While billions of people around the world will be watching what happens on the field of the 2018 World Cup, Germany's coach will be focused on what's happening between the ears of his players.

Joachim Loew has been called a motivational virtuoso. It's easy to see why.

In the final game to decide the winner of the 2014 World Cup in Rio, Loew pulled forward Mario Goetze off the bench and put him in as a substitute against Argentina. Photos show Loew pulling Goetze in close and saying something to the 22-year-old player. Later, it was revealed that Loew, referring to Argentine superstar Lionel Messi, told Goetze: "Show the world that you're better than Messi. Show that you can decide the World Cup."

What happened next is legendary. "Some substitute players would have laughed at the idea their coach was saying they were better than a revered player who's been named the world player of the year four times," read a Washington Post analysis. "But Goetze took it seriously, and he went on to score the only goal of the match, leading his team to its fourth World Cup title."

After the game, Loew praised the players for their "mental capacity." The truth is, Loew has a lot to do with their success, and his pregame speeches might be his secret weapon.

The science of pep talks.

Loew's successful pep talk would not have surprised Tiffanye Vargas, an assistant professor at Cal State University Long Beach. I've talked to Vargas about her unique research into the science of pregame motivational speeches. Her view of "verbal persuasion" is based largely on her work with competitive-level soccer teams.

Vargas was inspired to research pep talks from her own experience playing soccer in her native Texas. She recalls that some pregame speeches really fired up the teams to elevate their performance, while other speeches left them demoralized and anxious. As a PhD student in psychology, Vargas began to apply a rigorous scientific analysis to figure it out. 

In one study published in the International Journal of Coaching Science, Vargas focused on the emotional impact of pregame speeches. She surveyed 151 players of elite adult soccer teams, evenly divided between male and female players.

Vargas found that pregame speeches fell into one of two primary categories: informational (strategy, game plans, etc.) or emotional (appeals to pride, anger, joy). After games against competitive opponents, players were asked to fill out a seven-item questionnaire to see how a pregame speech impacted their performance and their mental states. Vargas found that speeches high in "emotional arousal" raised the perceived confidence of the players--what psychologists call "self-efficacy."

"If a coach can create the appropriate stimulus event to help the athlete appraise the situation positively, the athlete will experience appropriate emotions, which in turn will influence performance," Vargas wrote.

Let's turn once more to Loew's pep talk in 2014. According to the Washington Post analysis, the speech had three things going for it--all of which are supported by Vargas's research.

  1. It was personal. Loew compared the substitute player to one of the game's biggest stars. It was a stretch, of course, but it gave the player a specific goal, which something more general, like "Give it your best," would not have.
  2. It reminded the player of the stakes, without all the pressure. "It appealed to the promise of the moment, rather than the pressure," wrote the Post. In other words, Loew didn't tell the player the history of the franchise was riding on his shoulders. According to Vargas's research, reminding an athlete of an overarching purpose plays an important role in raising his or her confidence and satisfying a psychological need. She found that emotional speeches work best before a player or team faces a championship game or a highly ranked opponent, or when it is considered the underdog.
  3. It showed the player that the coach believes in him. Loew didn't say, "Show me how well you can do." Instead, he said he wanted the player to show the world what the coach already knew he could do.

One of the reasons why emotional pep talks are effective is because they redirect a person's anxious thoughts into something positive. An athlete suddenly stops focusing on his or her nerves and starts to envision the feeling that comes with a win.

Loew's coaching experience and Vargas's scientific studies should remind leaders in any field--athletics or business--that performance is tied to emotion. Once you've hired the best, train them well and given them the information they need to perform a specific task.

Don't forget the final step that makes a leader truly great: elevating the mental state of your team's players.

Published on: Jun 14, 2018