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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