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Rockne Was Right, Pep Talks Can Work

Published: August 21, 2017

“The last thing George said to me, ‘Rock,’ he said, ‘sometime when the team is up against it and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go out there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper.’” From the 1940 Warner Bros. film “Knute Rockne, All-American”.

Kinesiology’s Tiffanye Vargas argues the motivational speech retains its power as part of an article on the science of pep talks that appeared in the July-August issue of the Harvard Business Review. Vargas has published a half-dozen lab and field studies exploring which types of speeches best motivate athletes in different situations. Her conclusion? Across a variety of sports, coaches’ pregame talks still make a difference. Her surveys found that 90 percent of players say they enjoy listening to them while 65 percent say the speeches affect the way they play.

“Coaches and athletes feel differently about pep talks,” said Vargas, who joined the university in 2012. “Coaches do not think they are as effective as they are yet athletes say, yes, they do matter, and yes, they like them.” Yet, how they feel about pep talks depends on the situation.

She has found that athletes like a speech high in information and low on uncertainty if they are playing an unknown opponent or a team who beat them in a close-run match. (“We’re going to beat this team with tough man-to-man coverage. Joe, your job is to neutralize that shooting guard; Jimmy, you box out that star rebounder on every play.”) If a team is an underdog, more emotion may be the key. (“We’ve exceeded all expectations in this tournament. No one expects us to win. However, I expect you to win. I know you can win. You have to win. For your teammates, for the fans—because you deserve this victory.”)

Vargas earned her B.A. in Plan II and psychology at the University of Texas at Austin before acquiring her M.A. in counseling and Ph.D. in sport psychology from Michigan State University.

Her interest in pep talks began with her personal experience as an athlete.

“I have played competitive soccer most of my life and I started to notice differences between coaches and how they prepared their teams,” she said. “Often, the pep talk would change depending on the game or the opponent and at times, the speech seemed to have negative consequences on players’ confidence and performance. It was not until I enrolled in college that I began to wonder why that might be.”

Vargas and her mentor, John Bartholomew at the University of Texas, created three speeches that asked athletes to pretend they were on a soccer team bound for a championship match. They presented the athletes with statistics and team photos about how their imaginary team and their opponent had done over the season. Participants then listened to one of three speeches—one was heavy on information, one emphasized emotion and one was about control. Following the speech, athletes indicated their feelings of self-efficacy regarding the imaginary match. Sure enough, the emotional speech seemed to kick in and the athletes wanted more.

Vargas’ advice to pep-talking coaches is to know their team.

“If a coach has a team that is anxious, maybe the ‘Win-one-for-the-Gipper’ speech is not the best plan,” she said. “As well, the pep talk needs to be genuine. If it is not genuine, do not force it. A good coach knows when to back off and let the athletes step up and assume the leadership role. It really comes down to coaches knowing their teams.”

Tiffanye Vargas

Tiffanye Vargas

Gender plays only a small role in pep talks.

“One study suggested female athletes preferred more information than their male counterparts. Otherwise, in general, women and male athletes are consistent in their reaction to pep talks,” she explained. “What likely matters most is the athlete’s connection with their coach, not necessarily the gender of the coach or of the team.”

Vargas feels she would have benefited from research like this when she was coaching.

“There is so much that coaches need to understand about feedback,” she said. “They need to know more about communication with their athletes. They need to know how to create a better relationship with them. Coaches need to know more about interpersonal skills and the psychosocial aspects of coaching. If they did, they would be much more effective coaches.”

Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden offered polished pep talks, a fantastic role model for coaches nationwide, according to Vargas.

“He did a beautiful job of having a coaching philosophy that was less about winning than it was centered on the athlete,” she said. “As a result, they won. It was the whole package. Winning is a wonderful perk but the focus needs to be on athlete development.”

She feels CSULB is a good place for her research.

“I’m not sure there could be a better location,” she said. “When I first arrived in California from Texas, I was impressed by the diversity of sports I found. In addition, CSULB has been so supportive of my research. It is a beautifully collaborative community.”

Vargas tells future coaches that there always will be a use for the readily available, affordable and dependable pep talk.

“Verbal persuasion provides a source of confidence. How can you go wrong? Pep talks are free and always available,” she said. “The other sources of confidence are harder to control or ensure. Yet verbal persuasion is always handy; the key is learning how to use it effectively. When you choose your words wisely, you increase the other person’s confidence.”