The Hawthorne Effect and Running

Anyone who has taken courses in psychology, business or industrial psychology, etc. has come across this phenomenon called the Hawthorne Effect.

Here is a simple definition of the Hawthorne effect:
People singled out for a study of any kind may improve their performance or behavior, not because of any specific condition being tested, but simply because of all the attention they receive.

So, why is this important and how can we use this in sports?
Typically a coach pays attention to some athletes more than others. Often it’s either the stars or the more difficult personalities who get most attention.

Attention to each athlete can enhance the chances of getting desired results. It isn’t always the workout itself. We are human and in varying degrees we all need that human need for attention. Do not interpret this as bad or negative. It’s a human need. It is also variable. The manner of the attention as well as the type of attention are uniquely important.

With that in mind I’ll offer some coaching tips.

Take each athlete aside to discuss progress, times, goals, tactics for the next race. Do this one-on-one. [One method is to do it while walking a lap of the track between reps. Pick a different athlete to chat with, and keep your focus on that one person. Do not allow other athletes to interfere or interrupt.]

Learn key phrases, words and even intonations of voice that have impact on an athlete. Now, use them during practices as well as races. [I have one 400 meter runner who likes to here me at the 250 meter mark yell to her “turnover.”]

Give shout-outs. A shout-out is a specific bullet-point-type comment to a specific person. Use the athlete’s name. Throughout practices shift your attention from one athlete to another. It doesn’t take much. Spot them across the field doing what you want – give them a shout-out. Observe a good start – shout-out. Observe tenacity in later reps – shout-out. In longer reps or runs if you notice good pacing – shout-out. Likewise, see someone slacking, you don’t have to berate them, sometimes just mentioning their name will do. [I’ll see a runner hanging with slightly faster runners for long reps and just yell across the field or as they come by me – “John, staying tough.”]

You can accomplish this even with larger teams and limited time. As a coach you can meet immediately before and after practices. In high school you can pair up upper-classmen with the freshman/sophomore group.

I often have multiple workouts going on and cannot be at all places at all times. The trick is for a coach to keep his/her attention changing so athletes never know when you are watching; yet by intermittent feedback and comments they “feel” they are getting attention. This is that psychological edge you want to promote so that each workout is optimized.

The key element is giving attention to the athlete. You plant seeds. It is difficult to quantify the results but there is not doubt that the Hawthorne Effect is at play at some level.

Now, understand that this will not be true for all runners. Some runners do not like attention and so performance may in fact decrease. So, know your athletes.

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