Mandel Mailbag: effect of coaching rumors on players

Stewart Mandel answered a question about coaching rumors and the effect on players:

Stewart: What effect does off-field news have on 18–22 year olds and their ability to focus on Saturdays? Did the whirlwind of news concerning Charlie Strong/Tom Herman get into the players’ heads more than we would hope? Strong himself said his players were trying too hard to save his job. Did Houston’s seeming flop against Memphis stem from the players knowing their coach was leaving?

Absolutely, it has an effect. Coaches can implore their guys all they want not to “read the blogs,” or to “block out the noise,” etc., etc., but these days the news comes to them. Literally.

This week on The Audible, Bruce relayed a story of how the morning of the Kansas game, players were seeking out Strong because they’d just gotten an ESPN Alert on their phone with a report that the boosters wanted him fired. Clearly, that has an effect on guys’ performances. I certainly think the 'Horns were playing with an added sense of pressure down the stretch knowing their beloved coach’s precarious status, and that’s not a great recipe for success.

In Houston’s case, the Herman-to-Texas rumors were there from the moment the Cougars knocked off Oklahoma. They played the entire season under that cloud. I can’t say without having been there how it affected their play, but Herman said at his press conference that dealing with those months of rumors was “exhausting.” If that’s the case for him, it probably trickled down to his players.

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I’m so tired of hearing this. If you’re a good team, there are going to be distractions. Period. Even if it’s not your coach leaving, it’s next to impossible to ignore stuff like the possibility of a playoff berth, or a shot at a NY6 game, or a chance at bringing home some hardware during awards season. Blaming losses on distractions is a BS excuse.

Maybe not, but management studies have focused a lot lately on the principle of “locus of control.” This is for actual adults in real jobs, not just college kids on a football team.

Locus of control is the perceived position from whence an individual’s career is directed. An internal locus of control lends the individual the perception that their own actions will have a significant impact on the outcome of their performance, career, promotion, etc. And external locus of control suggests that external forces hold sway, and one’s own actions will do little to impact one’s outcomes.

Believe it or not, the internal is the one that seems to generate greater performance from individuals, and tends to lead to increased performance of groups and whole organizations. It is studied in order to develop management practices that encourage such a perception. Some people do respond to getting a cookie, or a commission, or a trophy, but the resulting performance boost is usually short lived and needs to be renewed regularly, and often at increasing cost to the organization. Creating an intrinsically rewarding work environment curates longer term benefits to both the individual and the organization in many measures.

To apply this to college football: certainly winners get nice things, and it’s fun to get the steak dinner or the trophy or the high ranking, and those are the measures of success. But when a situation is created where the players can perform spectacularly and win on their performance measures, but still lose in the grand scheme - by having their coach leave, their career prospects diminish, their opportunity to compete restricted - then there is absolutely going to be a deep-seated sense of helplessness that will infect a team and cause problems.

They don’t have to be thinking about posts on a message board or newspaper headlines or the chance at a big trophy to have these structural, systemic issues impact their performance.

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I would agree with you except the fact is that it happens at every single school where the coach is rumored to go elsewhere in-season. I haven’t seen one situation where it hasn’t happened. The team gets distracted about the potential loss of their leader. An upcoming big game doesn’t compare to the possibility of the reason you are at that school to begin with leaving you behind for another school. On paper it is easy to call it a BS excuse, but ask any players about the effect of the Sumlin rumors before the Southern Miss game.

As was pointed out in the Memphis game broadcast, it isn’t only the players. It is assistant coaches who are distracted as well. I forgot who was the color commentator, but he talked about when he was playing and his coach was rumored to be leaving how the assistant coaches were cutting short drills, workouts where shorter because the coaches were trying to figure out what was going on, where they would be living next season and if they would have a job at all.

It isn’t a BS excuse.

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That was Andre Ware

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Not to mention, it was probably worse at Houston. That last hc was so over the top and extreme with his family talk. Always preaching about real, genuine love. Like Allen said, when you feel like it is fake locker room talk, there is an impact.

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