The One Word You Should Avoid Using


If you were to survey a million parents, coaches, and teachers about their biggest barrier to improving performance, most would mention motivation.

Because while the science of talent has made many advances in recent years, motivation remains an area of profound mystery. How does it start? Why does it vanish? How do we sustain it in our families, our teams, our organizations?

I’ve come to realize that part of the problem might lie in one word.


Words are signals, and the signal the word “practice” sends is “THIS WILL PROBABLY BE BORING.”  “Practice” tells a story of dutifulness, obligation, of putting in required hours. It’s vague, devoid of spark or specificity, a slice of white bread and soggy peas slapped on a dinner plate.

Now go do your practice. I’ve gotta go to practice. We have practice all week. 

That’s why I think many smart parents, teachers, and coaches are starting to avoid the word “practice” and replace it with words that tell a more precise, motivating story.

Many music teachers avoid the word “practice,” and recommend using the word “play” instead. So instead of saying, “It’s time for you to practice piano,” you say, “Time to play piano.” A small change, perhaps, but an important one, because it puts the focus on the action itself.

I recently learned of Jim McGuinness, coach of Ireland’s County Donegal’s absurdly overaccomplished Gaelic football team, who also avoids the P-word and who instead talks about his team’s “rehearsals.”

I love that. McGuinness’s team doesn’t aim to “practice” in some general way — they rehearse specific plays over and over, so that they can hit their marks with timing and precision, exactly as an actor or musician might. Exactness is the goal; so “rehearsal” is the right word.

I’ve heard some musicians refer to their practices as “workouts,” which I like because it implies a muscular specificity. “I need a couple more workouts on the new guitar solo,” is far better than, “I need to practice that new guitar solo.”

This high-school tennis team has outlawed the word “practice,” and replaced it with the word “training.” They say they like it, because “it has more of a work-ethic undertone,” and also because it implies a goal. You’re training toward a big event, not just practicing.

All these terms work because they refocus the soft, generality of “practice” on something more precise and useful.

They also underline a larger fact: motivation isn’t about handing out Attaboys, or telling people that they’re awesome. It’s about finding the right words to convey the harder, more precise truth about the process, the goal, and where to put the effort.

What other words work for you?

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24 Responses to “The One Word You Should Avoid Using”

  1. Not sure if you know the work of Dr. Steve Peters and his book The Chimp Paradox. One of the points Peters makes is the difference between Motivation and Commitment. Peters points out, Motivation is a feeling based on our emotions and like all our feelings is temporary. Motivation is helpful but it is not essential for success and it is not realistic to think that you will feel Motivated every day. Commitment though does not come from feelings. Commitment means following a plan even on the days you do not feel like it. It is Commitment not Motivation that will drive you to accomplishing your goals. As Peters says “When you decide to do something, remind yourself that it is Commitment not Motivation that matters.”

  2. alan iverson says:

    I always thought practice had a bad taste to it.

  3. Damon Shaw says:

    In England we don’t use the word practice. Our American player does call it that though!

    We call it training. Agree with the points above though!

  4. John Lenart says:

    We use training as the word for our youth soccer team for the same reason the tennis team in the article uses it. It’s ok but the essence is similar. I like the rehearsals word and logic but more the workouts and play words.

    For our youth soccer teams, I’m going to experiment with PLAY and WORKOUT to see how it goes.

  5. Doc says:

    I wonder what would happen if you found a way to elevate the word practice to the status of “law practice” or “medical practice”. The impact of words is truly intriguing. I listen to fitness professionals in their presentations invariably demonize the use of the word “core” wishing they could find another term. I never really understood this because no one is looking for a new descriptive word of the arm or leg or bicep or tricep, etc.

  6. Peter says:

    Hmmm…I’m usually right in step with you, Dan, but I’m not sure I am here. I completely get the sentiment, but upon reading your title, I was guessing at what the “word” would be. I was hovering on words like “Talented”, “Gifted”, “Smart” as in, “You’re so ___________”.

    Comparatively, I see these as far more destructive to the learning process than the word “practice”. You are correct in that the “p” word connotes work. I’m not averse to this and neither are those that I see rising to the top of their professions or teams. As you’ve so many times pointed out, it’s not even the “p” word that makes the difference. It’s the special kind of “p” that does – the Deep and Deliberate kind. And, whatever practicer calls it, it is effortful, sometimes fun, and always constructive.

    So, yes, I get it. But, I respectfully don’t quite agree. Just my take. Carry on with the excellent work! (and Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!)


  7. djcoyle says:

    You make great points, Peter — thanks for making them. In the largest cultural sense I think you’re absolutely right — the T-word (“talented”) and the G-word (“gifted”) are far bigger barriers than “practice.” And finding different ways to describe superior performance is one of the most powerful things we can do.
    I’d love to hear any suggestions on how people might do that.

  8. Peter says:

    …And you’ll be happy to know that my 11-year old deep practicer LOVES The Little Book of Talent. He read it in two days (a pretty big accomplishment for him). He uses your “sweet spot” concept on a weekly basis.

    Dan (and readers) – not sure if you happened across Alix Speigal’s NPR story on “Struggle”. I thought it was terrific. Here’s the link:

  9. Robert says:

    I can take any golf pro, make them better with proper “Practice” in 20minutes than they themselves are able to do in weeks.
    So while people do practice the way they evaluate their own feedback while they do it aka deep practice and the structural ways you can enhance that approach allows you to for example change the golf swing in weeks in spite of everyone else tells me it take 2 years.

    You can work out, do training, do rehersals, but unless you understand how to evaluate that practice properly, you wont excel in spite of the time spent. if you do understand how to evaluate properly you can not only make deep practice more effective but enhance that to an even bigger extent in a timeframe people call impossible.

  10. Bret says:

    Your stuff is usually right on the money. But not this time. Simply substituting a new word in place of “practice” without actually changing the reason “practice” felt boring and monotonous will eventually change the meaning of the “new” word. “Play” will eventually feel just like practice. The real challenge is finding ways to ignite their passion. Call it whatever you want.

  11. djcoyle says:

    I hear you, Bret. And to be clear: I’m not saying this is some kind of silver bullet, because there are no silver bullets. I’d also say that this is not just about substituting a new word — it’s about creating/designing the kinds of conditions that improve the chance of their motivation igniting. About “telling a story” that tilts people away from the kinds of things that snuff motivation. As you say, it’s tough to figure out what motivates an individual. But we can be sure as to what de-motivates them: a sense of drudgery and sameness.

  12. Andre says:

    I love this concept Mr Coyle and it mainly serves as a reminder due to a strong parallel it shares with a recent epiphany I had concerning my math coursework. Typically teachers/students regard homework in math (esp. in calculus) as PROBLEMS, however after much frustration and contempt built up that I began to hold for calculus I realized that instead of viewing my math homework as PROBLEMS, viewing them as EXERCISES or WORKOUTS made the task of completing homework much more feasible and more of a learning experience because just like when we exercise by lifting weights, (essentially breaking down our muscle tissue, and after time/nutrition the muscle tissue growing back stronger and larger, and then repeating the same process) by challenging ourselves (within a “sweet spot”) we build ourselves up and make ourselves stronger over time. By tackling and dealing with dfficult math exercises I came to approach the “lighter” exercises with ease. It continually amazes me how much the connotation of a word can affect our perception of the world around us.

  13. Robert says:

    I had the golf pro and he said after a competition that he made a lot of putts go short. As I asked how come he hit them short he ended up saying “its harder to make them if they are long”, which casuality and my question did illustrate so if the putt is 1m short or 1m long the one long is harder to make? silence on the other side of the phone and slowly no its the same and I pushed further, so how come you have that and he said someone told him that once, some trainer or such and he took it to heart and ended up hitting it short. Lesson granted dont listen to the expert by ear even the best have it wrong and kids just tends to follow instruction without much thought of check it its so or not.
    Next competition he hit them past the hole and had no issue making them as he knew the fall and line better. Even with practice and training and working out or rehersal, if the flaw is persistent no new painting can cover it up.

  14. Chad Onken says:

    “We talkin about practice, dog. Practice??!! We talking about practice??”

    – Alan Iverson

  15. Walter says:

    When i played soccer as a kid it was always called practice. Now as a coach, many years later, it’s refered to as a “Training Session”, at least in N America

  16. Wojtek Stryczek says:

    Personally, I don’t really think that words are a problem. To motivate people, you have to appeal to their values. Very often we motivate others by giving them words with our values rather than appealing to theirs. I came across fascinating works on motivation by Steven Reiss Ph. D. I’ve read two of his books: “Who Am I? The 16 basic desires that motivate our actions and define our personalities” and “The 16 strivings for God”. It was an eye opener for me as far as motivation is concerned. What I found intriguing was the concept itself – that there are no one or two factors (inner and outer, or stick and a carrot etc) but there are 16 factors. 16 is quite o lot, and what’s more, what really counts is a combination of them. Reiss studies involved more than 6,000 people, and based upon that he proposed a theory of these 16 basic desires guiding our behavior. These are:

    Acceptance, the need for approval
    Curiosity, the need to learn
    Eating, the need for food
    Family, the need to raise children
    Honor, the need to be loyal to the traditional values of one’s clan/ethnic group
    Idealism, the need for social justice
    Independence, the need for individuality
    Order, the need for organized, stable, predictable environments
    Physical activity, the need for exercise
    Power, the need for influence of will
    Romance, the need for sex
    Saving, the need to collect
    Social contact, the need for friends (peer relationships)
    Social status, the need for social standing/importance
    Tranquility, the need to be safe
    Vengeance, the need to strike back

    Interesting – there is no music for example (which falls under power factor), there is no religion. But there is sport (physical activity).

    So to motivate people, you have to appeal to their desires in the first place, specific words are secondary but they must appeal to values.

    Strongly recommend works by Steven Reiss to all those interested in motivation.

  17. alligato says:

    I remember this esaay by Amy Chua in the Wall Street Journal discussing parenting styles of Asian parents in contrast with Western parents…
    This paragraph really summed it up for me:

    “…nothing is fun until you’re good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it’s math, piano, pitching or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.”

  18. Nevada teacher says:

    Reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory.

  19. Paul Miller says:

    It’s the small things like this Daniel that make continued and sustanined differences. As a Lead Learner for a Grammar School in England I have two roles, academic and rugby coach. Our kids have regularly heard the ‘You are so talented/special/great/brilliant’ line by both parents and teachers and it’s been quite a job to convince them to change. But it DOES work, really work.
    What also works is saying ‘Quiz’ rather than ‘Test’ and ‘Competition’ rather than ‘Assessment’, particularly with boys. It just causes a different emotional response and mind-set.
    As a rugby coach I have two statements that get said more than anything else: ‘Play what you see’ and ‘Say what you see’. If your players do this, they give themselves the chance to make the right decisions or act instinctively (caused by repetitive practice) rather than just follow the play book. Every single situation is different so ‘See’ it and ‘Say’ it, so that others see the picture too. would love your support/recommendation Dan. Its people like you, Carol Dweck, Ken Robinson, Pink and Shenk that I preach about. Thank you.

  20. Jason Maxwell says:

    I know I’m behind having just read this entry, but I have some things I am compelled to share…

    First, in the Eastern European sports machine I’ve heard they don’t refer to their time in the gym has practice or training…they call them “lessons.” I like this. Its about education and progress, about learning things, not about practicing them.

    I recently saw a TED talk that I have watched multiple times because it speaks to me as a teacher. In it, the gentleman says that we should try to shift schooling and education from “work” to “art.” His argument is that when something is defined as “work” we naturally try to do less of it, but when something is our “art” we want to do more. Have you ever heard an artist say they don’t want to do one more canvas? If we can view learning and getting better as a personal artistic expression, then putting in the effort is more of a pleasure.


  21. Joe Colligan says:

    As the father of a five year old son I subscribe to your sentiment, lots of it.. but there are some things that really make me think you’ve missed the boat on the true dynamics of what’s in play here based on your above instalment.

    I feel the semantics of the words you’re pitching are no different and no better than all the corporate consultants that introduce new words like “Socialise” rather than “Share”.. for example “We really need to Socialise this Power Point Slide” verses “Share it”, or “Present it”, or “Deliver it”…, etc. “Socialise” suddenly wakes people up, it’s ‘sexy’, but it’s also describing the exact same expenditure of energy to accomplish the same objective as share, deliver, present.

    Basically, words emote different feelings in different people. Sure you can generalise, but I’m sure the first person that introduced the word “Synergy” as the saviour of emotive communication in the corporate world never saw how much of a cliché he or she was introducing to the corporate world.

    Point being, words are like clothes, they come in and out of fashion all the time (except synergy which is the bell-bottoms of our time) and over-using or abusing any one of them will reduce their emotive value.

    For example, Webster’s will tell you that ‘Rehearsing and Practicing’ have almost identical functional definitions, but since ‘Rehearsal’ is a new introduction to the Sports Audience, it is suddenly more emotive, no?

    So, sorry to sound harsh, but I don’t think you’ve suddenly discovered a more precise word to motivate muscle memory, I think you’ve just provided the freshest vocabulary for this audience, and like all fresh approaches, if abused, or over time, it will go stale. I would instead offer as advice: if one method of motivation/communication becomes stale, use all your creative energy to introduce another method to re-capture the enthusiasm of the individuals you’re trying to motivate. I think that’s what you’ve really done here with your innovate new vocabulary, and that’s not with out merit! 😉

    Best Wishes, and of course and I look forward to future installments.


  22. djcoyle says:

    Hey Joe,
    Thanks very much for that thoughtful comment — I really appreciate it, and I think you’re right. There is a big distinction to be made here between offering magic bullets and offering some tools/ideas for thought and discussion — and I’m definitely in the second category. Your point that it’s all about finding fresh ways to frame and engage learners is right one. Perhaps that’s why so many of these examples of word choice find their power by borrowing from “opposite” domains — in other words, the music teachers find freshness by borrowing sports words, and vice-versa. Because that’s what it’s about — using the words as a way to create engagement. Thanks again — I’m grateful to have you reading!

  23. djcoyle says:

    Hey Jason,
    Thanks for sharing that idea, and that link. It’s fabulous.
    Best, Dan

  24. Randy says:

    Back when I used to play music, the real musicians I knew, the “cats”, referred to practice as “shedding” which was short for “woodshedding”, the woodshed being where you could go and practice without being distracted or disturbed. Maybe not as paradigm shifting as “play” but I like it.

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