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Neuro-linguistic programming: improving rapport between track/cross country coaches and significant others.

"Relationships are not sporting events. Stop wrestling for control. No one ever wins this kind of match except lawyers."

--Leo Buscaglia (1984, p. 165)

Coaches face many obstacles on the oval of track competition and the grand, wide-open courses of cross country, but none so demanding as maintaining empathetic, free-flowing, positive channels of communication and rapport building with their staff, athletes, parents, and community. Just because the coach has that all-American profile and great hair doesn't mean he/she communicates effectively and maintains a rapport. Neuro-linguistic programming steps in at this point for win/ win communication for all parties involved.

Jung once said, "The unconscious processes that are most important to rely upon are ... empathy and through empathy a therapist (or in our case, the coach) is able to put himself inside and feel along with his patient (athlete, etc.) or experience in himself what it is like to be his patient (athlete, etc.)"(Fordham, 1978, p. 91). Turkat reinforced the concept of empathy when he stated, "Unquestionably, one must be able to emphasize with the patient if one is to be able to formulate the case" (Turkat, 1985, p.9). Arthur Combs (1976) went right to the "heart of empathy" as he stated, "Helpers who can truly understand and identify with their clients will most likely be more compassionate, concerned, and sympathetic--thus, far more inclined to foster good communication." Opening the lines of communication is a must between coach and significant others (athletes, staff, parents, and community) and can be accomplished in a "masterful" way through Neuro-linguistic Programming.

Basic theory states that each time the section of the brain referred to as the hypothalamus (located in the ganglia, third ventricle) experiences stimuli, it transports the nerve signals to differing sections of the brain and thinking occurs. The brain then thinks in terms of sensory experiences of pictures, feelings, sounds, smells, and tastes. The electro-chemical reactions and electrical discharges occur in the brain when information is stored; thinking occurs while receiving stimuli causing automatic responses-physiological and muscular reactions-unconscious communication (Helm, 1989, pp. 254-255).

Basically, behavior is communication. Watzlawick (1967) indicated that this cognitive behavioral communication which simply meansHow we think results in how we behave; and all behaviors are the communications that lead to how we are thinking, non-verbal communications, and body language.

According to the writer (Helm, 1989), the coach must establish whether the significant other (athlete, etc.) is communicating primarily through visual, auditory, or kinesthetic means (Please note individuals communicate in all three modalities, but they stress one more than the others.) so as to establish the "ideal" communication modality. This step involves observing the significant other's eye movements (Bandler and Grinder, 1979). Assume the significant other is right handed (The following will be true in 80 percent of the right handed people to be observed (Helm, 1989, p. 255). When asked appropriate specific questions (such as, "Where and when did you run your fastest time?") if the significant other is visual, he/she will look up to the right to create an answer and up to the left to remember information; if auditory, he/ she will look towards his/her right ear to create ideas or to the left ear to recall ideas; and if kinesthetic, he/she will look down to the right if he/ she is thinking or talking to himself/herself.

One may also distinguish the modality the significant other (athlete, etc.) is operating in by the way he/she stands-if visual, straight; if auditory, a telephone posture; and kinesthetic, slumped. Vocally, a visual person has a loud, high, fast-tempoed rate of speaking; an auditory person has a mid-range even tempoed rate; and the kinesthetic person has a soft, low, slow-tempoed vocal quality (Helm, 1989, p. 255).

Once the significant other has been determined to primarily belong to the visual, auditory, or kinesthetic modality, the coach will then adapt to the appropriate modality for effective communication. Now, the challenge begins for the coach "to join" the significant other through the appropriate linguistics.

As to linguistics, the object is to match the predicates (verbs, adjectives, and adverbs) (Figure 1) of the significant other according to what he or she says in accordance to the pattern established through his/her eye movements and other cues. For example, if visual, the coach might say, " I see that you are upset"; if auditory "It sounds like you need someone to listen"; and if kinesthetic, "I feel that we should share feelings." (Helm, 1989).
Figure: 1 Predicates and associated modality
sensory systems







It is important to note that for 20% of the right handed people and some left-handed people, the patterns are reversed and the coach must react accordingly (Helm, 1989).

When meeting the significant other (athlete, etc.) on a one to one basis, the coach can enhance the "rapport" needed to open the communication channel through the process of appropriate proximation (the pacing of the individual's posture, head positioning, shoulders, gestures, breathing, and vocal expression). As the individual sits, so should the coach approximate a similar sitting position (same with the positioning of the head, etc.) The individual observes through this "approximation" that the coach is very much like him/ her so the journey occurs and the empathy is established Don't we like people who remind us of ourselves? Yes!

Through Neuro-Linguistic Programming, the coaches' sessions with significant others in his coaching arena open new boundless areas of communication developing levels of trust and empathy.

"Man is but a network of relationships and these alone matter to him."

--St. Exupery

(Buscaglia, 1984, p. 29)


Bandler, R. & Grinder, J. (1979). Frogs into Princes. Moab, UT: Real People Press.

Buscaglia, Leo, Ph.D. (1984). Loving Each Other: The Challenge of Human Relationships. New York: Fawcett Columbine.

Combs, A.W., Avila, D.L. and Purkey, W. Helping Relationships: Basic Concepta for the Helping Professions. Boston: Alien and Bacon.

Fordham, M. (1978) Jungian Psvcho-therapy New York: John Wiley and Sons.


Helm, David, Ed.D. (1989, Winter). Education: The Wagon Train to the Stars: "It's Time to "Jump Start" Learning through N.L.P. Education 110,2,254-256.

Turket, I.D. (1985). Behavioral Case Formulation New York: Plenum.

David Jay Helm


Hall of Fame Coach

New Mexico Track/Cross Country Coaches Association
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Author:Helm, David Jay
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Date:Jun 22, 2017
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