The Art of Persuasion in Coaching

The art of persuasion is a useful tool that all coaches should understand. Social psychologists identify two basic ways to persuade people: through what’s called “the central route” and through what’s called “the peripheral route”. This article examines both, in the quest to help coaches understand the art of persuasion and the best approaches to motivating their players to perform.

central route

The central route to persuasion occurs when people are given time to carefully and deliberately think about the content of a persuasive message. They attend to logic and evidence contained in the message, such as facts and statistics, and bring their own relevant experiences into their judgements, increasing likelihood of actually being persuaded. Coaches should therefore ensure that when speaking to players, that their message is personally meaningful, uses evidence and logic and allows the player to see a mental image of what the coach is attempting to convince them of. For example, “When you are playing central midfield (personally meaningful), you give the ball away 2/3 times when passing on the run, versus 1/5 times when slowing down or in a fixed position (use of evidence). Therefore, when possible, try slowing down the speed of your play and focus your effort on the weight of your pass when making passes on the run.”

By giving this kind of instruction at the bench, before or after the game would also be more effective than during the game. This is because the player is already dealing with an information overload when out on the field. When they are given so much information like this all at once in the middle of a game, it won’t help them to actually do better and will likely go over their head. So the content of the message is important, but so too is the timing when it comes to persuasion through the “central route”. Before moving on, it is also important to note that messages that go through the central route are typically proven to last longer than the peripheral route which can often be more short-term.

peripheral route

The “peripheral route” to persuasion occurs when people primarily attend to superficial, emotional, easy to process features of a message. This is how some people can be persuaded and convinced of things that to the rest of us, seem very absurd. Usually, they are convinced by an excellent speaker who has a knack for garnering followers through emotional and superficial information not based in fact. This is also how commonly accepted beliefs can become so commonplace. When an idea becomes the consensus and widely accepted, it becomes harder to challenge the consensus and persuade others of something they have not become accustomed to. Sometimes it takes a special individual like Charles Darwin for example to come up with brand new information using fact and logic to change hearts and minds. But the peripheral route to persuasion cannot be disregarded when it comes to coaching. If facts and logic just simply aren’t available or the coach does not have the tools or know-how of the game, they can still motivate players on the back of the message sounding good or inspiring positive emotions in them. If it sounds like something that is widely accepted, or attractive for the players to do, they will be more likely to engage in it. Players are also more likely to be persuaded by coaches with whom they enjoy working for. This is because players are more motivated by those who inspire positive feelings in them, than those who inspire negative ones. This again shows that a coach does not necessarily need to understand all the facets of the game. If they remain likable and inspire enjoyment of the sport, they can still achieve great heights and motivate their athletes to perform. This may be particularly useful for coaches who are great motivational speakers, but have less of an understanding of the game itself. Coaches can therefore be fantastic coaches without much in the way of an understanding of the game, if they are very adept at motivating their players through the content of the message.

Ultimately, whatever route a coach attempts to use to persuade their players, it is important that the players are given the chance to self-validate the message, increasing buy-in and motivation. But players who do not self-validate the message should not necessarily be discouraged, as perhaps they can come up with a different solution that becomes equally valuable. Coaches must remember that their message or solution, might not be the only right message or solution. Players are often intelligent enough to come up with their own solutions and should be encouraged to do so. If they become stubborn or unsuccessful at finding correct solutions, a coach can then use this know-how on persuasion to inspire positive change in their players.

So there it is! An understanding of the art of persuasion for coaches working in sport. Understanding when and how to go through the “central route” versus the “peripheral route” can be crucial for a coach’s ability to inspire change in their players for the better. Be sure to check out more of our Sport Psychology articles and share your thoughts in the comments below. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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-> Understanding the “Mere Exposure Effect” in Sport
-> Why Fun is an Underrated Aspect of Leadership


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