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.


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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3 Responses to The Hawthorne Effect and Running

  1. run4change says:

    THis is definitely true. Even in other aspects of life, when you are a people builder the people are “built up”. Life is better when you are being built up and not being torn down.

  2. Justine says:

    I think being built up is good, but honestly, I don’t think that pointing out that I could be running harder/smarter is being torn down. I love constructive criticism, if only because if I were doing everything right, I’d be running better than I am. I like my coach to point out what I can do to improve. I’d say I like the attention, either way.

    I’ve only once had a coach whose attention I did not like: she either ignored me or told me what I was doing wrong. I never got feedback on my corrections unless I asked and then she’d look slightly surprised and give me a vague reply…I figured she stop focusing on me after she told me what I was doing wrong and never knew if I had corrected it or not. I learned to loathe that woman and ultimately left the team. Still don’t miss it.

  3. Dean Hebert says:

    Telling someone to run harder/smarter is very instructive and is part of feedback that should be given. I don’t see that as negative input at all… quite instructive. The point of the Hawthorne Effect is that all attention (yup even real negative stuff – like “you’re a slacker”) MAY have a positive effect just due to the attention.

    Your second point is great because it highlights the fact that I point out and should underscore… you MUST know your athletes and what TYPE of attention (if any) is best for them. Some athletes thrive off of being told they can’t do something.. while others will be reduced to tears.

    Thanks for your example!

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