Turns out a negative pep talk from a coach can make you more successful

“We’re losin’! You’re blowin’ it!” So goes the halftime scene in 1977 movie Slap Shot, with the general manager Joe McGrath castigating his team in a famous fictional locker room talk.

“Every scout in the NHL is out there with contracts in their pockets,” McGrath continued to rant, “and they’re looking for talent, for winners! But you’re… [expletives].”

Coaches don’t exactly talk to their teams like movie characters. But locker-room pep talks were the subject of a recent study from the University of California – Berkeley Haas School of Business.

They found that it often does pay for coaches to get negative in locker-room talks, after analyzing hundreds of half-time pep talks and final scores from high school and college games. In other words, sweet, gentle patter from coaches doesn’t help players get up the fighting spirit to win games.

In fact, researchers found a relationship between how harsh a coach got at halftime and how the team performed in the second half – better.

Take this pre-game video of UL-Lafayette head coach Mark Hudspeth riling up his team before the 2011 New Orleans Bowl. Short, fiery, and energetic, he kicks over a trash can, shoves a few players for emphasis, barks missives and expects a “Yes sir” to rhetorical questions.

“Let me tell you something,” Hudspeth says as he shouts himself hoarse. “You run harder, you hit harder than you’ve ever done in your life.”

The team won over San Diego State.

The study

The study was conducted by getting permission from more than 50 coaches for high-school and college basketball teams in Northern California to record their half-time locker-room talks. This was no easy task.

“Coaches regard the locker room as their inner sanctum – so it was kind of an achievement just to get the tapes,” said lead researcher Barry Staw, in a release.

Negativity wins – mostly

After the emotions of the coaches in all the speeches had been rated, they found that negative halftime talks did result in teams playing better in the second half of the game. However, if the coach was way too negative, it had an ill effect.

“We’re talking Bobby Knight level, where you’re throwing chairs,” Staw said, referring to the infamous Indiana University basketball coach.

See example below. (Attn: NSFW without headphones).

Researchers noted that while this sort of motivation can be translated to the business world, it is best in short boosts – for those times that you really have to perform under pressure. It is not effective over the long term.

“Our results do not give leaders a license to be a jerk,” Staw said, “but when you have a very important project or a merger that needs to get done over the weekend, negative emotions can be a very useful arrow to have in your quiver to drive greater performance.”

Or sometimes you need motivation that’s cool, eloquent, and only a little bit cutting, like the hockey coach Herb Brooks. He gave one of the most famous locker-room talks – and inspiration talks period – at the 1980 Olympics.

“Great moments are born from great opportunity,” his locker-room soliloquy began.

The study was conducted by Barry Staw, professor emeritus at the University of California – Berkeley Haas School of Business, Katherine DeCelles, Ph.D., associate professor of Organizational Behaviour & HR Management at the University of Toronto, and Peter de Goey. The findings were published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.