The Science Behind Effective Coaching
I recently finished watching video coverage of the last batch of inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame. It prompted me to watch even more footage from the last three years of inductees. I focused my attention on the managers who were given an honor representing the pinnacle of their career. The last three managers inducted into the HOF used what I would call a “new school” style of coaches, rather than “old school.” They embraced a different approach to connecting with athletes. Whether conscious of it or not, they found ways to coach and connect with players from Generation X and the Millennial Generation in another manner than, say, Billy Martin or Leo Durocher did back in the day.
After studying effective coaches, in both professional and NCAA levels, I have come to some intriguing conclusions, at least for me. While “old school” coaching was the norm decades ago, replete with yelling, anger, distant personalities and the focus on improving weaknesses, today’s “new school” coaches motivate young athletes using new methods. What “old school” coaches used to call a “soft” approach is working far better these days. Whether or not we like it, it’s actually getting results.
And now, we can peer into the science behind why this is.
The Science Behind the Switch From Old School to New School
Over the past few decades, neuroscience has leaped forward thanks to improvements in medical imaging technology. We’re now able to see more definitively how the human brain responds to stimuli.
I found an article by Marshall Moore which was posted in a Berkeley publication very intriguing:
“In a study, published in Social Neuroscience, researchers collected data from undergraduates at Case Western Reserve University. After finishing an initial questionnaire measuring their emotional tendencies, students had two interviews within five days. One of the interviews was a positive-based coaching session in which the ‘positive’ interviewer would ask questions such as, ‘If everything worked out ideally in your life, what would you be doing in 10 years?’
“The second, ‘negative’ interviewer took on a more traditional coaching style, with questions designed to have the students assess their performance in terms of ideal standards: ‘What challenges have you encountered or do you expect to encounter in your experience here? How are you doing with your courses? Are you doing all your homework and readings?’
“After both interviews had been completed, 20 of the students went into a functional MRI machine to measure their brain activity as they endured a third interview (conducted by video) with the same ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ interviewers, appearing separately. As the researchers predicted, students indicated that the positive interviewer inspired them and fostered feelings of hope far more effectively than the negative interviewer.”
The areas of the brain activated by these two approaches were most telling. Moore continues, “During the encouraging interactions with the positive interviewer, students showed patterns of brain activity that prior research associated with global processing (the ability to see the big picture before seeing small details), visual processing (the ability to see or imagine the future), feelings of empathy and emotional safety (fostering transparency and trust), and motivation (the predisposition to pursue big goals, instead of playing it safe).”
Not surprising, I believe the findings in this study can help coaches lead today’s athletes. Below, I offer you my interpretation of four tools that “new school” coaches utilize:
- Strength-based Coaching – Enabling a player to focus on developing their strengths and envision performing well when in his or her “strength zone” should take priority before tweaking a weak area. Moore stated in his article “Brain scans explored the effects of different coaching styles. Based on what’s happening in the brain, this more positive approach helps people visualize a better future for themselves—and provide the social-emotional tools to help them realize their vision.”
- Visual-based Coaching – Humans are visual learners. Our brains think in pictures. There are the regions that kick into gear when we imagine a future event or when someone provides imagery to guide our understanding. Based on research from 3M, visuals in a classroom accelerate learning by 400%. Further, they tell us images increase engagement as the eye processes visual information 60,000 times faster than verbal. We’ve all said it: a picture’s worth a thousand words. 65% of American’s are visual learners, and I believe its even more among the emerging generation. Socrates told us 4,000 years ago, “The soul does not think without a picture.”
- Trust-based Coaching – This means our style communicates we believe the best about our players. We give them the benefit of the doubt, until they forfeit that right. (And even then, we err on the side of trust). Trust-based coaches have very few rules, but lots of equations. Instead of a long list of rules, you merely state that this kind of behavior results in this benefit, or that kind of behavior results in this consequence. It enables the coach to lead in a quiet yet authoritative manner. For instance, when giving hard feedback, this coach might say: “I’m giving you these comments because I know you’re capable of achieving them. I believe in you and your potential and can see you playing a key role on this team.”
- Relationship-based Coaching – This means our style connects with each player relationally, based on their personality and strength. You lead by cultivating personal power, not using positional power. You realize your position gives you authority, but your relationships earn you influence and trust. Players go the “extra mile” and give you more than they would by merely fulfilling a job description. They follow you out of “devotion” not “duty,” and it’s because their coach has initiated a relationship with them. For instance, this coach may ask to spend extra time with an athlete who’s ethnically diverse and say, “Hey, I know we come from different backgrounds—so I’d like to get to know you better and see how much we have in common.”
I’m looking forward to seeing more research in this area. In the meantime, I think we can put what we’ve learned from this study into practice by being open to new styles of coaching and communication.
I recently spoke to a baseball player who used to play for the Kansas City Royals. Although he’d been released, he was writing a thank you note to their management. When I asked him why, he smiled and said, “They treated me like family. I’d do anything for Dayton Moore.”
That’s what “new school” coaches tend to get from athletes.