Using the Pygmalion Effect in sport

How coaching expectations influence athlete outcomes

Higher expectations lead to higher performance. If you've ever heard something like this then you have stumbled across what is known as the Pygmalion Effect. In the late 1960s Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson discovered that researcher bias could influence experimental outcomes. In a study dubbed Pygmalion in the Classroom, researchers administered an IQ test to students and then told teachers which students were likely to be high performers during the following year. What the teachers did not know was that the high performer labels were randomized and had nothing to do with the IQ test. The students performed in the way the teachers expected. The researchers concluded that teachers communicated their expectations of student performance unwittingly through their actions and students met these expectations as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

You can read about the experiment here but in short, researchers got the result they expected.

When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur.

Though we're probably most familiar with how the Pygmalion Effect applies to education, it can also have significant benefits in the sport world. Coaches can learn to mold training environments similar to the way teachers create classroom environments. Pygmalion works across a range of ages. Younger athletes respond well to coach expectations because they are more extrinsically motivated; pleasing significant adults drives their performance. Different strategies might be required for older athletes who are more intrinsically motivated and who have a more stable awareness of their abilities (self-efficacy).

Creating the proper environment is the key to any Pygmalion strategy. During their training, public school teachers learn that they are practically Masters of the Universe when it comes to the classroom environment. They learn how subtle structural motivators can shape behavior, interest, enthusiasm, and mindset. And while they are responsible for how well these strategies work no one would ever suggest that student success is a result of only a good teacher; environment plays a significant role and the best teachers are skilled at leveraging the environmental framework that enhances their efforts and encourages student engagement.

Though the contexts are different, sport coaches and school teachers have similar roles. But many coaches have not gone through a teaching curriculum and develop their teaching proficiency through experience, modeling, trial-and-error, or just plain luck. Understanding how to leverage the environment can quickly boost athlete success.

Using Pygmalion in a training environment

Rosenthal found that higher expectations led teachers to act differently towards certain students in four ways. I have paraphrased these ways so they apply more to sport than education:

  1. Teachers offered high expectation learners a warmer social and emotional climate: Acknowledging the learner, smiling, offering advice, engaging with learners in each practice session both actively and non-verbally.
  2. Teachers did not dumb it down with high expectation learners. They taught difficult material and more of it.
  3. High expectation learners received more opportunities to participate in class and were given longer time to ask and answer questions. In sports lingo, they got more reps.
  4. High expectation learners received more specific feedback rather than generic comments.

Pygmalion in sport starts with coaches who modify their own behavior by treating all athletes as if they have high potential.

Pygmalion is implemented by modifying coach behavior. Athletes will then begin reflecting the coach's expectations resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Trevor Ragan at the Learner Lab has produced a video featuring Robert Rosenthal that discusses the experiments that got the whole idea going and the surprising proposition that student success may depend more on teacher expectations rather than the students themselves. Think about that for a moment and then watch the video.

High expectations lead to improved performance

Having a single coach apply these ideas to his own training squad is easy, however creating the environment discussed above in a single training situation is almost impossible without the support infrastructure provided by clubs, state or regional associations, or national governing bodies. These next tier entities don't have direct contact with athletes so their expectations are communicated indirectly through governance, transparent selection procedures for state and national teams, advanced training opportunities, qualifying times, distances, or weights.

Any number of elements can be added to the motivational framework as long as it takes place within a deliberately constructed culture of achievement. Not every athlete will rise to the highest level but the expectation of achievement must pervade the sport's environment.

As Rosenthal says in the video, “Of course there are individual differences in what kids can learn; some of them are smarter than others. But still, any particular person, I don’t care if they’re really high IQ to really low IQ, they can learn probably more than you think they can.”

For an example of how this might work on an institutional scale I look to my former swim coaching career.

By the early 2000s the number of athletes who qualified for our local swimming championship had grown to the point where the event was becoming too long. Something had to be done to limit the number of qualifiers and the only method we had to do this was to adjust the qualifying standard for each event across the age groups. By making the standards faster we hoped fewer athletes would qualify and thus bring the competition back to a manageable size. When we had lowered almost every qualifying time for the following year we thought the problem was solved. We were wrong.

The following year the competition had just as many athletes qualify as in the previous year, even with faster standards across the board. This was a good news/bad news situation. The good news was that athletes met the qualifying times and were therefore swimming faster. The bad news was that our method for controlling the size of the competition apparently didn't work. We doubled down. Qualifying times were lowered by an even larger margin for the next year. As a result the total number of qualifiers in the following year was slightly smaller but nowhere near what we expected from the aggressively reduced qualifying standards.

Was this an example of Pygmalion in action? I think so for two reasons: First, the qualifying standards represented institutional expectations that reinforced a culture of achievement for all clubs and athletes. Second, the new standards became the basis of coaches' expectations in the local clubs. Thus by raising the bar to qualify for the championship the local association and individual club coaches communicated higher expectations to the athletes and a self-fulfilling prophecy was set in motion.

There is also a self-efficacious aspect to this in which athletes who previously qualified for the championship saw themselves as championship qualifiers regardless that the times needed to qualify again were faster. This is a possible subject of a different letter though.

Conclusion

Although Pygmalion works on many different levels and ages, implementing it in developmental sport settings is almost a guaranteed way to increase athlete performance and improve retention percentages. Youngsters who enjoy what they're doing in youth sport tend to stick around longer. It may seem counterintuitive that higher expectations create a more enjoyable environment but success on any level is fun and support from coaches, parents, and the sport itself supports longevity in the activity.

The key takeaway is that while Pygmalion primarily affects the athletes, it is behavior by coaches and institutional actors who set the stage needed to create a culture of achievement and the higher expectations that come with it.