It’s a staple of every sports movie: The team is down at the half, and the coach gives an inspirational locker room speech—think Gene Hackman in Hoosiers, Billy Bob Thornton in Friday Night Lights—leading the team to come roaring back to victory. But do pep talks really work?
In a new paper published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Berkeley Haas Prof. Emeritus Barry Staw and two colleagues, Katherine DeCelles and Peter de Goey, test that question where it counts: the basketball court. Their analysis of hundreds of half-time speeches and final scores from high school and college games found that coaches do better when they shelve the happy talk and bring down the hammer.
In fact, the researchers found a significant relationship between how negative a coach was at half-time and how well the team played in the second half: The more negativity, the more the team outscored the opposition. “That was even true if the team was already ahead at halftime,” Staw says. “Rather than saying, ‘You’re doing great, keep it up,’ it’s better to say, ‘I don’t care if you’re up by 10 points, you can play better than this.’
The researchers gathered the information for their study by contacting more than 50 coaches for high-school and college basketball teams in Northern California. They analyzed coaches’ emotional expression and found that negative speeches can be motivating—up to a point. Coaches can’t go too far too motivate their players.
“Our results do not give leaders a license to be a jerk,” Staw says, “but when you have a very important project or a merger that needs to get done over the weekend, negative emotions can be a very useful arrow to have in your quiver to drive greater performance.”
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