Pep Talks – Why Didn’t My Team “Win One for the Gipper”?

From Knute Rockne, the basketball
movie “Hoosiers,” and many other highly publicized
“win one for the Gipper” speeches, we have observed
the magical powers of the pregame pep talk. In fact, today it
is widely believed that coaches must give their team an emotional
message before sending them into competition. Unfortunately,
what has been forgotten over the years is that the pep talk is
just one type of arousal adjustment technique, a tool to be used
only under certain circumstances. Furthermore, as the following
example illustrates, raising the emotional level of every player
on the team may have disastrous consequences.

Game-Day USA

During today’s precompetition
activities, Steve is extremely excited and nervous. Today marks
the first time that his parents are able to attend one of his
games and he is beginning to feel the pressure of having to live
up to their unrealistic expectations. Next to him, sits Jerome.
Jerome has just completed his typical pregame routine. He is
both mentally and emotionally ready to play. Rafael, on the other
hand, appears listless and bored. He shows no energy or emotion,
acting as if he is only going through the motions.

Rah! Rah!

Just before taking
the field, Coach delivers a rousing win-one-for-the-Gipper pep
talk that raises the emotional level of every player on the team.
Caught up in the emotional intensity of the moment, the athletes
sprint onto the field where they immediately make crucial mistakes
and play poorly. In fact, two-thirds of the team members are
playing one of their poorer games of the season. Coach turns
to his assistants and asks “What happened? I thought they
were ready to play.”

Relationship Between Arousal
and Athletic Performance

An examination of the
relationship between arousal and athletic performance may provide
some answers. In sport, arousal refers to the energizing function
of the body that varies from deep sleep to intense excitement.
Sport researchers believe that the relationship between arousal
and performance takes the form of an inverted-U. In other words,
when the athlete’s level of arousal is fairly low, the athlete
will perform poorly. He or she is typically sluggish and under-excited.
With a moderate increase in arousal, the athlete should perform
up to his or her capabilities. However, once the athlete reaches
a state of having too much arousal, performance will suffer.
Thus, it is predicted that best performances occur at moderate
levels of arousal.

The Importance of Individualized
Arousal Adjustment Strategies

This critical relationship
between arousal and athletic performance is why coaches can no
longer haphazardly use a blanket approach when preparing athletes
for competition. The use of arousal adjustment techniques such
as the pep talk need to be individualized so that all players
enter competition at the level of readiness which is conducive
to his or her best performance. To further clarify this idea,
let’s reflect on the experiences of our three athletes.
Steve, who was already too excited and nervous became so over-aroused
that he had problems containing his emotions. An inability to
concentrate caused him to play poorly. Similarly, Jerome was
shifted from an optimal state of moderate arousal to being sky-high.
He started trying too hard which negatively affected his performance.
The only player to benefit from the pep talk was Rafael. His
emotional-readiness reached an optimal level which allowed him
to play well. Thus, while the pep talk helped one player, it
also negatively affected two others. A more perceptive coach
would have realized that, in this scenario, Steve needed to be
calmed down to reach his ideal level of readiness. Likewise,
the only thing that Jerome needed was the assurance that he was
indeed ready.

Summary

As coaches, we can
no longer risk hurting the performance of two out of every three
players on the team by employing a one-technique-fits-all philosophy.
Instead, we need to focus on having every player reach his or
her optimal level of emotional arousal. Therefore, prior to your
next pregame pep talk ask yourself “Do I really want to
raise the arousal level of everyone on the team?”

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