Using Athlete's Name for Effective Coaching

The following is a brief literature review prepared by Dr Daniel Greenwood, in response to a question asked by Mark Lebedew. The only credit I can take for it is that I introduced them, and have a couple of spare moments to post it.

Literature Summary - The use of ‘Names’ in Learning

Our names are inextricably tied to our identity and our origin, and thus using them brings great influence (Cosgriff et al., 2013). When a teacher uses a student’s name it demonstrates mutual respect, reducing barriers between teacher and student. When considering positive feedback, the use of names makes compliments more sincere and genuine (Turrill, 2008)

Our brain registers that when our name is said, someone wants our attention. When we hear our name we turn towards the speaker, it has been ingrained in us so long it’s an instinctual reaction. People will turn their attention toward you every time their name is mentioned, even if they aren’t listening. Because of the instinctual response, when someone hears their name they will immediately pick up on the feelings you have associated their name with. The tone of the talk which follows someone’s name is as important as the content delivered as the use of their name will ensure they will remember how you made them feel.

Sport research exists which has recorded how often coaches used athlete names in volleyball training. Results showed an average use of 24 times per 2 hour training session, but a huge range (2 – 45) and no relationships to outcome meant no conclusions can be drawn from this research (Stewart & Bengier, 2001).

When using names in written form, the positioning of the name in a sentence is used to change the tone. For example:
  • Strong and slightly aggressive - Alexis, do you understand what I'm saying?
  • Awkward - Do you understand Alexis, what I'm saying?
  • Politest and most usual structure - Do you understand what I'm saying Alexis?
However, this written use doesn’t directly transfer to verbal feedback as the name is often used to garner attention. In dog training, it has been shown how important it is that the dog be paying attention for it to respond reliably to a command. Interestingly, in this context, any verbal information (which is not a name) given before a command decreases the response consistency. This is presumed to be due to the decrease in attention that the additional talking brings which is not related to the task (Braem & Mills, 2010).

Follow-up research in the area showed that if the dog is paying attention, using its name or not using its name makes no difference when issuing a command. However, meaningless babble before issuing a command, or adding a 2 second delay between the name and command results in poorer reliability. This is shown to be more important when learning new skills rather than more well learned skills (Braem & Mills, 2010).

So in sports coaching, the use of the name when giving positive feedback is beneficial. The use of the name in giving constructive feedback will not change the outcome, however, when used at the front of a sentence it will get the athletes attention, which does help skill learning. However, be mindful that the use of names brings an instinctual reaction, and therefore the tone of voice used before and after someone’s name can have a huge impact on the athlete involved.

Summary for Coaches

  • Having someone’s attention is more important than using someone’s name for feedback to be effective
  • But you can use someone’s name at the start of feedback to get their attention
  • The tone of the speech before and after using someone’s name is very important
  • Using a name when giving positive feedback increases its effectiveness


Braem, M. D., & Mills, D. S. (2010). Factors affecting response of dogs to obedience instruction: A field and experimental study. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 125, 47-55.

Cosgriff, M., Petrie, K., Keown, S., Devcich, J., Duggan, D., & Naera, J. (2013). What's in a name? Re-imagining Health and Physical Education in the primary school. Physical Educator - Journal of Physical Education New Zealand, 46(3), 10-13.

Stewart, M. J., & Bengier, D. J. (2001). An Analysis of Volleyball Coaches' Coaching Behavior in a Summer Volleyball Team Camp. Physical Educator, 58(2), 86.

Turrill, E. A. (2008). Hey...You in the Green! Knowing the Names of Your Students for Classroom Management. Virginia Journal, 29(4), 5-6.

(Photo Credit)


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