Last night’s National Championship NCAA Football game provided an interesting juxtaposition of two leaders who have reached unprecedented levels of success by promoting two very different environments. While both Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney preach excellence, reports from their locker room paint a picture of two very different leaders with very different training environments. Saban has been described as grumpy, authoritative and relentlessly tough in his pursuit of team and player excellence. He has been known to hold his team back well beyond their scheduled practice time. Swinney on the other hand has been labelled as a happy, positive and open coach who builds an environment tolerant of mistakes based learning. 

Both have enjoyed significant team success over the past few years, but could one of their methods be scientifically more conducive to better training and player development? 

If we contend that in most sports (like football), the optimal training environment is very different from competition – one that allows athletes to draw on increased effort and endurance in order to refine their craft – then the results of a recent study might support the idea of Swinney’s positive environment.

With effort in mind, a recent study by Blanchfield et al. (2014) had 13 volunteers pedal a stationary bike at a pre-determined pace for as long as they could. The riders had a screen in front of them for the duration of the ride and images were periodically flashed on the screen. Riders either saw a series of positive (happy faces) or negative (sad faces) images during their ride. The images only appeared on the screen in 16 millisecond bursts, too short to be perceptive to the human eye, making any image recognition “subliminal” at best. 

Even without a clear and conscious identification of what the riders saw, the two groups had significantly different results. Riders who saw the negative images rode for an average of 22 minutes, while the happy riders average more than 3 minutes longer. Perhaps even more interestingly, the “happy” riders reported a lower sense of effort than their sad counterparts. This suggests that seeing a smiling face, even subliminally, evokes feelings of ease, influencing your perceived effort, and allowing you to train longer.

The study demonstrates the power that positive psychology can have on training as cyclists went for a longer distance when they were surrounded by positive reminders.

The study also speaks to the power of a positive environment and highlights how this should be an important piece of criteria for athletes as they design their own. The results also support the notion that building a positive “training routine” might be as, if not more important than a competition routine. Bringing positive psychology elements like positive self-talk and positive imagery to training could result in more output at less perceived effort.

Athletes who play team sports should also keep these findings in mind as they interact with teammates during training sessions. While it might be tempting to drive negative reinforcement with teammates, it seems that a more positive approach will benefit the group.

This study should serve as a reminder that environment they set is more important than the messages they send. Simple things like a positive posture can make the difference between your team going to greater distances for you. More to the point, if having a positive approach lessens the perceived burden felt by athletes, over time we might also see a reduction in the number of athletes burning out of their sports.

So what does this mean for last night’s game? Frankly … not much. Last night was competition between two high performing clubs. The fact that these two teams got to the National Championship demonstrates that there is more than one way to coach a team.  

A better indication of the success of their training methods might need to wait for a couple of years to see how many of these players have successful pro careers. 

In the meantime, score one for for the positive psychologists in the world with the Clemson win!



Blanchfield, A., Hardy, J., & Marcora, S. (2014). Non-conscious visual cues related to affect and action alter perception of effort and endurance performance. Frontiers in human neuroscience8, 967. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00967

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