The Psychology of a Good Pep Talk

You can’t have a good sports movie without an inspirational pep talk. But in real life, do these heartfelt motivational speeches really work?

A group of psychologists and kinesiologists from Belgium recently delved into that question with a study of 120 male basketball players. The researchers looked at two different kinds of pep talks – those given by coaches and those given by athlete leaders on the team – and analyzed what effect the speeches had.

When they looked at how things played out in the athletes’ heads and on the court, the researchers found three main effects of the pep talks:

  • The basketball players ended up feeling more competent and satisfied with their abilities.
  • Their motivation improved.
  • They performed better objectively on the court.

The findings held regardless of whether the pep talk was given by a coach or an athlete leader. In other words, the fact that the pep talk was given in the first place was more important than who gave it.

On top of that, the researchers found that when both the coach and a team leader gave speeches, players’ objective performance increased more than if just one or the other spoke. So it appears that two pep talks is even better than one!

The researchers described the pep talks given by coaches and athlete leaders as “competence support.” This terminology is telling, because it hints at something that can be helpful for anyone who has a leadership role on a team, whether sports are involved or not – that making people feel competent can actually make them competent.

There are, of course, limits to what a well-delivered pep talk can accomplish. But for basketball players, it appears that making them feel more confident in their performance makes them more motivated and more likely to really perform better in the future. And it’s reasonable to think that this principle applies in other situations too – that a well-timed pep talk can boost people’s performance, and two well-timed pep talks may boost it even more!

(Three might be pushing it though.)

Image: Flickr/Jonathan Steffens