One of my personal goals is to speak five languages fluently. I’m at three. I can confidently converse in Italian, Spanish, and English (surprise!).

I’ve always been fascinated by words, and their power both written and spoken. I’m even more taken by the power of being able to converse in the language of the country I’m visiting.

I also speak French and a little Dutch now too but on such a basic level that I think a native speaking toddler would trip me up.

The key to learning a foreign language is deliberate and consistent practice. Which, I daresay, is the key to learning anything.


My Spanish has taken a back seat to my Italian. Largely because of my friends Carlo and Mario. Carlo is my periodization consultant and Mario is a professor at the University of Brescia. They call me on What’sApp pretty regularly and so I speak Italian with them.

That is until I get tired.

and whatever part of my brain is controlling my ability to speak in Italian shifts.

and I start speaking Spanish.

Which I find really interesting because you’d think I’d just slip back into English right?


I start speaking Spanish!

And this is where I get into trouble. Because both Mario AND Carlo are fluent in Spanish as well. And so the conversation continues unbroken.

Sometimes they respond in Spanish with an “oh she’s switching it up” gung-ho mentality.

Sometimes they continue on in Italian with a “she’s tired now, oh well she’ll switch back or catch herself eventually” attitude.

I was telling this story to one of my doctors, Dr. Marco and a patient of his a Latino DJ in the Atlanta area. His patient was aghast. 

“NO!” he half shouted.

“They should stop you! That takes away from your learning!”

And I agree. Because sometimes when I talk to them there’s no differentiation between Spanish and Italian.

Which effects my ability to sharpen either language.

Because how you communicate something is as important as what you’re communicating.

Let’s take Gary Chapman’s the Five Love Languages. Have you read it? You should.

Its premise is that we all are communicating love…

but we use different languages to do so.

I’m not going to cheat the Chapman’s out of a sale by summarizing it here, but this book got me into trouble once.

Back in the day when I worked at the Family Christian Bookstore (don’t laugh) I used my employee discount to buy a lot of books. I was on a relationship self-help kick then and The Five Love Languages was flying off the shelf at the time.

I brought the book home and was reading it and was throughly engulfed in it, when the guy I was dating at the time asked to read it too.

So I got him his own copy and we more or less read it together.

By the end he told me what love languages he spoke and I told him what love languages I was fluent in.

We didn’t actually speak the same love language.

But that’s ok, you simply have to be willing to learn the language of your partner and practice speaking it with them.

We weren’t willing.

But honestly, it does change almost any relationship for the better when you take the time to communicate in this way.

Which brings me to my main point.

Something that happened yesterday.

Yesterday, like all Mondays is an acceleration and block day. As much as I’ve had success in the jumps it’s built largely on my training as a sprinter. So although you may not see me occupy a lane, I train as though I will.

Anyway, we’re 13 seasons into my pro career and the things I’m working on almost seem nit-picky.

Nit-Picky but necessary.

This is the “pursuit of mastery” phase of my career and mastery is in the details.

I was having a problem though. There was a massive disconnect between what I knew I needed to be doing, what my body was doing, and what I was being asked to do.

Here’s the thing and any of my coaches will probably agree with this, I try to do EXACTLY what you ask me to do.

Example: Chuck once suggested I put my front two spikes into the track when loading into the blocks, and so I did.

And I did a block start and it was awful.

And he was like, what the hell was that.

And I was like, “first of all it was trash, but second of all that’s what you asked me to do”.

And he says, “no I didn’t”

And I’m like, “did you or did you not say put your front two spikes in the track?”

And he says “yes I did, but that’s not what you did”

And so I show him my spike plate and said, “yes, I did.”

And he looks down at my spike plate too and says, “well shit.”

What you say.

And how you say it.

Determines the behavior that comes after.

That’s why cues are so important.

Yesterday, he asked me what I was saying to myself when I ran 10.78. I told him, and then he said, “maybe just say that then and throw out the other stuff” and so I did and voila the little acceleration problem I had been having disappeared.

Cues are so important.

And is one of the things I impress on coaches the most when dealing with athletes. 

It’s not enough to know how to do something.

You have to bridge the gap between knowing how to do something, and actually doing it.

I would like to argue that that bridge is language.

Let’s look for example at the five steps of language acquisition

Step One: Receptive Phase (this is where you learn a lot of vocabulary) from the moment I walked into the classroom of my private italian teacher a few years ago I was bombarded with the language in the form of vocabulary.

Table: il tavolo

Chair: la sedia

Door: la porta

and on and on. I left my first one hour class knowing FIFTY words in Italian.

On the track coaches teach vocabulary too:

This is dorsiflexion

this is front side mechanics 

knee drive…

this is a bound… etc. etc.

Step Two: Is oft called Early Production. This is where you start to use the vocabulary you learned in step one. I’d go home after a lesson and touch the door and say “La porta.” or the table, “il tavolo.” In 2011 after spending hours with Ralph Mann I’d walk around my college campus high stepping with dorsiflexion. Saying to myself “thigh lift, dorsiflex” over and over.

Step Three: Speech emergence or production. This is the stage where after you’ve learned the vocabulary you can start using it. I was starting to form phrases with my vocab like “la sedia è dietro la porta” (the chair is behind the door) . On the track, if you say front-side and dorsiflex to me I can do it. 

Because I know what you’re talking about.

Step four is intermediate fluency and step five is fluency. In terms of language this is where I reside. In terms of training this is where elite athletes typically are.

So if you’re a coach, how you move an athlete from one level to the next largely has to do with what you’re saying.

Add the additional layer that we don’t all communicate or listen the same way and suddenly HOW you say it becomes an even bigger factor.

Which requires some heavy lifting on your part. Because as the athlete we’re going through our own skill acquisition process under your guidance as coach.

Your ability or inability to add input we can use into our process can either be the X factor or THE limiting factor to our success.

Rana Reider was genius at this. 

If we were doing competitive block starts he’d first say, “don’t listen to anyone else’s cues” and then he’d walk down the starting line giving us each our cues to remember, all very different from the person before and after- yet all to the same end.

Get TF out of the blocks.

The old, “I’ve always taught it this way” is fine, until it doesn’t work for athlete X, and if you believe the athlete is the problem because it’s worked for 95% of the athletes you’ve coached well…

You know what, that’s not my business. Moving on…

Communication is key.

We all “know” this.

But do we practice it.

Do we really do a good job consistently and deliberately practicing how we communicate what?

I have this blank stare I get during technical training sessions, and I’m frequently asked if I’m confused. And the answer is always the same:

“No, I’m not confused I’m trying to find the right language that will make my body do what I know it needs to do to execute this properly.”

As a professional I can take on that job. And once I find that cue that works, I pass that info on to the people working with me so that I ONLY hear that.

Because what you say

and how you say it

determines the behavior to follow.

It doesn’t matter if the behavior you’re looking for is in the board room, the bedroom, the track, the field, or the classroom.

Language is a tool we all have access to. 

It’s part of what binds us together as humans.

But only if we are willing to learn and speak

each other’s languages.

Mastery in this arena

can take us from phrases to fluency

from good to great…

from ordinary to extraordinary…

from elite to world class.

And now you’re speaking my language.


Tianna Bartoletta1 Comment