard says at the end of the game. In my book, we're gonna be winners! OK?" Then look up the key words and terms on these sites. What you will find out is that to some kids the term ‘winners’ will resonate as ‘losers.’ (Source). So if you borrow this line from the movie to rally your team, you may need to make sure that you elaborate on what type of winners they will be. ‘Winners’ may be turned into ‘losers’ when some kids hear it, but ‘A Win’ is universally a good thing. So, it might be more effective to say to the team, “If you put your effort and concentration into playing to your potential, I don’t care what the scoreboard says at the end of the game. In my book we had A Win! OK?”

 

To become good at this you will need to spend some time on these sites.

 

Challenging Student Athletes to Live the Pep Talk

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Also, love her, or hate her, there is no denying that some of the greatest insights of the day can be found within Oprah’s media empire (there is a reason, after all, that she has successfully built an empire around communication and entertainment). One that is worthwhile taking into your approach towards coaching and pep talks is to remember that these should not just be one-sided in which the kids hear you talking down to them. They should be positioned as dialogue, in which the kids are invited to play a role. (Source).


Children and teenagers respond well to being included in a conversation. They also grow as individuals, athletes, and as members of a team, when they are encouraged to make “meaningful decisions and to become active agents in their own development.”  So don’t just end the talk with a pat on the back, close it out in a way that gets everyone actively involved in playing out the words that were spoken so that they come to life on the bench, on the court, and in those kids’ every day lives.

Felipe Leon