Aug. 4, 2021
When the gymnast Simone Biles was heading into the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, as a gold medal favorite, her coach, Aimee Boorman, noticed the pressure building around her.
Ms. Boorman, who was head coach of the U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team at the time, told Ms. Biles, “Listen, you are not responsible for other people’s expectations of you. You are only responsible for your own expectations of yourself.”
She encouraged Ms. Biles to think about how she should feel at the conclusion of the games, regardless of whether she won: “When you walk out of here after the Olympics, will you be proud of what you did?” Giving your best effort is what matters most, Ms. Boorman told her.
Ms. Boorman’s pep talk was concise, kind and, perhaps most important, successful. Ms. Biles went on to earn four gold medals and a bronze that year.
Most of us aren’t coaching Olympic athletes, but the same factors that help them succeed can also translate to everyday life. For example, as we transition to a new phase of the pandemic, you may want to cheer on those around you who are setting new goals in their personal and professional lives.
What you say to your sister working up the nerve to apply to grad school will differ from what you’d say to a team of colleagues. However, the principles of giving a pep talk to an individual or a group are mostly the same: There has to be trust between both parties and the leader has to listen with an empathetic ear, too.
It’s also essential that listeners consider you, the pep-talk giver, a leader with behavioral integrity. You’ve got to “walk the talk,” said Jacqueline Mayfield, a professor of management at Texas A&M International University who’s studied motivating language for over 30 years.
Of course, there are risks when trying to motivate others. If you miss the mark or miscalculate the message, the effects on morale can be damaging. A bad coach can even increase stress levels and decrease motivation. In fact, some research shows that if people feel unheard by their leadership at work, they’re more likely to quit.
According to Dr. Mayfield’s research on motivational language, an effective pep talk touches on three areas: the head (giving clear directions, identifying priorities and potential rewards), the heart (listening with an empathetic ear, praising successes or advocating for the other person) and the spirit (inspiring people, making them feel as if they belong in the organization). You can customize the content of your pep talk depending on the needs of your audience.
Start with the direction-giving “head” element. Say things like:
“Here’s what you should focus on.”
“Show up on time, give a firm handshake and make eye contact.”
Then pivot to the empathetic “heart” element. Say something comforting like:
“I’m confident you can do this.”
“Life has handed you some curveballs recently. It’s been tough, I know.”
Then switch to the meaningful “spirit” element. Connect their actions to the bigger picture and how they can inspire others:
“Your ambition will encourage others on our team to pursue their dreams, too.”
“Your family will be so proud of you!”
Following are more ways to help others attain their own version of winning a gold medal, whether it’s banishing a friend’s first-date jitters, supporting a loved one who’s making a positive health change or encouraging your spouse before they head out to a job interview.
Tailor your message.
There’s no one-size-fits-all message to effective pep talks. As a coach, leader or friend, it’s on you to discern what words the other person needs to hear.
“Everybody operates in a different way and everyone has different triggers that make them excel,” said Ms. Boorman, who is now the assistant coach for the Netherlands women’s gymnastics team. Some athletes, she said, need a more emotional approach than others; other athletes respond better to technical corrections. Adapt your approach as needed.
Trust is essential.
“A coaching relationship doesn’t work if there isn’t trust,” said Jason Pryor, an épée fencer who competed in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games and now works as a performance coach with Future, a personal-training app. The most useful pep talks he received “came from people who knew me, knew my story, knew my concerns and knew I struggled,” he said.
When you get it right, the results can be transformative: “I’ve seen talks turn people into superhumans when the coach knows them and their struggles,” he said.
He credits his friends, mentors and coaches for showing him that “you can just achieve so much if you listen and help people with what they need,.”
Focus on what you can control.
As an athlete, “you have no control over the score and you have no control over your placement,” Ms. Boorman said. “You have control over how well you perform.” Knowing you gave it your best effort is what’s most important.
Feeling in control of your behaviors, thoughts and emotions can do wonders for your mental health, according to a study published in the Journal of Family Psychology. Having a high sense of personal control, where you believe you can shape your own life, is “related to proactive behavior and positive psychological outcomes,” the authors of the study said. Conversely, perceived powerlessness, as if your life is at the mercy of luck, fate or the whims of powerful forces, “is associated with depression, stress and anxiety-related disorders.”
Concentrating on the things within your ability — the way you think and behave in a situation — will help you feel like you can tackle just about any challenge.
In your role as a leader, it’s crucial you don’t cross the line from encouraging to pressuring or bullying. Research shows that words and demeanor are powerful. In fact, a 2018 study found that doctors who offer warm reassurances can help ease their patients’ symptoms.
Growing up, Ms. Boorman had very strict coaches. They told her if she didn’t perform well, she was going to let her team — and her family — down. She was determined to be a different kind of coach. She said she chooses to lead with support and encouragement, not fear and intimidation.
One of the most rewarding aspects of coaching is to see one of her former athletes enroll their children in gymnastics, “because of their love for the sport, and they had such a positive experience,” she said.
If you’re looking to make a positive impact on others during a stressful event, consider being more lighthearted. Sometimes brightening the mood with a playful high-five or fist bump will go a long way to promote camaraderie.
“As an athlete prepares to compete on the highest stage, coaches can legitimately make or break a situation,” said Elisabeth Maier, a Canadian skeleton athlete who competed at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
During a recent campaign, Ms. Maier was berated by a nearby coach who criticized her performance. Rattled, she approached her strength and conditioning coach to relay what had just happened. He instructed her to lie down and take 10 deep breaths. She did as he said, and then continued with her warm-up. She proceeded to do an incredibly fast run, which moved her up five places in the rankings.
Those deep, measured breaths helped turn her momentum around. And whether you’re coaching an athlete or a friend, that’s exactly what you want a great pep talk to do.
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