Going for the Gold: Using Sports Psychology to Improve Teaching and Learning

Who can resist getting caught up in the enthusiasm of the Olympics, Super Bowl, or NBA playoffs? If you ask most of your first-year students to describe Michael Jordan, Jeff Gordon, or Serena Williams, they can do so easily. Ask the same students about B. F. Skinner, Elizabeth Loftus, or Harry Harlow, and you will likely get blank stares. Whereas students will stay up well past midnight watching their favorite sports, they often feel less driven to focus on academics. And yet, there is hope; we can apply lessons from sport psychology to increase motivation and excitement in the classroom. Theoretical approaches used in sport psychology are relevant to any area in which performance is crucial. For example, musicians in an orchestra, actors in a production, or students enrolled in a class — all experience the same group dynamics and issues as athletes striving for optimal performance.

The motivational techniques advocated by sport psychologists also help to achieve the “seven principles of good practice” developed by Chickering and Gamson (1987) to enhance classroom instruction (e.g., encourage active learning). We have created three categories of techniques, Bronze, Silver, and Gold, that encourage active learning based on concepts and theories adapted from sport psychology. The level of difficulty and risk in applying these active learning strategies in the classroom increases with each category — from bronze to silver to gold — but so do the rewards.

Bronze: Back to Basics

Many of the basic sport psychology findings relating to athlete-coach dyads can easily extend to student-teacher relationships. Whereas the goal of the athlete-coach partnership is to enhance athletic performance, the goal of the student-teacher partnership is to enhance academic performance.

Time Management. A good coach knows when to call time out, when to implement certain plays, and when to take a player who needs a breather out of the game. In other words, good coaches use effective time management and train their players to do the same. Time management skills can also help create an efficient classroom environment. How many of us require too few assignments at the beginning of the semester, place too much weight on big assignments due right before finals, and thereby overstress students? As instructors, we also feel overwhelmed at the end of the semester as we struggle to complete our grading. For most of us, the end of the semester can feel like a frantic overtime with our team behind by a few touchdowns!

To counter this crunch, we encourage students to think about the semester as split into four quarters like a football game, while emphasizing the importance of staying on top of tasks rather than procrastinating. We advise students to prepare well for exams and assignments during the first three quarters, so that by the fourth quarter (i.e., the final exam) they will be ahead of the game. Of course, students have less course-based knowledge in the first quarter, but small assignments (e.g., quizzes, annotated bibliographies, and labs) due at the beginning of the term encourage practice and time on task.

Goal Setting. If you ask any professional football player what his ultimate goal for the season is, he will most likely say, “Go to the Super Bowl!” If you ask him how he is going to accomplish that goal, he will list specific short-term action plans for himself and the team. On the other hand, ask first-year college students about their goals, and you will probably get vague responses (i.e., do well in school, survive the semester, or get involved on campus). Moreover, few students will have a specific action plan they can use to help them achieve their goals.

Goal setting is a skill used by sport psychologists working with athletes that can also enhance the individual outcomes for students. In fact, sport psychologists emphasize the importance of having both short- and long-term goals (Burton, 1992). Encourage students to set short- and long-term performance goals for each of their courses early in the semester. These goals should be realistic yet challenging and specific yet flexible. Having the whole class brainstorm effective behaviors (e.g., go to class, study in the library at a certain time, get assistance from the learning center if necessary) can be particularly helpful for first-year students.

Faculty members can use these principles to identify goals for each course and to design instructional activities supporting each goal. Although we may believe we have clear-cut goals, often we are too busy in our daily teaching to keep sight of our short- and long-term goals. Just as a coach occasionally tells the team to “get back to basics,” a professor might evaluate whether assignments meet the goals of the class. In other words, what does it mean for you to go to the World Series or win the Indy 500 in your class? What are your true goals and how are you attempting to reach them?

Team Building/Group Projects. At the beginning of a soccer game, have you ever noticed how the players all storm on to the field together? At the end of a theater production, have you noticed how the performers all hold hands as they receive applause? In the world of performance enhancement, it truly takes a team to be successful. Yet professors often lament that group projects do not work well in the classroom.

Sport psychologists have long identified team building as essential to effective group work; however, student groups may not be prepared to work together as a team. Groups of students do not become teams without dedicating time to “form, storm, norm, and perform” (Tuckman, 1965). In other words, students first must have time to come together as a group and get to know each other. In this forming stage, they need to learn names and get contact information. They also need to brainstorm (“storm”) to assign individual roles such as leader/organizer of the group and record keeper. Although you may want to encourage students to rotate roles, storming is a natural part of group dynamics. The third stage of group formation requires that members “norm,” or figure out, how the group will work (e.g., meet outside of class, e-mail, brainstorm first individually, etc.). Finally, in the last stage, the team gets down to business and performs.

Building on the guidelines above, we have learned some successful strategies. We have found it best to avoid cliques by assigning friends to separate groups. We provide time for members of each group to get to know one another and to brainstorm on a specific issue. To function effectively as a team, student groups need tasks that can be delegated to members, and individual accountability for those tasks. You should provide guidelines on how groups are expected to work together and step in to resolve conflicts as necessary. If using a course management system like Blackboard, establish a group page and group discussion board to enhance communication among members. Something as simple as having groups create their own name or mascot can help student teams function more effectively. Remember it is much more motivating to yell, “Go Cardinals!” than “Go that one guy who sits over there, and that woman with blonde hair and glasses, and the other guy who never shows up!”

Silver: More Advanced Techniques

To achieve even greater levels of motivation and energy in the classroom and to help students perform at their highest levels, consider the following concepts frequently examined in sports and health psychology.

Stress Management. Unfortunately, discussion of stress management is so commonplace it has almost become cliché. Yet, coaches often spend time with their teams talking about ways to cope with the “big game” or a particularly tough opponent. Top athletes plan their performance and develop back-up plans; they understand there will be obstacles, but can refocus to perform at their personal best (Orlick, 1986). Many elite athletes will “walk through” or visualize an important game while focusing on breathing techniques to help maintain attention. These techniques ease stress through problembased (practice and preparation) and emotional (increasing perceived control and relaxation) coping strategies.

On the other hand, students often cannot or do not mentally prepare themselves for the big exam or presentation. Some may simply be unprepared for college-level work or for balancing academic workload with other areas of college life. You can assist students by providing suggestions for studying for exams (practice), criteria for assignments (game plans), and specific course policies (rules of the game). You can
help students mentally prepare for the “big game” or “opening night” by letting them know what to expect (how many questions, what question format, what areas to emphasize, etc.). Even at the hardest competitions such as the Olympics, athletes are aware of the judging criteria and possible penalties prior to the beginning of the games.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation/Rewards. Intrinsic motivation is the drive to perform to satisfy internal needs, whereas extrinsic motivation is the drive to perform for an external reward. Rewards, such as trophies and money, compel extrinsically motivated athletes, but the best athletes tend to be intrinsically motivated; they want to perform well in order to satisfy themselves (Deci, 1975). In the classroom, external rewards such as grades and points earned motivate many students. And certainly, as professors, we revert to grades to encourage attendance, participation, and completion of assignments. How can we create a more intrinsically rewarding environment in our classroom and meet the needs of intrinsically motivated students? An important way to recognize and increase intrinsic motivation is to design assignments that are personally relevant to students. In addition, we can allow choice on assignment topics and make topics applicable to students’ lives. For example, we can use portfolio assignments in which students make choices about what is included in the final portfolio project. Most athletes play “for the love of the game,” and perhaps it is our job to help students recognize and appreciate the applicability of psychology to real-life issues.

Team Captains. Athletic team captains are experienced, strong players selected by their team or coach to motivate teammates to perform their best. The concept of team captains is akin to peer-mentoring strategies in the classroom. Specifically, students can be “team captains” by taking the lead on organizing groups, projects, or particular aspects of class (e.g., selecting videos). The use of team captains creates a sense of course ownership and reinforces leadership skills.

Students are assigned to teams early in the semester and may not change teams (saving time on forming, storming, and norming). We then allow each team to select its captain by a vote, by nomination, or by someone agreeing to take the responsibility. In our experience, we usually have three group projects (e.g., PowerPoint presentation, debate, paper, Blackboard activity, etc.) and require a different team captain for each activity so at least three members of the team will have a leadership opportunity. In classes with 25- 40 students, breaking the class into teams with six to eight students and one team captain is optimal. In larger classes, faculty could create co-captains in teams of 10-12 students. We have rewarded team captains with a few bonus points for the best team project in recognition of their extra effort and outstanding coaching ability.

Going for the Gold: Challenging and Risky Maneuvers

There are two types of athletes. Some play it smart and keep it simple. These athletes do not take unnecessary risks and, as a result, are well-rounded. Elite athletes (e.g., Danica Patrick, Lance Armstrong, and Brett Favre), on the other hand, do take risks. These athletes push themselves hard and really go for it! At some point, we each have to ask ourselves: “Do I want to be a safe and well-rounded teacher or do I want to take risks and go for the gold?”

Psych Your Class Up — Motivation. Part of the reason people love athletics so much is because of the excitement inherent in sports events. Where does this excitement come from? Does it come from the cheerleaders or the competition? Or does the enthusiasm of athletes feed our own excitement? Coaches actively work to psych up their players using motivational techniques. Do we, as instructors, start our classes with the same sense of energy or motivation? If you want to increase enthusiasm and motivation to learn in your course, do not start your class with the predictable and mundane (e.g., “Today we are going to cover the four parts of your brain, any questions from the reading? Anyone? Anyone?” ).
Who wants to start every game sitting on the bench? An easy, though risky, way to increase motivation is to let students take the lead at the beginning of class. For example, have students begin with a short group activity like listing all of the things that they already know about the topic. Music can also motivate students; simply begin class with a song related to the topic at hand (e.g., “Don’t Worry Be Happy” prior to discussing depression, or “I’m Too Sexy for My Shirt” prior to discussing attraction). We have found that using icebreaker activities starts class on the right foot; students become active participants, not benchwarmers.

Team Competitions. We have found that team-based, rather than individual student, presentations enhance the quality of work by allowing students to combine their strengths, be more creative, and reduce performance anxiety. Although we believe that within groups cooperation should be the rule, sport psychologists suggest that competition is not always a bad thing. In fact, competition across groups can enhance motivation and performance. The key to maintaining balance between cooperation and competition is to make competition fun and worth relatively small rewards (e.g., candy, pencils, or a few bonus points). We have used small competitions for group assignments such as presentations, final papers, and community-service projects. When students know there is a small competition between groups, their projects are better. In our experience, students’ natural competitive tendencies kick in, and they want their group to perform better than other teams. For example, we often only award the maximum points (e.g., 20/20) to the winning team. Even if the other groups score within several points of the winners, they will have competed for the title of “best team.”

Team Exams. During a typical exam day, students walk in as if they are on a death march, and look at you like you are a monster. During the exam, they roll their eyes and close them tightly in concentration; when they put the exam on your desk, some tell you to be gentle or kind. How can we use principles of sports psychology to enhance exam motivation and performance? One suggestion is to have students work in teams to complete an exam, or part of an exam. We have created exams that include individual and team sections. Both kinds of sections allow for assessment of knowledge and comprehension, as well as application of knowledge to original examples. Using team exams encourages students to prepare for the exam together; plus, during the exam itself,
students actively evaluate and debate how to best complete the team section. After turning in the team section (usually a case study, applied question, ethical dilemma, research analysis, etc.), students are pumped and ready to work on their individual exam (the more typical multiple-choice, short-answer, matching, essay). For practical and motivational reasons, it works best to have a limited amount of time (e.g., 20 minutes) for the team exam and then to follow this component with the individual exam.

The Reward

Our classes are more dynamic and active, and have a more enthusiastic atmosphere because we use concepts of sport psychology in our teaching. Of course, clichés like “nothing ventured, nothing gained,” “no pain, no gain,” and “just do it!” all come to mind when considering these techniques, but they can be true. We believe that taking risks in order to teach psychology more effectively is well worth the benefit — let’s all Go for the Gold!

References and Recommended Readings

Burton, D. (1992). The Jekyll/Hyde nature of goals: Reconceptualizing goal setting in sport. In T. S. Horn (Ed.), Advances in sport psychology (pp. 267- 297). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles of good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, 39, 3-7.

Deci, E. L. (1975). Intrinsic motivation. New York: Plenum.

Orlick, T. (1986). Psyching for sport: Mental training for athletes. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Tuckman, B. W. (1965). Development sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63, 384-399.

Observer Vol.20, No.3 March, 2007

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