In my early days of coaching, I picked up very quickly on the fact that players often developed an affinity for positions that they played more often. Therefore, sometimes when a positional change became necessary, simply exposing the player to that position more regularly allowed the player to develop greater confidence and affinity for playing there. These effects occurred even when the player started out by dreading the role and thinking themselves to be ill-equipped to perform in the position. In psychology, this is called the “mere exposure effect”. Quite simply, by having more exposure to something, one’s motivation, desire and enjoyment of that thing can often be elevated. This is relevant for both players and coaches to understand in helping them further their craft.
Coaches should be careful about shoe-horning a player into a position that they are not comfortable with or that they do not enjoy, as it can kill the player’s enjoyment of the game. But over time, coaches may be able to help their players identify a greater affinity for different positions and roles, if they truly believe it will be what is best for the player, simply by giving the player more exposure to the position. This is a very powerful tool for coaches to have in their wheelhouse, but must not be abused.
Coaches must be aware that players may have negative reactions to a change of position and be resistant to step outside their comfort zone. Therefore, it is important that the coach still gives the player some degree of freedom and autonomy within their role/position, so that they can take ownership for the exposure they are getting and feel as though it is a joint-effort, rather than a decision the coach made all on their own. Coaches should always be careful about controlling too much of their players’ decisions, but it becomes even more imperative in these kinds of situations. If a player is already responding negatively to needing to step outside their comfort zone, the coach attempting to control how they carry out their role will only raise their discomfort.
Coaches should also be careful not to pigeon-hold a player to just one position. Based on this phenomenon, the more comfortable the player gets in a position, the less likely they may be to believe in their abilities in other positions. This is simply because they haven’t had the exposure to those other positions. This is problematic for coaches when a change of position for a player is needed through circumstance, or for when the coach is no longer the coach and a new one comes in. Suddenly, the player changes position and isn’t able to adapt as comfortably, because they haven’t had that exposure and the necessary time to develop confidence or an affinity for the role. This is one of the many reasons why so many young players dread going in goal for a game. They haven’t had the time to develop the necessary skills of the position and don’t believe in their abilities to carry out the task, so they shy away from it. As a result, mere exposure or the “familiarity principle” can have an inverse effect for coaches who stick their players in one position and only one position.
Having an understanding of the mere exposure effect is important not just for coaches, but players too. By understanding the effect, players can gain greater awareness of the importance of playing different positions. Players need to understand that even if they are not as successful playing in one position as they are in another, they will get better at it with time. It’s also important for players to understand so that they avoid the trap of thinking of themselves as a “defender” or a “striker”, etc., simply just because that’s the only thing they’ve experienced. Players should therefore be eager to play different positions and ask their coach to engage in different roles within the team. This, for a coach is far preferable than players who complain when asked to do a certain role, or don’t give it their all when asked to play anything but their favourite position.
Some players will react negatively to a change in position because they believe their freedom is being taken away. But players must remember that in a team sport, they are only one piece of the puzzle and that even if the coach has had a hand in deciding the player’s role, it is still ultimately up to the player on how to carry out their job on the field.
The final consideration for players is to remember that although practice does not necessarily make perfect, the more exposure they have to something such as working on their weak foot, their finishing, passing or whatever it might be, the better they will get at it and the more their confidence will grow within that task. Just because you struggle with something right now, does not mean that it can’t be improved through practice.
So there it is! An understanding of the “mere exposure effect” for both players and coaches and how both can use an understanding of the phenomenon to propel their success in sport. 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.