For Coaches, Anger More Effective Than Positivity When It Comes To Halftime Speeches

BERKELEY, Calif. — The coach’s halftime speech is long known to be a motivational tool in the sports world. Many sports movies, such as Hoosiers, Remember the Titans, or Friday Night Lights include a pivotal scene in which the coach makes an impassioned speech to his team, igniting a furious comeback. But what makes an effective halftime speech in real life? A new study finds that anger is actually more effective during halftime speeches than inspiration.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business analyzed hundreds of halftime speeches and final scores from high school and college basketball games, and found that players seem to perform better after a harsh, more negative halftime speech from their coach. In fact, researchers discovered a significant relationship between the level of negativity a coach projects during a halftime speech and second-half scoring outcomes. The more negativity, the more the team outscored their opponents, that is at least up to a certain threshold point.

“That was even true if the team was already ahead at halftime,” lead researcher and Haas professor emeritus Barry Staw comments in a media release. “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 research team started gathering information by contacting over 50 high school and college basketball coaches in Northern California and asking if they would record their halftime locker room speeches for the purpose of the study. Many coaches, however, didn’t exactly roll out the red carpet for researchers.

“Coaches regard the locker room as their inner sanctum—so it was kind of an achievement just to get the tapes,” Staw explains.

One coach even bowed out of the study halfway through because he believed the researchers’ recordings were bad luck. “The coach complained that every time we taped the game, they lost,” Staw says.

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In all, 304 speeches from 23 teams were used in the study. Each halftime pep talk was rated by the extent to which coaches expressed several different emotions, from positive (pleased, relaxed, inspired, excited) to negative (disgusted, angry, frustrated, afraid).

The research indicated that while negative halftime speeches led to higher scores in the second half, there is, of course, a point where all of that negativity begins to bring the team down. Whenever coaches displayed “extreme” bouts of anger, frustration, and negativity, it ended up hurting their players’ performances. So, its clear from the researchers’ findings that negativity, up to a certain point, can help players perform, but too much negativity is ultimately going to be detrimental to the team.

In addition to just analyzing speeches and game performance, the researchers also conducted a controlled laboratory experiment regarding self perceived motivation. A handful of select halftime pep talks were played for certain participants, who were then asked about how motivated they felt. Inline with the main study’s findings, negativity seemed to motivate participants, but only up to a certain level of intensity. When coaches became too angry or negative, motivation tapered off.

Staw and his team say that they believe negative emotion can be a more effective motivator than many currently believe.

“We sometimes strip content from emotion, treating it as simply positive or negative expression, but emotion often has a message carried along with it that causes people to listen and pay attention, as leaders try to correct or redirect behavior,” Staw comments.

At the end of the day, though, Staw also cautions against acting negatively all the time towards someone you may be trying to motivate.

“Our results do not give leaders a license to be a jerk,” Staw concludes.

The study is published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

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