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Priming and the Basketball Coach, or Choose Your Words Carefully

Two Girls Whispering

Priming and the Basketball Coach, or Choose Your Words Carefully

In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell describes an experiment done by Yale University psychologist, John Bargh. The experiment was rather simple really, but the results are fascinating.

Imagine that I’m a professor, and I’ve asked you to come and see me in my office. You walk down a long corridor, come through the doorway, and sit down at a table. In front of you is a sheet of paper with a list of five-word sets. I want you to make a grammatical four-word sentence as quickly as possible out of each set. It’s called a scrambled-sentence test.

• him was worried she always
• from are Florida oranges temperature
• ball the throw toss silently
• should now withdraw forgetful we
• sky the seamless gray is

After you finished that test – believe it or not – you would have walked out of my office and back down the hall more slowly than you walked in. With that test I affected the way you behaved. How? Well, look back at the list. Scattered throughout it are certain words, such as “worried”, “Florida”, “lonely”, “forgetful”, and “gray”. You thought I was just making you take a language test. But, in fact, what I was also doing was making the big computer in your brain – your adaptive unconscious – think about the state of being old. It didn’t inform the rest of your brain about its sudden obsession. But it took all this talk of old age so seriously that by the time you finished and walked down the corridor, you acted old. You walked slowly.

Creepy, right? It’s called priming, but what does it have to do with basketball?

Simply that you as the coach have the ability to prime your players in one direction or another (or, perhaps no direction at all). This is not the first time that you’ve heard your words matter, but maybe you didn’t know quite how much. Could telling your team that they are strong, smart, fast, aggressive, and powerful nudge them in that direction on the court? The above experiment seems to indicate that very thing.

But, if that is the case, then the opposite is also true. Yikes!

So, during your next pre-game, half-time, or even practice speech, think about using “weakness”, “struggle”, “tired”, and “lazy” less and peppering in “tough”, “quick”, “conquer”, and “intelligent” more.

Or, you could just give them a pre-game scrambled-sentence test. That’d probably work too.

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