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Charles S. Jacobs

Why Football Players Pat Each Other on the Butt and Other Leadership Lessons

Stop yelling and start asking questions

What would I say in a talk on leadership to a professional sports team, Kaitlynn Myers, a Yale psychology student, asked me in an email. How to answer her is all I've been thinking about since.

It's usually people from sports that are brought into coach business groups, not the other way around. Lou Holtz, former coach of Notre Dame, is a fixture on the business lecture circuit, but I don't believe the steel industry's turnaround artist Wilbur Ross has ever been brought in to address a struggling football team. We hear often of inspiring speeches in the locker room, but they're a rare occurrence in the conference room.

Nevertheless, I think there is a quite a bit that neuroscience might teach sports teams about leadership, and the first thing is not to pay too much attention to talks. Sure, people like me might offer some provocative ideas, such as that most of what we take for granted about leadership is simply wrong. But it takes more than an entertaining hour to improve performance.

According to neuroscience, performance, even when physical, starts with what goes on in people's heads. But just like physical conditioning, mental conditioning takes repetition. The more neurons fire together, the more they wire together, as neuroscientists like to say.

Perfecting a skill requires attention and focus, and with enough practice, execution becomes unconscious and automatic. Yet every athlete knows that too much thinking hampers performance. When it's time to perform, we've got to shut down the yabbering in our heads and totally immerse ourselves in the play.

In fact, the focus shouldn't be on the individual at all, but on the team. A study I once conducted found that the highest performing managers would opt for team players over individual stars. Recent research has established that members of high performing teams touch each more than those on other teams. One theory is that it keys the release of the hormone oxytocin, which creates strong bonds between the team members.

Nor should professional athletes focus on the rich rewards they enjoy. The pleasure chemical dopamine, whose effect is much like cocaine, is released in the brain not when we receive a reward, but when we are fully engaged in the activity leading to the reward. It's not the reward that's motivational, but the work itself.

Even more distracting is the all too common practice of coaches yelling at players. We are all internally driven by our need to achieve. All being yelled at motivates is a desire to yell back, or to punish the person yelling by doing exactly the opposite of what they want. In the workplace, such negative feedback has been found to drive down performance.

So my message to leaders in sports would be to leverage the way the mind works. Coach players to consciously work on every aspect of their game in practice, but when on the field, encourage them to become totally immersed in the play of the team and forget everything else, including the multimillion-dollar salaries. Stop yelling and start asking questions, so that players are prompted to critique their own performance and take ownership of the effort required to improve.

Great leaders create a vision of success for people to strive for, but they stress the transcendent feeling that comes from full engagement in the work of the team, in the here and now.

It's pretty much the same advice I give to leaders in business, but then minds are minds, no matter what activity they're engaged in.