How to Use the Tool of Silence

The following article from Coach Reed is an excerpt from his free eBook: "The Untapped Power of Silence in Coaching." Get the free eBook here.

I once gave a TEDx talk. It was an exhilarating and stressful experience all in one. One does not understand the level of nerves you will have when you walk into a room filled with 1500 people, bright lights and video cameras trained on you until, well, you walk into the room.

Many people had prepared me for what it would feel like. I had given speeches prior to this. I had even given a commencement speech at Mount St. Joseph College to a gym filled with upwards of 10,000 people, but it still did not compare to the gravity of what comes with a TEDx talk.

I knew this could be a career changer for me. An opportunity to share my message with a larger world and potentially use it as the platform for making a lasting change in youth sports. The stakes were high and as such, so was my anxiety. I coached for living. I had survived teaching kindergarten. I have three ornery children. If I could survive those things, I could certainly give a speech like this, right?

The greatest piece of advice I ever got was from my speaker coach, Mimi Brown. She told me not to “step on my laugh lines” and let the crowd have the moments of emotion. She wanted me to allow the laughs to happen when I said something funny, even when unexpected, because it gives the audience permission to feel the emotion. When I said something that tapped a deep, emotional connection, to let them feel it for a moment.

If I step on it by speaking more, it will tell them they are not to laugh or feel emotion, they are only to listen. I am there for them. They are not listening to me, they are listening to a talk to take something valuable away to their lives. In that vein, they need to be part of the talk. Not stepping on my laughs or emotional moments, lets them be in the moment with me.

While practicing my talk, I also noticed some very powerful moments where I could feel my own emotions welling up and so I decided not to step on those moments either. As Carmine Gallo says “stay in that space”. Let them see you vulnerable and human. Let the emotion happen for it is important to the message.

The night of the performance arrived and I had no clue how nervous I would be. This was unlike any other talk I had given because it was precisely timed and followed a day of phenomenal presentations. I chose to use no props - except my son at the entrance of the talk - and had no visuals. I wanted to use my words alone to show how powerful words can be.

I stepped on stage, got into the groove, and as the speech built to a crescendo, I could feel the emotion building in me and I was reaching the anxiety peak in my performance. I had the crowd engaged, I was in flow, but my nerves were also reacting to the moment. As I went to deliver a line I wanted the crowd to remember, I employed the tool I had learned from Mimi and Carmine.

I paused. I stood in silence for only a moment, but it felt like eternity. I told them if they only learned one thing from me tonight, this was the one thing and then I paused. I leaned toward them, and lowered my voice.

It was a beautiful moment of “syncing brains” between the speaker and the audience. As I leaned, they leaned. As I paused, their faces turned to this intense concentration. Some were on the edge of their seats. They were waiting anxiously for the next line!


That line is the most quoted line of my talk. People quote it on Twitter and Facebook. Parents, coaches, players approach me (not often, I am not that important, but the ones who have seen the talk do) and say that line to me.

That pause may have been the most powerful communication tool I used in those 8 minutes of my talk. That silence punched the quote I wanted them to remember. That silence allowed them to sync with me emotionally and become a part of my conversation. That silence won the night for me. That is the power of silence as a communication tool. You need to use it when you are creating a high-performance communication loop so your athletes are engaged, empowered, and elevated to their very best.

Here is some practical advice for when, how and why to use silence as your form of communication. Keep in mind, though, that the use of silence should be followed by another form of communication as a reinforcer.

In Games

You don’t have to adhere to the “Silent Sunday Rule” and remain completely silent during games, but this is one of the best situations to allow players the space to explore and learn on their own. Be watchful of what you say and when you say it. Sometimes sitting down and shutting up can be the best tool for teaching them. The game is a great teacher in and of itself, if you have developed a high-performance communication loop, and therefore, let the game teach. When a child messes up in a game but is attempting to correct it, let him do so. If players are communicating with each other and trying to play the way you have taught them, don’t joystick coach. Let them play in silence. Your silence not only allows them to try things without constant instructions, it also shows them you trust and believe in them. The coach of the England National Rugby team says game day is his favorite day because it is his “day off”. He claims he works hard all week preparing the men to do their jobs on game day, so when it arrives he takes a seat and lets them do the work. Try seeing game day as their day and give it back to them with a little silence once in a while.

If They Haven't Shown Frustration or Look to be Solving it on Their Own

In training or in games, if a child is trying something new but has yet to display frustration signs, let her play without input. They need the autonomy to learn and grow. We learn through trial and error. A child with a look of determination or who is still enagaged and having fun does not need your assistance yet. When you see signs of frustration such as physical display of anger, a bewildered or angry look, obvious quit behaviors, or excessive fouling when they mess up you can begin to intervene with feedback. Another sign of frustration is negative self-talk. As soon as you hear limiting beliefs like “I can’t” or you hear inward anger like “What’s wrong with me” then you may intervene as well. When I hear “can’t” I typically follow it up with the cheesy line “Success comes in cans, not can’ts” and then I follow with questioning feedback to see if they can overcome the obstacle with a bit of scaffolded teaching.

If Another Player is Helping

If you witness teammates helping each other using a high-performance communication loop, do not intervene! This is the greatest moment for many coaches. When you have trained your players so well they can teach each other, they are independent thinking problem-solvers. You cannot ask for much more out of them, and of course, as they say “when you teach something you learn it a second time”.

When The Anxiety/Performance Curve Are Nearing Its Peak You Should Intervene with Words

To a point, anxiety aids performance increasing in lock step with each other, but at too high a point of anxiety, performance will drop off steeply. When children become overrun by the anxiety they will let you know. Physically they look “tight”, afraid, have that fearful look in their eyes, or even begin to show tears. They will make comments about being overwhelmed, scared, or jittery. This usually happens when “something is on the line”. When they have something to lose, like a big game, or they are taking the penalty kick in front of everyone, then the anxiety/performance curve is peaking. You may serve them best by giving them a few words of belief and encouragement without even mentioning the skills.

When Another Influencer Is Providing Cues (Ref, Fellow Coach)

If a referee or fellow coach is providing positive, and correct, feedback and they are responding to it, allow it. Many coaches think the teaching should only come from them. When they see another teaching something to their players, the ego gets in the way and they have to jump in too. Drop the ego and let them teach your player. It helps you! Referees, especially, make great teachers because it is a novel person, who never speaks to them, teaching them something from a novel perspective. Let it happen. You benefit from this teaching no matter who does it. I once had a competing DOC tell his players to stop going to my shooting camps because he didn’t like me teaching his kids since I was no longer at his club. My goal scorers were returning to our sessions informing me of all the goals and assists they were creating and he didn’t want that? I was helping his kids. Shame on him for making it about himself (classic coaches ERR). Anyone is allowed to speak to my players as long as it is positive, correct, and helpful.

In A Moment of High Success - The Silence Gives Them All the Credit

Again, this one usually lets the ego get involved. When your players do something great, shut up. You can congratulate them and praise the work or process to get there, but please don’t take credit. You had your day when you were their age, let them have theirs. I had a team win State Cup one year. It was a goal they had set way back at the beginning of my tenure with them and they worked hard for a year to achieve it. They threw themselves into the process of getting better every day and becoming the very best they could be. When they won the Cup, the overcame a first round loss during Championship weekend, they overcame two opponents who had previously beaten them, and they played their best soccer all year. It was all you could ask for of them. So when the awards were given out to them, I wanted so badly to brag about all the work I had put into them. How I had created this Unrivaled Culture, painstakingly crafted progressive sessions that developed skills and tactics, taught them multiple formations and how to read the game so they could change positions and formations on the fly. I wanted all my colleagues who thought my method of being “too soft” and “too positive” to see how well my team did when taught my way. It took every fiber of my being not to let the ERR get in the way. As we walked over to the stage area to accept the awards, one of the parents said to me “This was a long season and I sacrificed a lot for ‘Johnny’, but today it paid off. This is his day”. The parent had no idea the timing of that comment. It reminded me to shut up and let them have their moment. So I was gracious to our opponent, congratulatory of the boys and then I stood back and watched them soak in their moment. That silence was the best tool for the day. By the way, if you have former players doing great things, feel free to congratulate them, but for goodness sake please stop taking credit. It gets old seeing on social media how player ‘Mike’ is a former player of Coach ‘Joe’ and coach is glad all of his hard work with ‘Mike’ paid off for him. Really? You were the only coach they ever had in their career and they weren’t endowed with a gift to play this game that you were lucky enough not to screw up? I know a club in our region II that loves to take credit for every college, pro and National Team player that played at least one season with them. Every time a player does well, they say “Congratulations to former ‘Club X’ player and then they go on to brag about how they created this player and others and usually list them.” It drove me nuts until one day a player was interviewed by the local paper and that player’s only mention of the club was the amount of pressure on him when he played there. Also, the player’s current coach said he would have been better off if he had left that club earlier in his career. Ouch. You would have been better off with a little silence there, ‘Club X’. Let them have their credit.

Remember to Follow Silence with A Primary Communication Form

Use the moment of silence as a tool, but recall that it must be reinforced. When I gave my TEDx talk I wanted the audience to remember the one thing they couldn’t learn in a coaching clinic, and then I paused. That silence made the next line the loudest, most powerful line of the talk. I had to follow with the line, though. If a child is allowed the moment to work through a tough skill, and then accomplishes it, be sure to let her know she got it right. That is vital to the high performance communication loop. Silence cannot stand alone as a form of communication. It needs words or gestures before or after to accentuate it.

To Reinforce Team Rules

A referee makes a bad call. You have a team rule not to yell at the ref. Don’t yell at the ref. You have a chance to enforce your rule by saying nothing. Your silence in that moment is enough to teach them respect, rules, and resiliency.

To Imply Values

Core values are maybe the most important asset a team or club has. Those values will give life to the culture, which will ultimately drive behaviors and performance. Remember to always do what is best for teaching the values. There is a good chance when all the playing has stopped it will be the values taught that will live on in their lives. Silence can be one of the greatest ways to imply the importance of a value. I was once in a game with a difficult opposing coach. Everyone knew he was nasty to his own and the other team’s players. He would spend the game whining at the ref until he got his way and he would bait the other coach into fights. This game was going exactly as he always plans and in one incident, after chewing the ref on a phantom call he walked off the field and directly to me. He stood over me and started in about how my players were dirty. His player tripped over the ball. My nearest player was 3 steps away when the injury and “phantom foul” occurred. I stood up and asked him to return to his bench. The ref also called over and told the two of us to “cut it out” so I told the ref I had not done anything. “He came into my bench and started verbally attacking me” I stated. This coach turns on me and yells, “show some class!” At this point everyone on our field and everyone on the field behind us is watching this scene unfold. I calmly sat down and didn’t say another word. He went nuts. I never said another word to him the rest of the game. After the game the referee came over to commend me on not falling into the coach’s trap (he later got red carded because he could not get over my lack of response. He spent the rest of the game until his card trying to goad me into a response). One of my player’s said to the ref, “When Coach Reed sat down, he did just what the other coach asked for…he showed some class.” Value taught without a single word.

If You Use Silence as A Tool...Set That Expectation with Parents, Players, Fellow Coaches

Finally, if you are going to employ silence in your arsenal of communication tools, you need to set this expectation with everyone involved. You need to let players know you will let them have their moments so they know you have not abandoned them. You need to let parents know so they do not think you are not doing your job. You need to let refs know that you welcome them to teach when you don’t or that you expect certain standards of play and will use silence to allow those standards to exist. You also need to let colleagues know too. They will think they need to pick up the slack where you aren’t coaching if they don’t know you are letting players have their moments.


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