Coaching By Reference Points

I’m a basketball fan. I’ve coached at the high school and collegiate levels. And I’ve created a nationally recognized leadership development firm for collegiate and high school coaches and athletes.  The fuel that fires me up is my intense dislike for losing.  Oh, I know it’s a part of the game—the game of life too—but I don’t enjoy losing.  Part of anything worthwhile involves losing.  You’re going to lose.  But the beauty of losing is it forces you to look deeply into why you failed and find ways to succeed.  If you look deep enough you find ways to get better, win more, and enjoy life.

I enjoy watching great teams win. I recall the 1992 NCAA tournament as one of my favorite basketball tournaments of all time.  It’s by default that I think we have to look back to see the very best tournaments, with today’s best players leaving college after one year. Okay, anyway, In the East regional final, Duke defeated a very talented Kentucky team. Duke had the triumvirate of Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill, and Christian Laettner, yet with little time left they found themselves on the brink of elimination.

Duke had the possession of the ball   One last gasp.  Inbounding the ball 94 feet from their basket it would take perfect execution to end victorious.  Grant Hill was the inbounder.  He executed a perfect three-quarter length of the court pass to a surprisingly open Laettner.  Laettner catches the ball at the free-throw line, his back to the basket, one dribble with his left hand, dips his right shoulder into the defender, then pivots back to his left and releases a perfect shot. Duke wins and advances to the National Championship game.

Duke and Michigan meet in the final game.  Duke trailed 31-30 at half-time.  Michigan with its star-studded freshman line-up, The Fab Five, looked like a good bet to take down Duke and win the championship.  But that didn’t happen.  Duke went into the locker room at the half and emerged like an uncaged lion.  The final score was Duke 71, Michigan 51.  Do the math.  A 20 point win.  What happened?  Duke by all measures was not a 20 point better team.  In fact, if they played the next night Michigan might win.

It turns out that Duke’s performance that night fits nicely with the research findings of Wharton professor Jonah Berger and University of Chicago professor Devin Pope.  Berger and Pope, huge basketball fans, analyzed 18,060 professional basketball games between 1993 and 2009 and over 45,000 college contests seeking to understand the relationship between half-time scores and the final outcome of the game.  What they found is somewhat surprising.  They found that when a team is trailing by one point at halftime, they actually are more likely to win.  On the face of it, this makes little sense.

However, there is another face to this situation.  The situational variables, down by one and fresh off a confidence boosting win, actually favor Duke.

As Berger and Pope explain it, the players on the team trailing by one point enter the locker room stewing with frustration and anger.  The coach provides corrective feedback, channels the emotion, and the team emerges from the locker full of motivation.  The feeling of being down, even if it’s only a point, tends to open minds to corrective feedback and reignites the heart to commitment and effort.

So why the 20 point differential?  Well when a team falls behind by a high reference point, let’s say 15 points, they are more likely to become discouraged and reduce their effort.  On the other hand, how many times have you used the reference point of “under 10 points.”  Let’s say, you’re team is down by 11 points and has the ball to end the quarter (another reference point).  In a time out huddle you compose the players and say “let’s get this thing under 10 points.”  You inbound the ball and score getting the game into what is now a more psychologically manageable frame of mind.  The reference point of “under 10” has you and your players energized and re-focused.

The psychological effect of reference points is real.  When a player nears a goal she set for herself she feels strengthened and emboldened.  The gap between current and a desired reality has been narrowed.  On the other hand, when it looks like she’s not going to achieve a goal diminishing sensitivity sets in; the goal becomes marginalized.  Duke, down by one point at half-time, goes into the locker room with the knowledge, that they’ll need to kick it up a notch, and confidence—they’d just beaten a tough Kentucky team—that they can win the game.  Two solid reference points.  Michigan, on the other hand, gets down by a sizeable margin, a discouraging reference point, loses focus and suddenly they’re behind by twenty points.

Reference points are essentially stimuli that are viewed in relation to something else.  For example, when you go to the store to buy a pair of shoes, the likely price point you choose will be relative to the price of the shoes you’re replacing.  The shoes you are replacing serve, tacitly, as a reference point for your current purchase.  The implication is that your thought process during the transaction was greatly influenced—emotionally and psychologically—by your previous transaction.

Though this is an example from the world of consumer behavior, the use of reference points as a coach are nearly endless.  Think of the many physical, intellectual, emotional, and social reference points you can use to evoke the desired emotion at the preferred time.  The goal should be to intentionally build cognitive, affective, and situational reference points with your team.  These then become strategic triggers, available when you need them.

How you deploy reference point’s matters?  Individuals and teams are always engaging with reference points; some explicit like, “We’re down by one point, we can with this thing,” and implicit “let’s get it under 10 points,” and the mood of the team swings in a positive manner.   You just need to use the reference points aptly, skillfully, and accurately.


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