Coaching & Leadership

In an article titled “Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership” in the Harvard Business Review, Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis introduce the idea of mirror neurons and their effect on leadership and communication.

When we consciously or unconsciously detect someone else’s emotions through their actions, our mirror neurons reproduce those emotions. Collectively, these neurons create an instant sense of shared experience.

Why do some coaches seem to get players to play hard while others do not, even though they appear to say the same things? It may be due to the way the coaches communicate, not the message.

In a recent study, our colleague Marie Dasborough observed two groups: One received negative performance feedback accompanied by positive emotional signals—namely, nods and smiles; the other was given positive feedback that was delivered critically, with frowns and narrowed eyes. In subsequent interviews conducted to compare the emotional states of the two groups, the people who had received positive feedback accompanied by negative emotional signals reported feeling worse about their performance than did the participants who had received good-natured negative feedback. In effect, the delivery was more important than the message itself.

According to this research, the followers reflect the leaders. When a coach is excited and pumped up for practice, the players are more likely to be excited about practice. When the coach looks tired and disinterested, the players are likely to have less energy and enthusiasm.

The article continues:

And everybody knows that when people feel better, they perform better. So, if leaders hope to get the best out of their people, they should continue to be demanding but in ways that foster a positive mood in their teams. The old carrot-and-stick approach alone doesn’t make neural sense; traditional incentive systems are simply not enough to get the best performance from followers.

What happens when a coach feels that his players are not listening or playing hard? He grows frustrated. Maybe he makes the team run or he threatens the team with some form of physical punishment. Is that the best way to get players to perform better?

I know a team that has lost two games this year because they are shooting under 50% from the free throw line and left more than 10 points on the board in the two games. After the last loss, the team shot free throws and sprinted after every miss. This is a common teaching tool. But, what does it teach?

Are the players missing on purpose? Should they be punished for a lack of skill? If there is a physical or mental error at the free throw line, is running sprints going to improve the performance or correct the error?

Most coaches assume that being a hard-ass or instilling discipline is a job requirement. This goes along with the popular command-style of coaching as well as the “my way or the highway” philosophy. However, is there a better way to motivate and inspire players to their best performance?

Top-performing leaders elicited laughter from their subordinates three times as often, on average, as did mid-performing leaders. Being in a good mood, other research finds, helps people take in information effectively and respond nimbly and creatively. In other words, laughter is serious business.

Eliciting laughter may not be the best protocol throughout practice, especially depending on the circumstances (don’t want to make fun of a player). However, the ideas differ little between an office place and a basketball court.

Leading effectively is, in other words, less about mastering situations—or even mastering social skill sets—than about developing a genuine interest in and talent for fostering positive feelings in the people whose cooperation and support you need.

Players respond to coaches who trust them and show interest in them. They respond to coaches who show enthusiasm for practice or the sport. They appreciate coaches who show their humanity rather than acting as if they are beyond reproach or unable to error. Players respond when a coach’s actions match his words.

Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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