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Cowboys Magazine: Jason Garrett And The Pygmalion Effect

[Ed Note]: BTB will be running a series of posts over the next few weeks highlighting some of the articles in the new magazine Maple Street Press Cowboys Annual that is on sale now. 112 pages, full-color photos and tons of articles about the Dallas Cowboys and the upcoming season at only $9.99. I encourage everybody to purchase one, we get a little extra when they are bought online

Today's feature article is by our own OCC, entitled: Jason Garrett and the Pygmalion effect. Here's OCC with the set-up for the article.

[OCC] A little known motivational theory called the Pygmalion Effect suggests that a simple coaching change may be enough to transform a 6-10 team into a contender. In the slightly edited excerpt from the full Cowboys Annual below, I look at musicals, behavioral experiments with school children, the Israeli Army, Jimmy Johnson and more - and manage to tie it all to the Dallas Cowboys in the end.

"The Pygmalion Effect

In its simplest form, the Pygmalion Effect motivational theory states that once an expectation is set, people will act in certain ways that are consistent with that expectation, causing the results of the expectation to become true - even if the initial expectation is based on a false premise or if it is a negative expectation. The Pygmalion Effect is also often referred to as a self-fulfilling prophecy

The Pygmalion Effect derives its name from the story of Pygmalion in Greek mythology. More recently, George Bernard Shaw reworked the story into his play "Pygmalion", which became the musical "My Fair Lady". In the play, Professor Henry Higgins boasts that he can make a Duchess out of Eliza Doolittle, a flower girl with the manners, attitude and accent of a London street urchin. Eliza articulates the core of the Pygmalion Effect motivational theory when she points out that whether she becomes a Duchess is determined not by what she does, but by how she's treated:

"You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves but how she's treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will, but I know I can be a lady to you because you always treat me as a lady, and always will."

How the Pygmalion Effect can boost performance

The power of the Pygmalion Effect has been well documented as a simple and effective way to boost performance - in the classroom, in the workplace, in the military, and in team sports.

The Pygmalion Effect was first described by Robert Rosenthal in the 1960s. Rosenthal conducted a study with elementary school children in which he led teachers to believe that certain designated students of theirs were high performers. In reality, the students were randomly selected. At the end of the school year, the students originally designated high performers did indeed show a higher level of academic performance than their peers. Why? Because the teachers believed in them and either consciously or subconsciously communicated, encouraged and fostered higher expectations.

If you think this is some psycho mumbo-jumbo, perhaps the Israeli army can convince you differently. The following example is taken from Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton in their book "The knowing-doing gap":

"In a study in an Israeli army boot camp, for example, instructors were just told that based on information from a battery of tests on an incoming group of soldiers, it was possible to predict with 95 percent accuracy which one-third of the soldiers had high command potential. The other soldiers were said to have either regular or unknown potential. The soldiers were actually randomly assigned to the "high", "regular" or "unknown" conditions, and no other information was provided about command potential.

Yet, at the end of 15 weeks in boot camp, soldiers who leaders believed would have high levels of performance did far better on objective performance tasks like firing a rifle, navigation and multiple choice tests about combat tactics, administered by instructors who were not informed about the experiment. Soldiers labeled as having high command potential also had more positive attitudes toward basic training and reported that their instructors were superior leaders, compared with soldiers in the other groups.

[…] This research suggests that overall performance of a group can be increased when leaders expect everyone to do well."

The Pygmalion Effect and team sports

When applied to team sports, the basic premise of the Pygmalion Effect is that when coaches expect their players to do well, they do. And when coaches expect their players to not do well, they do not.

Jimmy Johnson, winner of two Super Bowls in Dallas and an NCAA championship at the University of Miami in 1987, used the Pygmalion Effect to describe what Rex Ryan accomplished with the Jets in an interview with Doug Farrar of

"A coach I really, really like -- I like his approach and the way he works with his team - is Rex Ryan. I like his bravado, and his positive approach. He really has that self-fulfilling prophecy; that ‘Pygmalion Effect' with his players. And I like the defensive aspect of his team. So, Rex is one that I admire what he's doing right now."

HBOs "Hard Knocks" gave America a glimpse into the Jets training camp, and saw the "Pygmalion Effect" in full force. Regardless of what you may think of Rex Ryan’s style, he did succeed in convincing his players they were the best. As a result they practiced, acted and – for the most part -played like the best. If a coach can get his players to believe they are the hardest, toughest and best team on the field on Sunday, they will play with the confidence and swagger that will win you games.

Garrett knows this, and said as much in a 2008 episode of "Hard Knocks":

"I've played for a long time. The coaches that drive me crazy to this day are the ones that told me I was good all the time: 'Boy, you're doing a great job', while I knew I was mediocre as hell. And the guy who was on my ass and made me be good every day is the guy that I appreciate right now. That's our job. We're going to push you to be the best player you can be. For your own good. And to help us win ballgames.

"Play with a swagger. What’s a swagger mean? Romo's got swagger. Witten's got swagger. Owens has got swagger. Play with a swagger. That's what we're looking for. You know what it is? Confidence. You don't have that, find the door."

The Cowboys will be a better team in 2011. Not just through new coaching, new schemes, new playbooks and new players, but through something much more fundamental: If Garrett and his coaching team can give the players their confidence back; if he can have them study, practice and play with swagger; if he treats his team like winners, they will be winners."


This is an excerpt of a much more comprehensive 6-page article you will find in the 2011 Cowboys Annual. In it, I further examine why athletes lose confidence, how motivational theory can bring that confidence back and look at what Garret needs to do to survive the weight of expectations on a new NFL coach. Good news: the entire article does not contain a single table with numbers! - OCC

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