First published on www.cleanlanguage.co.uk 18 September 2005
Clean Language in
Clean Language is a way of respectfully
working with other people's perspectives of the world so that they
can gain new insights into what motivates them, how they think and
therefore why they do what they do. Using it as a performer-centred
coaching tool enables Performers to find and enhance their motivation
to train and compete and to become exquisitely aware of what they are
doing in order that they can become increasingly more effective.
Using Clean Language to facilitate Performers' metaphors gives them a
greater awareness of their sensory/intuitive processes and provides a
language to discuss the previously 'difficult to describe' processes
like: "How to get into the zone".
Dave Price has been coaching in sport for
many years. He jointly presented a Performance Coaching course, with
David Hemery [Ref
4], that I attended around 1995. That
course focused my passion for discovering 'how people change and
develop'. I had learned a little about the Psychology of Motivation
during my Management Education and then started a very rich
exploration of the more 'hands on' approaches to motivation and
change: notably: Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), Clean Language
and Symbolic Modelling (CL&SM) and Solutions Focus. Since 1997 I
have been training/coaching managers in getting the best performance
from their people, often presenting those training courses with Dave
Price. During the evenings at various training venues we would often
talk about Dragon Boating and what it would take for his team, the
Hartlepool Powermen, to go faster. I began to get more and more
interested and then found myself agreeing wholeheartedly to join
Dave's Coaching Team when he was appointed Head Coach for the GB
Premier Open Dragon Boat Team in 2002. This was an opportunity to
take our ideas into the context of a National Team.
Our approach to coaching is not unique: it
is to develop whatever the Performer brings to the training session
in terms of their motivations, self esteem, beliefs, experience,
fitness, strength, technique etc. It is an Inside-Out approach made
popular by Timothy Gallwey's "Inner Game" [Ref 1]. We believe the
Performer is the expert in 'what is happening for them' and that
anyone else, no matter how well they know the Performer, can only
infer what is happening. A Coach who tells a Performer what they
should or shouldn't do will, at best, only be close to the
Performer's reality and will occasionally get it totally wrong. We
prefer therefore to work with the information direct from the
This approach does not mean that we do not
require certain behaviours from the team members. In fact, we believe
it is essential for coaching to be effective that the performance
constraints and expectations are made clear. There are things that do
need to be 'told' when managing a team in order to align the
individuals into a coherent and effective unit. For example, in the
dragon boat team we gained a consensus with the team on a slower,
more powerful paddling technique which therefore required the
individuals to train and be selected for these capabilities.
An illustrative example of our coaching
approach was when Dave Price would take a new, potential paddler into
a Hartlepool Powermen training session. Dave would first take time to
make them feel welcome in order to establish some level of rapport.
He would tell them to wear a life jacket and then give them a paddle,
without any instruction, and set them in a boat to experiment. He
would question them while they were experimenting to get their focus
on what was happening so that they would develop their own sense of
what worked. Dave's intention was for each paddler to have a
sensory based internal
model of their own technique so that
they could then use that as a template to experiment and learn for
themselves i.e. they would be able to: picture what was happening
when things were going well; feel what a better paddling stroke was
like; notice the sounds as a paddle enters the water etc. Only when a
paddler had established some sense of ownership for their technique
did Dave want to offer suggestions of what else they might try or
consider. This approach encourages the Paddler to retain
responsibility for their performance and avoids the "learned
2] of many individuals who are always
instructed as to what to do and therefore come to believe they have
little control over what they can do to make the boat go faster. We
take it as a very good sign when a paddler energetically
discusses what does and doesn't work for them but is prepared to
The added advantage of this "develop an
internal model" approach is that it does not have to change as the
Paddler grows in their sport. People at an expert level develop their
technique so close to an optimum that it becomes difficult for the
Coach to observe any useful information to feed back to the
Performer. The most important information at this level is inside the
expert Paddler's mind and body. Therefore, the Paddler developing and
evolving their internal model of 'what works best' gives them the
tool to continue to improve performance even when they are the very
best in the world at what they do.
The job of the Coach therefore is to:
- Facilitate the Performer to develop
their awareness of what is happening, both externally and
internally, so that they can refine their internal sensory model
of what they want to have happen (goals).
- Facilitates the Performer's awareness of
'what they want from being in the sport' (desired outcomes) in
order to find the ways to maximise the motivation they need to
achieve the necessary goals of training and performing.
- Ensure that the responsibility/ownership
for improving performance remains with the Performer
(Note: We believe this builds on
John Whitmore's "Awareness and Responsibility" principles
[Ref. 3] by emphasising the motivational 'desired outcome'
and separating it from the enabling goals. We also maintain that
individual's goals are primarily experienced as internal, sensory
experiences and that the verbal translations into specific,
measurable, time-bound goals are only useful for planning and
It is interesting to note that a
performer-centred Coach does not have to have expertise in the sport
to be effective in improving a Performer's performance. In fact there
are some schools of thought that believe the assumptions learned, in
becoming proficient at a sport, can limit the effectiveness of a
performer-centred coach because they don't even think of asking the
wonderfully creative, naïve questions a beginner can ask! We
also realise that having expertise can help in getting rapport and
establishing credibility with the Performers, plus it can guide what
question the Coach might ask in order to raise the Performer's
awareness in a very productive area. This is a dilemma Coaches need
to manage very carefully.
The internal models we seek to facilitate in
Performers consist of the sensory based representations of what it is
like to do something important for performance, e.g. getting into an
optimum state before a race; recovering state after something has
gone wrong; being in a flow state ("the zone"). The internal model
will often include the logical/analytical element expressed as
beliefs, e.g. "One minute twenty is my best time!" However, peak flow
states do not, in our experience, have any logical/analytical content
so we try to reserve the logical/analytical to the learning processes
rather than the performing processes.
These internal (goal) models are what we
measure and judge ourselves against to know how well we are doing.
Often, these models are subconscious although the 'result of the
measuring/judging' is likely to be conscious. These models therefore
already exist to enable us to do what we currently do and the
important question is: "Are they, as they currently stand, effective
in helping us achieve what we want?"
For example, a fairly common strategy for
amateur Sports People is to 'try hard' and their model for it may be
to feel all of their muscles working hard and using their internal
dialogue to say things like "Ignore the pain, I must keep going!"
This shows great determination but it is more likely that the optimum
way of competing is to only have the muscles working that need to
work; at the times they need to work. Therefore the Coach's role
would be to raise the Performer's awareness of their
sensory/intuitive experience, using the Performer's own metaphor for
"what is it like when you are performing at your best?" The Coach
needs to use different information channels to augment the
Performer's self-awareness: video feedback, times, speeds, weights,
feedback from others, etc, so that the Performer can refine their
internal experience of what is happening and continue to build their
model of what they want to have happen. As the Performer becomes
aware of their current experience/results they can experiment to
develop their model of what it would be like to do it better. Once
they have the model consciously in place they can track their own
progress as they train.
Training once with awareness is worth 100
times training without it.
Another very important reason for developing
a rich internal model of the ideal performance is that it provides
the template for mental rehearsal. This is the practice of imagining,
in the greatest sensory detail as practicable, the desired behaviours
as a method to augment training and has been shown to be effective.
The internal model needs to be accurate, vivid and contain the
elements of control to ensure its effectiveness as a training tool.
[Ref 5] However, this is not a technique we were able to use
formally with the team due to the time constraints so it was left up
to individuals to try this for themselves.
Typical awareness raising Clean Questions
are (where [ ] are some of the Performer's exact words):
- What kind of [ ] is that?
- Is there anything else about [ ]?
- Then what happens?
- What happens just before [ ]?
- How do you know when you are/have [
Clean Language is the discipline of
interacting with a Performer by using their words / gestures /
tonality, etc, so that the Performers do not need to interpret what
is being said; because they already know what it means! A Coach using
Clean Questions cannot therefore rely on understanding what is
happening for the Performer, in fact, the process of understanding
requires that the Performer's information is distorted to fit the
Coach's perspective and leads to 'unclean' questions from the Coach.
This is a crucial point and differentiates Clean Language from say,
'open and closed questioning'. It requires the Coach to preserve the
communicated information as completely and accurately as possible;
which demands a very high level of listening and observation skills.
Fortunately, Clean Questions are few in number and the logic for
asking them is fairly simple so the Coach is able to focus their
attention completely on the Performer which encourages the
development of excellent listening skills. [Ref 6]
Taking an example of a Dragon Boater talking
about their paddling in the context of wanting to paddle at their
best: they may say something like:
P: It's as though I wind up like a spring and then a
trigger is released and I slam the paddle in the water.
This example is a metaphorical description
of their paddling experience and it might be useful to explore the
'wind up of the spring', 'the trigger' and 'slam' when exploring
their paddling. Some Coaches hearing this would reduce the metaphor
to their own logical/conceptual descriptions and would lose valuable
information. Clean Questions are used whether the content is
metaphorical or not and preserve the Performer's information.
C: And when paddling at your best is there anything else
about the wind up of that spring?
This question will get more description of
the part of the stroke before the paddle slams into the water. And
because their metaphor is isomorphic with the Performer's experience
it gives the Performer access to more information from their
subconscious about it. It is not uncommon for a Performer to have an
"Aha!" moment from their new insights as a result of this questioning
and the Coach to be unsure as to what is going on. This is a step
that some (coach-centred) Coaches are unable to take as it requires
them to let go of control.
Continuing the conversation, a Performer's
insight might be:
P: If I reach too far forward I would over-wind the
spring and then I would lose power.
The use of the Performer's metaphor becomes
a very precise linguistic tool to access and explore the sensory
Performer's experience for both the Performer and Coach.
The same is true for more logical statements
but the tendency is for many people to believe quite wrongly that
"they do know exactly what is meant" by what is being said and
therefore there is a greater temptation to respond from their
understanding rather than what has been communicated. In the
conversation above, the Paddler may have responded to a
C: And when you slam the paddle in the water, then what
with a more factual sounding statement
P: My Lats are pulled. (Lats = slang for latissimus dorsi, the large back
A Fitness Coach is likely to know about
these muscles and the other muscles that need to be trained in
conjunction with these but that would be a total distraction from the
Performer's experience, and in any case, the Performer may not know
exactly what names (slang or otherwise) to give which muscles so
could even be referring to a different muscle altogether. Staying
with Clean Language instead of imposing an external model avoids the
miscommunication and subsequent loss of rapport that can easily
C: And as your Lats are pulled, whereabouts are they
This develops the Performer's
We videotape most of our training sessions
and then spend time with the team reviewing individual member's
paddling as well as the set-up of the boat. Our goal as Coaches is
that every crew member has a specific action to focus on for their
next training session as a result of this analysis. With a newly
formed team we will take the lead with the analysis to demonstrate
what we are trying to achieve. Later on we encourage team members to
make observations about themselves and then, to make observations of
each other. We notice that the team members soon pick up on the clean
questions & begin to ask them of each other. We use this as an
indication of the development stage of their cohesiveness and
effectiveness as a team.
The technique we use is often called
Funnelling which is to repeatedly ask a question of part of a
response from someone which has the effect of getting quickly to
specifics. An example:
P: I need more power.
C: And when
you need more power, where could that power come from?
P: From my
C: And what
needs to happen for you to have more power from your back muscles?
P: I need to
get in the gym more.
C: And you
need to get in the gym more. And when you want more power from your
back muscles and you need to get into the gym, then what happens?
P: I will do
bench pulls, probably with 50kgs to start with.
C: And what
is the relationship with bench pulls and back muscles?
The coach here is raising awareness of how
an exercise may, or may not, achieve the stated goal. The more
conceptual words like "power" are questioned to find out what it
means in very sensory-specific terms. The benefit of taking this
conversation to its conclusion is that the gym training is more
likely to be done with awareness and therefore to be far more
effective. The conversation will regularly include the question "How
will you know?" to ensure the performer is aware of the evidence for
their training goals. For example:
C: As you are doing [gym exercise 'x'], how will
you know that [gym exercise 'x'] is developing power in back
C: How will you know when you have more power in back
The process of facilitating a Performer's
internal model is quite subtle in that it requires the Coach to
create a different model from the one the Performer is developing in
order to be able to facilitate the process. These two models will
have similarities because they are based on the Performer's
perspective but the only information the Coach receives is what they
witness as the Performer's communication: words, tonality, pauses,
gestures, etc. The Coach's model has to consist of these 'inputs'
only and be kept very separate from any understanding they may have
of what may be happening. This is what makes the apparently simple
Clean Language modelling process a challenge to learn for many
The Paddling Technique
One of the first tasks in getting a team
together is to agree the paddling technique. The paddlers sit very
close together in the boat and it is important to have sufficient
synchronisation between paddlers in terms of timing and technique to
avoid the injuries that can result from paddles hitting elbows, backs
and heads. The research around different paddling techniques is
limited, mainly informal and empirical. We had previously sought the
answer from within the experience of the Hartlepool Powermen's team
so I used modelling questions with some of their best performing
paddlers to identify the essential components of a good stroke that
could be shared.
At Dave Price's request I focused on
'getting catch' which is the skill of getting the paddle into the
water in a way that generates significant forward thrust for the boat
but minimises turbulence around the paddle. The problem with that
turbulence is that it causes the water to flow around the paddle
rather than providing a firm resistance to pull against.
'Getting Catch' (courtesy of J Mann Photography)
I used Clean Language to map the metaphors,
enabling beliefs, thinking strategies, emotions and behaviours from
each of the exemplars and looked for common elements that might make
up the essential ingredients. The end result was a model (external)
that incorporated the essential elements of all three internal models
of the paddlers who took part. (Note: This model was not formally
written up but an example of part of the work is included in appendix
1 for interest).
This external model of good practice
contributed to the discussions, together with the experience from the
more experienced members of the team, to agree the final stroke style
to be adopted by the National team. There was some flexibility in
that individuals could adapt the finally agreed external model to
suit their own physiologies where this improved overall team
performance and did not harm any other team members. Some team
members had to cope with significantly changing their paddling
technique on top of the other training burdens they were taking on to
be in the team. We then shared the results of this agreed external
model through our normal coaching:
C: What would it be like if you believed that you can
always get perfect catch from the correct position of your body prior
to slamming in the blade?
This is certainly not Clean as it is
inviting the Performer to 'try on' a belief from the external model
to see how it might suit them (and if not, we try something else to
find what does suit in order to get the desired result). We could say
to another paddler who is rehearsing the stroke and who does not yet
have their own metaphor:
C: Imagine your body has a spring and that as you fully
rotate now, prior to slamming in the blade, you are at the fully
wound position. And when that spring is fully wound, is there
anything else about that spring?
This again is not Clean as we are inviting
the Performer to 'try on' someone else's metaphor but if it is done
using generalised statements, then it can give the opportunity for
the Performer to adapt that metaphor to become their own (autogenic)
metaphor with its own unique attributes.
It is preferable to use the Performer's own
metaphor for the stroke and explore the isomorphic elements between
their internal model and the external model. However, the reality of
an amateur sport with a team of about 30 people spread right across
the country and meeting on average every other weekend meant it was
not possible to develop metaphors for many of the team members. So
sharing a model using the metaphor and some logical/analytical
elements (e.g. "Notice what happens to the angle of the paddle in the
water when your inboard hand is closer to your head.") was the
practical way forward.
Metaphor and the Zone
What we had not anticipated was that we
would start using Clean Language for the development of autogenic
metaphors for different activities with a variety of different
durations. For example: the start of the race, the whole race,
training in the gym, finding the motivation to go training or how to
get into the flow state. This was mainly done informally and again,
it gave us the language to talk to individuals about the different
aspects of training and competing that was not available to us
before. We believe that a significant benefit of this is that the
Performers develop models within models which start to 'bring
everything together' on both an intuitive and logical level. The more
the Performers have effective and holistic internal models the easier
it is for them to 'repair the damage' that can be done by analysing
everything down to its component parts. Just remembering what it was
like to learn to drive a car with all the many rules to remember
compared with the experience of having driven for many years will
show that for high performance, the non-rule based actions are more
common. Reductionism has its place in learning to improve performance
but, we believe, a holistic perspective is better for high
We have done some work with the high
performing flow state that is sometimes referred to by athletes as
"being in the zone" (including a morning at the Sports Science Unit
of Teesside University). What excited us about modelling the zone was
that it is commonly described by athletes as being a non-verbal
state, and therefore modelling the Performer's metaphorical
experience was congruent with the state itself. To put it another
way, when a performer loses their flow state of being in the Zone,
internal dialogue like "S**t, I've lost it!" is unlikely to help them
regain it whereas having a greater sensory/intuitive awareness of the
state, and how to move towards it, we believe, is far more
The discipline of using Clean Language in
performer-centred coaching improves the effectiveness of the
awareness raising process and helps to build rapport through the
Performer's communication being valued. These are both critical
precursors to effective performer centred coaching. Clean Language
facilitates both logical/analytical and sensory/intuitive awareness
and can therefore be more holistic in making unconscious thought
processes available for the conscious mind. The practise of Clean
Language Modelling enhances questioning skills and the preservation
of the Performer's original communication so that essential
information is not lost. This exploration of the use of Clean
Language in our coaching has been guided by our intuition and logic
around what Performers report as working for them and this could
provide some fertile research areas for Sports Psychology.
© Ned Skelton, 2005
Ned Skelton is a Director of the Clean
Coaching Company Ltd. www.cleancoaching.co.uk which focuses on developing managers and management
teams to continually improve their business performance.
- Book: Inner Game of Tennis, W
- Research: Learned
Helplessness, Martin E P Seligman
- Book: Coaching for
Performance, John Whitmore.
- Person: David Hemery MBE, Gold
Medal 1968 Olympics, 400m hurdles. The first President of UK
- Research (illustrative
example): Denis, M. (1985). Visual imagery and the use of mental
practice in the development of motor skills. Canadian Journal of Applied Sport
Science, 10, 4S-16S.
- Book: Metaphors in Mind: Transformation
through Symbolic Modelling, James
Lawley & Penny Tompkins
Appendix 1. Part of a model of
catch from one exemplar using David Gordon and Graham Dawes'
Experiential Array [Ref 7]
(Reduced in size here - full size version attached)
Last amended 12 Oct 2005