"Just Jump" - The importance of the right word

Published on March 1st, 2011

Mark Twain once remaked "The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." In my days of coaching track and field, I had the exact same experience when trying to teach a group of athletes at the same time. 7 different athletes could hear the very same instructions and (based on their life experience, personalities, etc) come away with completely different interpretations. And it didn't matter how explicit and detailed I was in my directions. I sometimes felt like I was asking for their reaction to a poem or gut reaction to a piece of abstract art.

One example that I could never get out of my head was that of a very strong and talented thrower. While he would perform extremely well in the hammer throw and discus, he simply could not perform up to his potential in the shot put. It was not a matter of strength. He was a solid muscle. It was not a matter of hand-eye coordination. He was a football player and could hang with the best of them in sports he never played. What was missing was the connection between the words we told him and his body's interpretation of what that meant.

We could tell him 'push', 'explode', 'press', etc — Anything to help him translate power like he could in the other events. But nothing was clicking, even after years of training in this event, and athletes that should not have been able to compete with him could consistently challenge him.

Then something happened. After cycling through tons of different ways of conveying the same information, Coach Taylor hit on the one phrase that made all the difference — 'Just Jump.' That one phrase resulted in a huge personal record that weekend (4 feet or 10% longer than his best throw.) These types of improvements just simply don't happen that quickly in most circumstances and certainly can't be attributed to an increase in strength.

What happened was a single phrase unlocked the latent ability that his body already had. It just did it in a way that made the connection after being filtered through all of his interpretations of what he thought we were saying.

So a single word and single phrase can be extremely important. So choose your words wisely, and try some others if they don't work out!

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About Rick Manelius

Quick Stats: CTO of Contact Mapping. Author of Winning the Lottery Within. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.