Mind Over Sports

Posts Tagged ‘Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

When Billy Gillispie was fired as head coach of the Texas Tech men’s basketball team, it came to light (according to a report in USA Today) that he demeaned his players and created a team environment that was so severe there was a belief that players’ mental health might have been in jeopardy. Interviews with players, academic counselors, coaches and athletic trainers revealed players were told daily they: suck, are terrible, aren’t smart, are morons, idiots, etc. If true, it’s obvious that Coach Gillispie doesn’t understand how expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies. Players who are told they aren’t smart, and that they are morons and idiots will, before long, begin to exhibit that behavior. We often see this in dysfunctional families where parents treat their children in a similar manner, and then are surprised when their children get into trouble. The most successful coaches are those who create a loving, caring team environment.

In 1948, Robert Merton published a paper in which he stated: “The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true. The specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the beginning.”

In other words, a prophecy (or strongly held belief) declared as truth when it is actually false may sufficiently influence people, either through fear or logical confusion, so that their reactions ultimately fulfill the once-false belief.
Example: When a woman falsely believes her marriage will fail, her fears of such failure actually cause the marriage to fail.
Example: When athletes falsely fear they will not perform up to their capabilities in an upcoming game, their fear of such failure actually causes them to fail.

But I believe the opposite is also true. That is, when a coach praises an athlete and tells him or her how successful they are expected to be in their next game (even creates goals for them) and, assuming the athlete possesses the skill level to achieve those goals, there is a high probability the athlete will be successful.  But in order to do so, the athlete must not be withholding feelings and emotions, or have unresolved issues in his or her personal life.

If a parent constantly praises a child and reminds that child of what high goals he or she is capable of achieving, then there is a great probability he or she will achieve high goals, assuming the child possesses the skill levels to achieve the goals and is not withholding feelings and emotions, or has unresolved issues in his or her personal life.

If a child is being reared in a loving, nurturing home environment and has a high sense of inner-self (self-esteem), and a teacher belittles that child and creates a negative expectation, it will be like water off a ducks back because of how that child feels about himself or herself. But if the child comes from a dysfunctional home environment and has a low sense of inner-self (self-esteem) and a teacher belittles the child, the teacher’s actions will re-enforce the negative beliefs the child may already possess about himself or herself.

I watched the new HBO documentary about Vince Lombardi recently and was amazed to find that many of the things I preach to teams and coaches he actually practiced. For example, when players realize their coach cares about them as human beings first and then as athletic performers, they play their hearts out for him or her. Lombardi absolutely cared about and loved his players. And he showed it. Successful coaches often tap into their players’ belief systems and allow them to make important calls at crucial stages of a game. Lombardi allowed Brett Starr to call the final play of the “Ice Bowl” when he scored the winning touchdown. Successful coaches create positive expectations for their players, and these positive expectations often become self-fulfilling prophecies. Lombardi did that with many of his players, letting them know what he thought they were capable of achieving, on and off the field of competition. Lombardi had strong religious beliefs that he followed his entire life. Lombardi had no time for people who were racists. He demonstrated this when he gave his blessing to an inter-racial marriage for one of his black players, something unheard of at that time. And finally, Lombardi had a major stressful issue in his life that he was unable to control and I believe it was the stress from this issue that impaired his immune system and resulted in his being diagnosed with cancer, resulting in his early death at age 57. His wife was an alcoholic.


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