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Why Fergie’s infamous ‘hairdryer treatment’ worked

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The ‘hairdryer treatment’ employed by coaches to berate their team’s performance during half time team talks actually does lead to better performance, experts say. 

Coaches that pick up on negative points from a match and follow the lead of Sir Alex Ferguson’s famous half-time rants, are more likely to drive their team on to victory, research suggests. 

The finding flies in the face of Hollywood’s treatment of sports coaches, as Gene Hackman in Hoosiers or Billy Bob Thornton in Friday Night Lights.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s treatment of players during Manchester United’s meteoric rise to the top of the Premier League is emblematic of this harsher approach. 

This style of management is also used by Independence Community College coach Jason Brown in the popular American football documentary series Last Chance U. 

However, it did also lead to ‘Fergie’ kicking a football boot at superstar David Beckham’s head in 2003, prompting the player to quit the team and eventually cost Jason brown his job after he told a student ‘I’m your new Hitler’.

Researchers caution that the finding is not license for sports coaches, or leaders in any field, to take things too far. 

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Sir Alex Ferguson's (right) treatment of players during Manchester United's meteoric rise to the top of the Premier League is emblematic of this harsher approach. However, it did also lead to him kicking a football boot at David Beckham in 2003 (left)

Sir Alex Ferguson’s (right) treatment of players during Manchester United’s meteoric rise to the top of the Premier League is emblematic of this harsher approach. However, it did also lead to him kicking a football boot at David Beckham in 2003 (left) 

HOW DID THE STUDY WORK? 

Researchers gathered the information for their study by contacting more than 50 coaches for high-school and college basketball teams in Northern California.

They asked if they could record their half-time locker room talks and were left with speeches for 304 games played by 23 teams.

They trained coders to rate each halftime talk on the extent that coaches expressed various emotions.

These ranged from positive, such as pleased, excited, relaxed, inspired, to negative  – disgusted, angry, frustrated, afraid.

The researchers also conducted a controlled laboratory experiment, in which they played selected pep talks for participants, and asked them how motivated or unmotivated they felt after hearing them. 

Again, they found that negative speeches could have a motivating effect, but that the effects of such negativity turned downward rather quickly. 

Experts from the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business analysed hundreds of half-time speeches and final scores from high school and college basketball games.

They found that coaches do better when they shelve the happy talk and bring down the hammer.

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Researchers found a significant relationship between how negative a coach was at half-time and how well the team played in the second half.

The more negativity, the more the team outscored the opposition.  

‘Rather than saying, “You’re doing great, keep it up,” it’s better to say, “I don’t care if you’re up by 10 points, you can play better than this”, ‘ Professor Emeritus Barry Staw, who headed the research, said in a written statement.

‘We sometimes strip content from emotion, treating it as simply positive or negative expression. 

‘But emotion often has a message carried along with it that causes people to listen and pay attention, as leaders try to correct or redirect behaviour.

‘Our results do not give leaders a license to be a jerk. 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.’

This style of management is also used by East Mississippi Community College coach Jason Brown (pictured) in the popular American football documentary series Last Chance U

This style of management is also used by East Mississippi Community College coach Jason Brown (pictured) in the popular American football documentary series Last Chance U

Researchers gathered the information for their study by contacting more than 50 coaches for high-school and college basketball teams in Northern California.

They asked if they could record their half-time locker room talks and were left with speeches for 304 games played by 23 teams.

They trained coders to rate each halftime talk on the extent that coaches expressed various emotions.

These ranged from positive, such as pleased, excited, relaxed, inspired, to negative  – disgusted, angry, frustrated, afraid.

The researchers also conducted a controlled laboratory experiment, in which they played selected pep talks for participants, and asked them how motivated or unmotivated they felt after hearing them. 

Again, they found that negative speeches could have a motivating effect, but that the effects of such negativity turned downward rather quickly. 

In other words, the results showed a more traditional bell curve, where motivation dropped off when coaches became too angry or too negative. 

The full findings of the study were published in the Journal of Applied Psychology

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