DUMB RATS AND THE PYGMALION EFFECT: HOW COACH EXPECTATIONS CAN KILL STUDENT PERFORMANCE
DUMB RATS AND THE PYGMALION EFFECT:
HOW COACH EXPECTATIONS CAN KILL STUDENT PERFORMANCE
Experienced coaches have an uncanny ability for detecting good players from poor ones. Based on just a few simple cues, great coaches can usually predict current ability with amazing accuracy and quickness– sometimes before they’ve even seen a club in the player’s hand.
Whether we realize it or not, we all make these quick judgements about a player’s ability or potential. Good or bad, those expectations affect how we interact with students and, therefore, make a major impact on our effectiveness.
Consider your inner dialogue when working with a recreational player who seems to lack the capacity to implement a technical change. Compare that to when you have a student that you perceive as naturally talented and remarkably ‘coachable’. How do our attitudes change? Our tone? How does our ability to impact the player in front of us shift based on our pre-conceived expectations about their skill level and capacity to learn?
“When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur.” (Rosenthal and Babad, 1985)
In 1968, Harvard researcher and psychologist, Bob Rosenthal, conducted a study in which he challenged test subjects to coach a rat through a maze. Some subjects had an easier task than others– half of the group were told they received extremely intelligent rats which were bred and trained specifically to develop superior maze solving skills. The other half were not so lucky. They were informed that the rats they would be coaching through the maze were, well… ‘dumb’.
Truth is– they all got plain lab rats– there were no discernible differences in any of them. The ‘smart rats’ were no more skilled than the ones receiving the dubious distinction of ‘dumb’. But the results of the experiment demonstrated the strong effects of a self-fulfilling prophecy resulting from the expectations of the coaches. The ‘smart’ rats outperformed the ‘dumb’ maze runners handily. Turns out, the way the rats were coached made all the difference.
Rosenthal went on to expand his experiment to the classroom, where he found similar results in school children and their teachers. At the beginning of the school year, teachers were given the names of a few students who had been identified as gifted and likely to ‘bloom’ in the upcoming semester. As predicted by the rat experiment, the students who were labelled as gifted, despite being chosen at random, ended up with higher grades and developed into more successful students.
Rosenthal called this the Expectancy or Pygmalion Effect. Teachers ended up interacting with students they believed to be gifted in a way that was more likely to lead to richer development.
At first glance, the Pygmalion Effect appears to be a bizarre phenomenon. But in investigating the school teacher’s behavior further, we think there are some clear implications and connections to be made for us as golf coaches. The school teachers displayed a few key differences in their interactions with their supposedly superior students. Here are Rosenthal’s four major expectancy effects: (Source: Interpersonal Expectancy Effects: A 30 Year Perspective)
- Climate. Teachers appear to create a warmer socio-emotional climate for their “special” students.
- Input. Teachers appear to teach more material and more difficult material to their “special” students.
- Output. Teachers appear to give their “special” students greater opportunities for responding. These opportunities are offered both verbally and nonverbally (e.g., giving a student more time to answer a question).
- Feedback. Teachers appear to give their “special” students more informative feedback, both verbal and nonverbal, as to how these students have been performing.
So it’s pretty clear that our expectations have the power to influence how we interact with students and, ultimately, either enhance or limit learning. How could we harness this power of positive expectations for our students in a way that elevated the learning environment and our effectiveness, even for those who may have been previously deemed ‘un-coachable’?
We have been coaching for the past few weeks with a heightened awareness for our expectations and their potential effects. After comparing notes and discussing our observations, we were able to identify the immediate benefits of remaining vigilant about how the Pygmalion Effect could be influencing our actions and the mindset of the learner.
This was the most obvious and immediate benefit of being conscious of our expectations. If, for example, we had a student who was struggling to get a ball out of a bunker, despite our best intentions or interventions– we were careful to monitor our tone and reaction. Where as before, we may succumb to a tendency to lower expectations, it was invigorating to raise our vision for what was possible and work even harder to help develop the skill.
This is not to say that we would have previously given up on the student, but the simple act of characterizing them as a ‘smart rat’ ignited us with the resolve to stick with them and provide greater support. I’m certain the student would be able to detect the differences as they benefitted from the warmer socio-emotional climate predicted by Rosenthal. It was like a shot of belief and motivation to our coaching mindset. Not only are we more effective, but it’s far more fulfilling than the fatalistic alternative of ‘this person doesn’t have the capacity for change and my coaching is of little consequence.’ Maybe it’s overly optimistic but its a far more stimulating perspective to operate within.
Another nasty by-product of negative expectations is lowered accountability for both coach and student. If I have low expectations of how much a student can accomplish for whatever reason, it’s easy to blame any shortcomings on their lack of ability– instead of myself or a substandard coaching session. By viewing each student as a capable performer with great potential for improvement, we put the onus back on ourselves to deliver. While there are likely legitimate reasons for skill deficiencies (current ability, practice time, commitment, etc.), greater expectations for their ability to change empowers us to remain accountable for the aspects within our control.
We also kept the students more accountable. If we have high expectations for performance, we’re more likely to foster a culture that demands the necessary work to meet a higher standard. This belief is communicated back to the student in a way that builds self-efficacy, providing further motivation to demonstrate grit and persevere through failures.
As Rosenthal’s school experiment suggests, you’re more likely to provide better feedback when working from positive expectations. We have attempted to be consistent in our feedback with all students, carefully praising effort over outcome and presenting more specific coaching.
Sound bites like ‘good job’ are encouraging, but can become redundant if overused. They also don’t add that much value to the learning process. You can supercharge your feedback by being more specific. For example, ‘I really liked your balance on that shot. You did a great job holding your finish’. Not only does this praise their effort (a must for increasing motivation), but it also helps the learner cue in on the aspects of their performance that will help them repeat a successful performance. If they don’t understand how they did something, or why they were successful, it can sometimes be difficult to replicate.
What motivation do you have to provide ample time for students to digest new ideas and explore suitable solutions if you have low expectations for their ability to actually improve? Lately, we have been careful to give the student adequate time to discover solutions and show what they know. Using quick checks for cognitive understanding, like asking the student to ‘teach it back to me’, gave us the opportunity to ensure that they have a grasp on the fundamental concept. We were also sure to ask them questions to make them think problems through and/or contrast them with successful trials. The element of patience has also contributed to the ‘warmth’ of the learning environment highlighted by Rosenthal’s experiment.
As we have discussed in previous articles, learning is a dynamic process that is influenced by a myriad of factors. Some of these factors are controlled by the student, while others are controlled by the coach. Just as an athlete needs to master the elements of performance that are within their control, so too does a coach who is focused on delivering an awesome environment for their students. The Pygmalion Effect is a HUGE factor within our control.
After our experience of being VERY aware of our expectations, it’s become pretty clear that our coaching behaviors are shaped by the success (or lack thereof) of our students. The detriments of the phenomenon are painstakingly obvious. But after considering the benefits of remaining mindful of our expectations– I think we can now begin to capitalize on Expectancy Effects, rather than fall victim to them – its just one of the boxes that we can all check when evaluating the environments we provide for our students.
And if that’s not compelling enough to consider your expectations more carefully, we should tell you that it’s made our coaching more fun– empowered, even. We urge you to experiment with these concepts, as they uncover a lot of great ideas and bits of information. How?
For the next week, commit to staying attentive to expectations and how they are affecting the learning environment that you provide for you students. At the end of each session, or at the end of the day, take a moment to reflect. Jot down some notes and ask yourself, “How well did I manage myself and the environment? Were my behaviors consistent throughout the day? Did I provide the best climate for each individual student?”
Getting on the right side of expectations is an empowering way to inspire performers to transcend their current abilities and expand their idea of what is possible for them and their games. After all, isn’t that what we are after?
– COREY LUNDBERG & MATT WILSON
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