Using Metaphors for High-Performance Teaching and Coaching

By Gassner, Gregory Jay | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Using Metaphors for High-Performance Teaching and Coaching


Gassner, Gregory Jay, JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


Metaphor has been used throughout history as an effective teaching tool. The Bible, ancient Greek myths, and children's fairy tales are full of analogies, similes, parables, and metaphorical stories that are designed to teach new concepts and foster greater understanding (Gorden, 1978). Many of our great teachers, scholars, leaders, and coaches have used metaphors to inspire, to make sophisticated theory understandable, and to develop skill acquisition.

The purpose of this article is to illustrate an effective, fun, and easy method to elevate teaching to a higher level by utilizing metaphors. This article will explain how to develop effective metaphors, why metaphors increase performance, and how to employ a bridging strategy, and it will provide guidelines for creating effective metaphors.

Metaphor Defined

Metaphor is defined as "A way of speaking in which one thing is expressed in terms of another, whereby this bringing together throws new light on the character of what is being described" (Gorden, 1978). In this article the term "metaphor" also includes the use of similes and analogies.

Why Metaphors Work

Metaphors have performance-enhancing properties. They encourage active learning because the student needs to interpret the message of the metaphor and then respond with the appropriate physical action. Metaphors can also increase arousal - an advantage when performing gross motor skills (Oxendine, 1970). The use of metaphors increases motivation on tasks requiring power and muscular endurance (Gassner & Sachs, 1997). Metaphors can create visual targets that can help athletes direct and channel their motor skills. Metaphors can also facilitate the transfer of knowledge from old skills to new ones by pointing out the similarities between the two (Schmidt, 1991). Metaphors work rapidly by fostering fast automatic processing, which is associated with high-level performance (Schmidt, 1991). Gassner and Sachs (1997) utilized specifically designed metaphors to increase performance on the seated shot-put (test of power) and on pushups to exhaustion (test of muscular endurance). Twice before each throw in the post-trial series of the seated shot-put, the experimental group was given the metaphor, "Explode outward like a bomb." The control group received no metaphors. The results showed that the experimental group (those receiving metaphors) improved significantly in terms of throwing distance over the control group. In the pushups-to-exhaustion test, the experimental group was given the metaphor, "Pump it up," whenever the subject completed 20 percent of the pushups as determined by the baseline results. The control group received no metaphors. Again, the experimental group improved significantly over the control group.

Use a Bridging Strategy

There are times when metaphors can easily be misinterpreted. A bridging strategy can be used to guard against such misinterpretations (Brown & Clement, 1989) by clarifying the meaning of the metaphor so that the receiver knows exactly what the sender intends. For instance, an effective bridging strategy would be to ask the receiver of the metaphor to describe the similarities between the metaphor and the desired physical skill. When teaching a beginning shot putter, for example, the instructor might say, "Throwing the shot is like exploding outward like a bomb." To guard against misinterpretation, the instructor could ask, "How is throwing a shot like exploding outward like a bomb?" The student might reply, "It's fast, it's explosive," and in those few moments of analogical reasoning, may learn how to more effectively throw the shot. On the other hand, the student could also misinterpret the metaphor and say, "A bomb drops." The instructor could then help the student to link the metaphor to the shot put by asking, "What are the qualities of a bomb exploding?"

Internal Search for Meaning

Lakoff and Johnson (1980) have noted that "our ordinary conceptual system in terms of which we think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature" (p. …

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