Now that’s fighting talk: How Warwick’s Applied Linguistics experts helped England Boxing understand coaches’ communication
A lot can happen in 60 seconds.
And when you’re a boxing coach in the pressure cooker of a big fight, you need to achieve a lot in the one-minute break between rounds.
These are critical moments – opportunities to reassure, inspire and protect young prodigies before they get back in the ring.
Coaches who understand the effect of their words and know how to maximise their use of language will therefore enjoy an upper hand.
In the time before seconds out, every second counts.
The search for that competitive advantage is what led England Boxing, the sport’s national governing body at amateur levels, to work with the Sports Culture and Communication Research Collective at Warwick.
The need to know the ropes
Boxing may be a one-on-one battle of wits and skills, but like all sports, it relies on extensive teamwork.
In addition to the extensive exertions of training, coaches play a huge role before, during and after fights – particularly in junior age groups, where the influence of experienced mentors can be especially formative.
Teamwork, of course, always comes back to communication.
The ways in which athletes and coaches interact can impact relationships, habits, attitudes and ultimately performances
It’s obvious when you think about it – and yet despite the relentless search for marginal gains in competitive sports, relatively little attention is paid to this kind of communication
Unless, that is, you are Associate Professor Dr Kieran File at the Centre for Applied Linguistics at the University of Warwick.
Kieran’s work focuses on how language is used in sports. He leads the Sports Culture and Communication Research Group and, as it turns out, his reputation precedes him.
When Alan Rapley, Coach Developer at UK Coaching, was discussing the different styles and approaches of boxing coaches with England Boxing’s Development Coach Amanda Coulson, they realised they shared a common interest.
And in their bid to understand whether there was a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of communicating with boxers in between rounds, they turned to Dr File – whose previous projects include research with the likes of the Williams Racing Formula One team – for help.
Kieran and his colleagues were soon tasked with studying the interactions during fights and analysing the patterns they discovered to shed light on what might really be happening across the 980 affiliated clubs overseen by England Boxing.
A complex body of work
“As applied linguists, our data is authentic language use,” Kieran explained.
“We start by collecting examples of authentic communication from the encounter we are studying – in this case, the 60 seconds in between rounds – and then work with sporting bodies to identify relevant encounters before applying our theories and tools to unpack how language is being used.”
There’s a lot more to this process than merely counting words, though.
The idea is to pick up on how people are using language; the social or interpersonal functions, the linguistic styles and strategies, even the factors behind body language and non-verbal cues.
In this project, the team of researchers identified five functions performed by coaches in the minute-long breaks: greeting the boxer, running a health check, building confidence, providing corrective feedback, and refocusing.
The study, which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, also revealed several key insights and topics for discussion.
For instance, there was a variation in how coaches addressed their boxers, with some saying “boy” and others “mate”.
The report Kieran and his fellow researchers produced asks probing questions of the reader, such as whether these vocabulary choices – both terms of endearment, yet with subtly different connotations – might have a significance to specific athletes.
“It’s not a how-to booklet; we didn’t set out to tell coaches how to communicate between rounds,” he explained.
“We enjoy engaging in critical conversations about language use in sporting contexts, but we prefer to do this with stakeholders so we can bring our collective expertise together.”
Indeed, Kieran presented insights from the study in a workshop with England Boxing’s top Talent Coaches.
“They made some important observations about how to use language to design empowering, instructional messages while ensuring boxers are safe, confident and switched on,” he said.
For England Boxing, it was a worthwhile exercise.
“Exploring our coaching from the corner is an area where we can look to improve by 1%,” Amanda Coulson said.
“It’s highlighted the need to analyse and reflect on our performances as coaches, particularly when the pressure is on.”