What Football Can Teach Us About Healthy Communication

7 min read

Football season is in full swing, and with it comes all the fun of one of America’s favorite pastimes. From touchdowns to party snacks to cheering your favorite team to the playoffs, football has long been a part of American culture. But did you know that it can teach you lessons about how to communicate during conflict effectively?

Research by John Gottman and the Gottman Institute demonstrates that being able to take effective breaks during conflict is an essential part of effective communication. When conflicts start to go awry, and you find yourself unable to listen, stewing in negative thoughts towards your partner, feeling overwhelmed to the point you know you are going to say something you regret, or at risk of shutting down, taking a break from the conversation to allow your brain and body to calm down can help create a more positive discussion with your partner.

When I work with couples in couples therapy, one of the things I hear most often is that they have tried to implement taking a break, but it just doesn’t work. Either one person wants a break, and the other doesn’t, they don’t re-engage after taking a break, or they say they need a break, but it just doesn’t happen.

That is where football can teach us a lesson. Football time-outs follow all the rules that are necessary to implement an effective time-out, or as I like to call them, the four rules of fair play for time-outs.

1. Either team gets to call a time-out, and both teams must respect it. But you also must choose your time-outs wisely.

In football, either team can call a time-out when they determine it is right for them, and the other team does not get to choose to ignore that time-out. Whenever the time-out is called, even if it is not ideal or preferred for the other team, both teams respect the right of either team to call the time-out. At the same time, each team gets only three time-outs per half. This means that no team gets to disengage from the game by calling time-outs or use time-outs to avoid the game, even if the game is not going their way. The teams must know themselves well enough to choose when to use a time-out so that it will be the most useful to them.

The same rules apply to time-outs in relationship conflicts. Whenever either partner calls a time-out, it is important that both partners respect that a time-out has been called. It means not trying to get in a last word, ignoring that a time-out was asked for, or just saying one more thing. If a time-out is called, both partners disengage from the discussion and take a break.

It also means that each person needs to use time-outs when they need them and not use a time-out to avoid the discussion, dismiss their partner bringing up their needs, or otherwise disengage. Time-outs are to be used when you start to feel that you are getting overwhelmed to the point where your nervous system is activated and you know that you cannot engage in conflict in a constructive manner.

2. Time-outs have a time limit, and everyone knows and agrees to it.

In football, there is a set time limit for how long a time-out is allowed. Everyone involved, the coaches, the players, and even the fans, know how long the time-out will be and have agreed to that time limit. Time-outs cannot go on forever or be used to end the game. At some point, the teams must re-engage with one another to finish the game.

In the same way, couples need to establish a time expectation for time-outs. Typically, 15-20 minutes provides enough time to allow our bodies to regulate and to be able to re-engage with our partners in a non-escalated manner. By agreeing on how long a time-out will last, two things happen. First, the partner who felt they needed the break knows that they will be able to have that time to take care of themselves and to calm down. They don’t have to worry about re-engaging before they are ready or not having the space they need to regulate.

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3. Time-outs let you care for your body and reset your game plan.

Two things happen in time-outs. First, players are given a chance to take care of their bodies. Water bottles are provided to make sure the players are hydrated and they have a moment to catch their breath or clear their heads. Second, they meet as a team and with their coaches to determine their plan for how to re-engage in the game in a way that is the most effective, even if that means changing from their original plan.

Effective time-outs from conflict follow the same format. First, you take care of your body. When our stress systems are activated, our prefrontal cortex (the part of our brain responsible for logic and rational thought) is not fully engaged. This leads us to have a more difficult time engaging in effective communication than we would have when our nervous systems are regulated.

Therefore, we must use the first part of our time-out to take care of our physical needs and remind our bodies that we are safe and can be calm. This might look like taking some deep breaths, going for a walk, getting a snack, or taking a shower. Find something that you can do that will help your body know that it is safe, help your heart rate return to normal, and allow you to feel calm.

After taking care of your body, focus on your game plan. Instead of re-engaging in the conversation with your partner with the same strategy, especially if that was leading to escalation or lack of understanding, taking time to plan for how you want to re-engage can make returning to the conversation more effective. Some questions that might be helpful to reflect on are:

  • What is my goal for the conversation?
  • What am I feeling?
  • What do I need to communicate?
  • What have I heard that my partner is feeling?
  • What does my partner need me to hear?

Answering these questions can help your brain focus on what you and your partner need from the conversation, which can allow you to reset the stage for a more effective conversation.

4. Time-outs are part of the game. There is no shame in taking one.

In football, time-outs are a normal part of the game. It is expected that teams will take a time-out. Teams are not judged or viewed as less because they choose to use their time outs.

It’s the same in relationships. Taking a break when you need one should be a normal part of healthy communication. Conflict can be dysregulating, and sometimes, we make mistakes in how we communicate. Being able to pause, reset, and re-engage is healthy, and there does not need to be shame in taking a time-out.

These four guidelines allow for time-outs to be effective in football, and they will help time-outs to be more effective in your relationship. If you find time-outs to be challenging in your relationships, it might be helpful to talk through these guidelines with your partner to create your own game plan for time-outs moving forward. A couple’s therapist can also help guide you in implementing these rules into your communication patterns in a sustainable and effective way.

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