Psychology in action! Socio-motivational dynamics in sports

One of my new year’s resolutions for 2017 was to improve my work/life balance.  To my surprise, it has been going pretty well — in the past, work has had a nasty habit of creeping into the rest of my life (I have regularly had emails and reports plaguing my evenings and weekends!), but 2017 has been good so far.

Yet over the past week, I’ve had the odd experience of the work/life balance going in the opposite direction:  the rest of my life creeping into my work!  I don’t mean the usual story of developmental psychologists sometimes learning more about child development from their everyday experience of family life than from their academic research.   That’s a familiar experience and fairly standard stuff (though probably worth another blog post at some point)!

No, actually, this was quite different. It started last weekend, when I attended the Baseball Softball UK Coach Summit 2017.  I grew up playing baseball in Japan and over the last five years have been coaching youth baseball in Sussex as part of the growing community of baseball clubs in the UK.  Last weekend brought an opportunity to learn from some of the most experienced baseball and softball coaches in the world, and to watch them running a session with the youth players in the High Performance Academy.

I went in expecting a weekend of top-notch baseball, and I certainly got that. But what surprised me, as I took notes throughout the weekend, was the gradual recognition that what I spend most of my time researching in my work is linked — not just in general terms, but specifically and directly — to the dynamics of sports teams.  And I mean sports at every level, from fun team sports activities with the youngest children right through to professional sports where teams draw enormous crowds and TV audiences.

Of course, I shouldn’t really be surprised.  After all, sport and exercise psychology is a well-established field with prominent researchers and applied practitioners who have worked for decades at the interface of motivation and athletic performance.  But during the Coach Summit, I just kept finding close connections between the specific things I work on and what these visiting coaches operating at the top level of their sports were saying.

Some of the links were very explicit.  “Psychology” must have been one of the most frequently heard words that weekend, as coaches talked about how the mental game was as important, if not more important, than the physical or technical game.  There was also a strong emphasis (as in so many other domains, like schools) on grit and growth mindsets.

But that was the first point where I began to realise I was getting more from talking about this in sports than I have done from the innumerable meetings I’ve been to on these topics in schools. And that’s because it was just so obvious that the coaches were talking about changing the environment, rather than the players themselves.

I’ve been frustrated by the way that so much I hear about ‘character’ these days treats it as an attribute of the person in a vacuum, like it’s just a property of the individual.  And of course it’s not – it’s actually something that develops in a particular set of social contexts, or more specifically in a particular network of relationships.

So, ironically, we often adopt a ‘fixed’ view of things like character, resilience, and even the growth mindset itself.  But what the coaches were talking about last weekend was how all of these come out of the environments that are created for and with players:  the way coaches behave, the way they give feedback, and the way they respond to mistakes and poor performances as well as the big wins.

I love the fact that it was so obvious to everyone that we can’t just tell kids to develop a growth mindset, have more grit, or be resilient.  We need to create the conditions to support those things, even when — or maybe especially when — there is unbelievable pressure on performance outcomes.

When it comes to professional athletes looking to advance to or stay in the big leagues, the personal stakes are so high — more even than, dare I say it, school league tables. Yet what I heard time and time again was an emphasis on the process, not on the outcome. The mantra was effort, learning, and progress — not showing that you are better than others:  “stop trying to prove yourself, start trying to improve yourself”.  That should sound strikingly familiar to those of us working in educational psychology – anyone for a bit of achievement goal theory?

And there were so many other connections that weren’t highlighted explicitly, but came through implicitly in everything the coaches were saying.  The emphasis on how players can be supported to take ‘ownership’, on strategies to build team cohesion, and on ‘hunting the good’…?  It could almost be a step-by-step guide to supporting the needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence in self-determination theory.

I was also surprised to find many references to the challenges of coaching children, teens, and young adults in a rapidly changing world.  My notes include lots of scribbled arrows linking what the coaches were saying to our work on consumer culture, mental health and well-being in youths, and even mindfulness (there was a deceptively simple emphasis on mindful breathing at the highest level of sports).

I was really struck by the key messages with which the coaches ended the event.  The recap drew my attention to the importance of effort, respecting individuals’ autonomy, and self-improvement (including the Pirates’ translation of the Japanese concept of ‘kaizen’ into a continuous cycle of improvement, even if it’s one-tenth of one percent every day).  But one of the final interactions at the Coach Summit triggered another connection with our ongoing work with young people:  when asked what really makes the difference in coaching athletes, one of the coaches responded, simply, be kind.


With thanks for a great weekend to all at BaseballSoftballUK, and the fantastic coaches who shared their experience and wisdom:

  • Dave Turgeon, coordinator of coaching for the Pittsburgh Pirates
  • Pat Doyle, former coordinator of the MLB international coach envoy program
  • Cynthia Bristow, director of national teams for USA Softball
  • Jessica Moore, university coach and pitcher in Team USA fastpitch softball
  • Steve Shortland, head coach of Team USA slowpitch softball




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One comment on “Psychology in action! Socio-motivational dynamics in sports
  1. TONY SCHWAB says:

    Thoughts on Robin Banerjee’s “Socio-motivational Dynamics in Sports“:

    “the dynamics of sports teams.” What a great phrase. The meshing and collaboration of teamwork. The dependence of one person on another. The trying to all lean into the same pitch and help the coach achieve one effort by strong people to make something happen.

    Sports psychology: think of the “psychological consequences of sustaining an injury.” The disappointment they feel when hurt, the feeling of being broken in the midst of a huge endeavor, how much they care. Then think of the idea of psychologists helping a team become better-functioning. Listen on the link to the optimism in the voice of the sports psychologist. Why? Because she is working to help people achieve, excel, exceed and have fun. How odd it is to think of the possibility that this could be done for endeavors considered more “serious”—school, business, politics…to “fix” them, buck them up to be more successful (and more fun). These endeavors are usually left to their own devices while sports is tinkered with as a closed system that provides the joy of exertion, strength and achievement for athletes and for spectators. Are these exact characteristics not essential also for the world’s “serious business”?

    Yes, grit and growth mindsets. Wouldn’t it be something if they were prevalent in the world’s serious concerns? But maybe these traits are only for people out of power while those in power are so involved with the power that they forget the value of grit and growth; it is not even in the vocabulary of most legislatures. And in school, yes, educators teach kids that grit that is born of belief and makes you do what you have to do to become part of the team. But I hope children do not leave our lessons about grit and growth outside the door when they enter adulthood. How could they? How could they put aside that joy? When Robin speaks of the environment and not just the individual improving, I think the best things we bring to young people–or better, what they show us–have to find their way into the adult world.

    As he says, character is “something that develops in a particular set of social contexts, or more specifically in a particular network of relationships.” Sounds like we need the adults to visit schools where social-emotional work is being done so they can be taught character and social connection from their children and ALSO from the teachers who guide their children. Inside good schools, conflict resolution works, but outside in the adult world people are at each other’s throats and very few are mediating.

    “What the coaches were talking about last weekend was how [character and resilience] come out of the environments that are created for and with players: the way coaches behave, … give feedback, and…respond to mistakes and poor performances as well as the big wins.” So we have sports teams and schools creating better environments with better results for the lives of the people. What about the rest of the world? Robin’s answer comes next: “We need to create the conditions to support [resilience], even when — or maybe especially when — there is unbelievable pressure on performance outcomes.” Performance in sports is one thing. It is in a controlled and re-creational environment that is watched for the fun, lessons and joy it produces for fans and the satisfaction (and rewards) it gives athletes. But outside the stadium, life is a battle between people under the spell of performance outcomes—and they are playing for keeps; their battles affect us and our children.

    Process not outcome? Of course. Everyone will live longer with that rule. But when is the international arena a process except in exceptional times like a breakthrough for peace?

    What if “effort, learning, and progress” were the watchwords of the world? Can we get there? I know we are all asking.

    “Strategies to build team cohesion.” Five more watchwords. If we can do it in small groups and schools, we can move it to larger groups day by day. Looking at the self-determination website, it’s there too: “Just as frequently, people are motivated from within, by interests, curiosity, care or abiding values.” Is this stuff getting to the right people?

    Why not end these reflections with a quote from CRESS on kindness and well-being in adolescence. “How does kindness impact an individual’s own sense of well-being? Does ‘being kind’ make one happier, and if so, how and why?” Send those questions to your representative. If there are so many of us thinking about these things, how long will it take for us to change the world?

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