Is This the Key to Motivating My Students? No More Mr. Nice Guy?!

If you were to watch the two videos below, which one do you think would be more effective at motivating the players? (second video has some NSFW language).

In the first video, Coach Herb Brooks attempts to motivate the players in a positive, encouraging way.

In the second video, Coach John Tortorella attempts to motivate the players in a negative, angry outburst.

I don’t know who won the Flyers/Rangers hockey game, but we all know who the 1980 Olympic hockey final.

So based on that outcome, we might assume that it is better for coaches to offer positive words of encouragement during “halftime”.

Well, not so fast.

A new study finds that anger is actually more effective during halftime speeches than inspiration.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business analyzed hundreds of halftime speeches and final scores from high school and college basketball games and found that players seem to perform better after a harsh, more negative halftime speech from their coach. In fact, researchers discovered a significant relationship between the level of negativity a coach projects during a halftime speech and second-half scoring outcomes. The more negativity, the more the team outscored their opponents, that is at least up to a certain threshold point.

In all, 304 speeches from 23 teams were used in the study. Each halftime pep talk was rated by the extent to which coaches expressed several different emotions, from positive (pleased, relaxed, inspired, excited) to negative (disgusted, angry, frustrated, afraid).

However, the research also indicated that while negative halftime speeches led to higher scores in the second half, there is a point where all of that negativity begins to bring the team down. Whenever coaches displayed “extreme” bouts of anger, frustration, and negativity, it ended up hurting their players’ performances.

Thus, the research seems to suggest that negativity, up to a certain point, can help players perform, but too much negativity is ultimately going to be detrimental to the team.

So what’s this research got to do with effective teaching?

When I return a test to my students on which they have not, on average, performed well, I usually try to provide some words of encouragement:

  • “I know you can do better on the next test.”
  • “It’s only one test. There’s still an opportunity to do well in this class”
  • “I’ll be adding a few points to everyone’s score in the form of a curve.”

Well after reading this research study, it seems like I need to try a different tactic. Forget about a kind word or two; they don’t deserve it.

So maybe I need to get angry about the students’ performances. Maybe I should be saying things like this:

  • this is the worst I have ever had a group of students perform on a test.
  • I’m not sure you deserve to be at Villanova.
  • you people are pathetic, please don’t even think about being an Accounting major

I can’t imagine ever talking like the second list right above.

But if it helps the students perform better, isn’t that what teaching is all about?

And speaking of No More, Mr. Nice Guy. I wonder if I need to start dressing like Alice Cooper as well…

*image from Bleacher Report

13 thoughts on “Is This the Key to Motivating My Students? No More Mr. Nice Guy?!

  1. I’ve been around plenty of coaches, and I’ve also coached baseball and basketball. Not all players respond the same way. If a coach constantly loses it and berates the players, the athletes will eventually tune out the coaches.


    1. great point, Pete. for me personally, I would prefer a coach who could motivate without yelling, and that was always the type of coach I tried to be. but you’re right, different kids respond to different types of motivation.


    1. it seems like instilling a love of learning in a student is critical, particularly at the younger ages. seems to me that doing so may require motivation of some type.


  2. I wonder if this is similar to Machiavelli’s recommendations about whether it’s better to be loved or feared; love is more powerful, fear is more predictable.

    Coach’s choice?


      1. That’s a good question. Certainly a ruler has a different relationship with their people than a coach with their players and a teacher with their students.

        I believe that a teacher’s job is to teach their students to learn, and, like you, to instill in them the love of learning (yes, love!). Memorizing facts and dates is incidental (though I myself really like trivia, too :))

        What do you think is the role of a teacher vs coach?


  3. I think we may be comparing apples and oranges. What motivates a person to perform physically may differ greatly from what motivates a person intellectually. Interesting and provocative post Jim!


  4. I had a Marketing professor who used to say, “You people don’t deserve to study in this college.’ One day, he told a guy who had arrears in 5 subjects, “You will never be any good. I don’t want to see you in the campus again.” The next semester the guy cleared all the 5 subjects. I found the professor’s negativity demotivating, but it worked for my classmate. What works for one may not work for the other..


    1. that’s a great story, thanks for sharing. I’m with you, I don’t think I would find that kind of talk motivating at all. But apparently some people thrive on it.


Comments are closed.