The most important coaching research I’ve ever come across is nothing to do the techniques or tactics or conditioning for volleyball. Or for any other sport. It’s never (to my knowledge) been presented in a coaching course and I’ve never heard fellow coaches talking about it. And despite my interest in practice (here and here), knowing it’s results does not help me prepare or conduct a good practice. But it is still the most important coaching research ever.
The research identified the Hawthorne Effect. It is named after a series of experiments that studied the effects on output resulting from changing work conditions in various environments. The simple findings of the original experiment were that changing work conditions, even slightly and even returning to an original conditions, led to increased output. One of the interpretations of this finding, is that people respond positively to interest being shown in their work, particularly if that interest is intended to help them.
And why is this important coaching research? Simple really. Coaching is, in it’s essence, a people oriented activity, and understanding people’s motivations and reactions is a central part of the coaching process. I am reminded of the Hawthorne Effect often in my daily coaching, most recently last week. After spending ten minutes with a player going through a bit of a slump, his training performance at the next session improved 100%. There was no real, valid reason for this. The ten minutes we spent hitting those few extra balls didn’t teach him anything new, he didn’t actually hit any of them particularly well (potentially explaining boosted confidence leading to increased performance) and the structure of the drill itself (blocked, unspecific, i.e. wrong) gives no clues. But performance increased nevertheless and I am left to consider, as so often before, that the simple act of trying to improve performance can bring results (at least in the short term) that are completely unrelated to the content of the act. What is important in that moment is the intent of the act; the 10 minutes of my time that I spent with the player trying to find a solution to his situation.
So according the Hawthorne Effect, while trying to lift an X-Wing fighter out of a swamp will not lift an X-Wing fighter out of the swamp, trying to improve performance actually can. And that makes it the most important coaching research ever.