Coaches, Trainers and the Pygmalion Effect

Posted by Todd Bumgardner Blog 0 Comments

pygmalion effect, self-fulfilling prophecy, strength, training, coaching

There are certain things that we probably shouldn’t admit about ourselves. Stuff we should keep locked up in the old skull closet. Like that time you were nineteen and you watched The Notebook with your college roommate that was also a football player at his suburban Philadelphia home and you look up at the end and you’re both crying and maybe he looks attractive and then you start asking questions about your past and then maybe start asking a few questions about your future and why the lighting feels so right…maybe the circus doesn’t sound so bad, maybe you two could have a flying trapeze act!


It could just be me? Consequently, it has little-to-no connection with today’s discussion. Well, maybe it does. Pygmalion was kind of weird and fell in love with a sultry statue that he sculpted. Have you heard his story?


It’s an ancient Greek myth. Pygmalion was a sculptor who found that loving feeling for a beauty chiseled by his own, exacting amorous mitts. His love for the statue brought it to life. His belief in potential created reality.


Here’s a secret, Little Red Riding hood, we have the same power.


We’re a walking bag of self-fulfilling prophecies, and it impacts those that we influence. Check out this story about teachers and students, an excerpt from The Happiness Advantage:


“A team of researchers led by Robert Rosenthal went into an elementary school and administered intelligence tests to the students. The researchers then told the teachers in each of the classrooms which students—say, Sam, Sally, and Sarah—the data had identified as academic superstars, the ones with the greatest potential for growth. They asked the teachers not to mention the results of the study to the students, and not to spend any more or less time with them. (And, in fact, the teachers were warned they would be observed to make sure they did not.) At the end of the year, the students were tested again, and indeed, Sam, Sally, and Sarah posted off-the-chart intellectual ability.

This would be a predictable story, except for an O. Henry-type twist at the end.


When Sam, Sally, and Sarah had been tested at the beginning of the experiment, they were found to be absolutely, wonderfully ordinary. The researchers had randomly picked their names and then lied to the teachers about their ability. But after the experiment, they had in fact turned into academic superstars. So what caused these ordinary students to become extraordinary? Although the teachers had said nothing directly to these children and had spent equal amounts of time with everyone, two crucial things had happened. The belief the teachers had in the students’ potential had been unwittingly and nonverbally communicated. More important, these nonverbal messages were then digested by the students and transformed into reality.


This phenomenon is called the Pygmalion Effect: when our belief in another person’s potential brings that potential to life. Whether we are trying to uncover the talent in a class of second graders or in the workers sitting around at the morning meeting, the Pygmalion Effect can happen anywhere. The expectations we have about our children, co-workers, and spouses—whether or not they are ever voiced—can make that expectation a reality.”


Extrapolate this story to our own context as coaches and trainers. (We are teachers, our classroom has barbells instead of desks.) Think, and be painfully honest with yourself, do you believe that every client that crosses your nose has the ability to achieve something great, to achieve their goals and, in time, reach a potential beyond them?


If you don’t, it’s time to change that shit. Our most valuable attribute as coaches and trainers is a fervent belief in human potential. If you’ve been to one of my seminars you’ve heard me harp on this. This belief is the ultimate raw material. Screw the FMS, screw all of your other assessments. If you don’t begin by thinking that this person has grand capabilities beyond even their own beliefs you’re doing the client, and yourself, a grandiose disservice.


Start by believing that you’re capable of incredible feats, your mindset is infectious. Then believe that everyone under your watchful eye is a phenom lying in wait. You’ll prove yourself right.


And, by the way, if you’re Jonesing for that high-flying, daredevil trapeze act, I say swing your heart out you dear soul! I believe in you!

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