Can the self-fulfilling prophecy affect a player’s effort?

This post originated on twitter where I saw a coach post that it is okay for the hardest workers or best listeners to be favorites, or something to that extent. I warned about the self-fulfilling prophecy. This was met with skepticism, as if one cannot create a self-fulfilling prophecy for effort.

I currently work with a college team. There are three players who have established themselves in the first two weeks as the hard workers. However, in this case, hard workers really means best conditioned. Of the three, one transferred from a championship-caliber program, one played for a European academy, and the third trained with me all summer. They started in better shape than their teammates due to their previous training experience.  Those who are viewed as not working as hard are the ones who are not in good shape.

One can argue that those who are in good shape are the hard workers because they are in good shape, and the ones not in shape are not hard workers because they are not in shape. Of course, those toward the bottom in conditioning also had to work all summer and lived far enough away from campus that they did not train with me. Is it fair to believe that someone is a hard worker because she is in better shape because she could make it to workouts, and believe that someone is not a hard worker because she worked all summer and lived too far (2-4 hours) to make the drive to work out?

I believe that all the players work reasonably hard. However, I believe that each has different experiences, so working hard means different things to each player. Part of the pre-season goal is to teach the new players about the effort necessary to compete at the college level, as the commitment, effort, discipline, etc. increases as one moves up the competitive ladder. For the transfer from a championship-caliber program, our training right now is probably easier than her previous training. Does that make her a hard worker because she can complete training that is easy for her? For other players, our training involves things that they have never done. Is it fair to categorize them as not hard workers because they do not excel in things to which they have never been exposed?

As for the self-fulfilling prophecy, if I believed the three were the hardest workers, I would see every sprint that they win or every loose ball that they dive for as evidence that I am right. Meanwhile, if I believe a couple other players are lazy in comparison, I am likely to notice every time these players put their hands on their knees or finish near the back. This is confirmation bias: I see events that confirm my initial perceptions, even though those initial perceptions may have faulty reasoning.

How does this self-fulfilling prophecy affect the players? What happens if I notice the three players every time that they win a sprint and yell at those who I perceive to be lazy? Due to a different starting point, the lazy players may actually be working harder than the in-shape players. However, because I continue to give the top performers positive feedback, and the bottom performers negative feedback, the top performers are more likely to be motivaed to work harder, while the bottom performers may start to slack off because it seems that nothing that they do is good enough. If the top performers work harder, and the bottom performers slack off – due to my feedback – they confirm my initial perceptions of the hard workers and the lazy players. However, it was my behavior – my feedback – that may have led to this outcome.

If I notice the hard work of those who are out of shape, they may be motivated to work harder. Because they started at a lower point, they may make more noticable progress. From a different perspective, I may start to see them as the hard workers, and see those who started at the top and make little progress as lazy. My behaviors toward the groups may affect their behaviors: the bottom performers may continue working harder and harder because they see results and they know that I am noticing their effort, while the top performers may be de-motivated by my constant criticism despite their top performances. The hard workers may continue to work hard, while the top performers may get lazy. Again, this would confirm my perceptions from this perspective.

No coach is perfect. I do believe that coaches always tend to have favorites. I think that is human nature. However, coaches need to be aware of how their behavior affects the behavior of their players. Initial perceptions can be dangerous, especially if the coach is inflexible and unable to change his or her perceptions when new evidence suggests it. A flexible coach is willing to change his or her perceptions – the lazy player who wakes up determined to prove the coach wrong and becomes the hardest worker is no longer perceived to be lazy because new evidence or new behaviors contradict the initial perception. Initial perceptions are dangerous with those who are inflexible, as this tends to lead to the self-fulfilling prophecy. Those who remain flexible are less likely to fall victim to the confirmation bias.

By Brian McCormick, M.S.S., PES
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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