Heading into the NFC championship, one win away from the Super Bowl, the Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator sat his team down and made them watch last year’s championship game; a game in which the defense had been embarrassed by the San Francisco 49ers, giving up 37 points in total.
Is showing your players their worst performance the best way to prepare them for an upcoming game? Will it fire them up by reminding them what it feels like to fall short, to fail? Or will it do the opposite? Remind them that they once weren’t good enough.
What we watch, hear, say, and do leading into any big event can sway how we perform. We intuitively know this. It’s the reason coaches give locker room speeches to motivate players, it’s why executives bring in corporate speakers, and why we use music or hype videos to put us in place to crush it in our own little pursuits. The effect of these strategies runs deep, impacting our hormones, and ultimately our chances of success. It’s something I cover in depth in my new book Do Hard Things.
Consider a study done of elite hockey players. When they watched a video of a recent victory; their testosterone levels shot up 44 percent. When they watched a recent defeat, there was no significant change in their hormone levels. Testosterone is a hormone we commonly associate with strength gains, but in the short term, it’s been linked to increases in motivation, risk-taking, aggression, and even performance. Not bad for before a hockey game.
The stress hormone cortisol is also heavily influenced by what we watch and do. And it’s generally linked to anxiety, pre-game nervousness, rumination, and ultimately worse performance. While I’m simplifying to a degree, shifting this hormonal interaction shifts our performance state, readying us to take on a challenge or to run away. In a systematic review looking at hormonal state and performance in professional athletes, the researchers concluded, “when the testosterone responses to an intervention is notably greater than cortisol, favorable outcomes are likely.”
In one study on professional rugby players, the athletes watched the video with their coach two hours before a game. The coach either pointed out mistakes they’d made and what they should watch out for in the next match or pointed out their successes and things they’d done well. Not surprisingly, positive feedback saw testosterone increase by nearly 15 percent with cortisol remaining steady. Cautionary and negative feedback, however, saw testosterone stay flat and cortisol spike by almost 20 percent. Game performance followed the hormonal trends, with those receiving positive feedback during their preparation performing better. Put simply: being positive right before a game increased the likelihood of success for these athletes.
In a different study on professional rugby players, athletes watched videos that depicted humor, aggression, motivational training footage, sadness, or erotica. The researchers then measured the athletes’ hormone levels prior to having them max out in the squat. The aggressive, motivational, and erotic videos all boosted testosterone levels and improved squat performance by a few percentage points, yet again linking testosterone to better performance.
While the type of pre-performance video you watch matters, so does the kind of event you are planning for. A max squat requires an immense amount of power in a very short period. Aggression is a must. On the contrary, if you are getting ready to give a talk in front of thousands of people, aggression might not be what you are after. Thus, step one in any pre-performance priming is understanding what state you want to be in.
So here’s where we’re at so far: a video or speech right before a performance matters! But surely not several days later?
There’s a study for that as well. Researchers took athletes through the same type of video review mentioned earlier, only this time after a game, either focusing on what a player did well or what they did wrong. A few days later, before a demanding workout, the positive group had higher testosterone levels. A full week after the initial film review, the positive group still had higher pre-game testosterone levels. More importantly, they were judged by the coaches as having played significantly better during the game too.
It’s not just videos either. The emotion that a coach conveys gets transferred onto the player. In baseball and soccer players, researchers found that whatever emotional state the coaches expressed predicted the emotional state and the subsequent performance of their players. If a coach was angry, players grew more frustrated, made more errors, and were more likely to tank.
It’s looking like the Packers coach might have made a mistake…
The point isn’t to say that being positive all the time is the only way to go. It’s to show the nuance of motivation and performance. Our pre-performance videos, discussions, routines, hype videos, and so on all send a message to our mind-body system. Should we be excited or scared? Amped or afraid? Thought and care should go into how we’re setting ourselves (or those we coach or lead) up to perform.
Before any pre-game speech or pre-performance routine, I find it helpful to ask: What am I trying to accomplish with this? What mood state am I trying to get in? Have a specific goal in mind, whether that’s to convey information or shift the team’s mood. To “motivate” is way too broad. It needs to be more specific.
Also, be careful about the “feel-good effect” on the speech giver. When a coach gives a speech, the result is the coach often feels better. They release some tension, get some adrenaline going, and become fully engaged. So what? Don’t mistake how you feel for the impact on those listening. It might feel good to you to let the emotion out or cuss out your team. But the message they’re receiving may be entirely different.
Motivation is tough. It’s not as simple as playing a hype video or making people angry. It is far more nuanced. With each nudge of your mood and emotions, each shift of hormones, you may be putting yourself in a better, or worse, place to perform.
(If you enjoyed this piece, I recently tweeted a thread on the research surrounding priming and performance. I tweet deep dives on topics surrounding performance 2x a week, so consider following along there too!)