Why teams start slow, and what to do about it
The goal may not be salient enough
Since I’ve worked in sports, a common challenge I’ve heard coaches face is the team “starting slow.” For whatever reason, the team has trouble quickly ramping up and getting to the ideal performance state. As a result, the team makes silly mistakes and performance suffers. The team ends up having to fight their way back into a game, which may or may not be successful.
It’s doubly frustrating for coaches when they notice that their team seems to play really well at the end of the game. This phenomenon is fairly common in the NBA. A 25-point lead is erased in 6 minutes, and it looks like the team being blown out finally decided to show up. We’ve also seen it on the biggest stage in arguably the most historic comeback in Super Bowl history when the Patriots overcame a 28-3 halftime deficit. It’s as if two different teams show up to play, and the organization, coaches, and players themselves are disappointed and frustrated. The chance of reaching the team’s full potential seems squandered.
Well, I’m not 100% sure. But my best hunch is simply that, at certain points of the game, the goals and consequences become more salient. This is one reason why practice can never fully replicate a game, and why the beginning of games are often different than the end.
And then I learned of the“goals loom large” effect. Now, I might get it.
What is the "Goals Loom Large" Effect?
The "goals loom large" effect refers to the way in which the salience of a goal can impact our behavior. When a goal is salient, or at the forefront of our minds, it tends to dominate our thoughts and actions. This can lead us to focus more intensely on our goal, up our effort, and try new strategies, while we let other, less important things fall by the wayside.
For example, imagine you have a goal of losing weight. When this goal is salient, you might find yourself thinking about what you're eating, how much you're exercising, and how much progress you're making. One of the things that makes a goal like losing weight challenging is that we don’t get to immediately experience the benefits of the good choices we make. The outcome we are working toward is distant and, as a result, less motivating or enticing than the positive consequences we’d experience doing something like eating our favorite candy or cake.
In the case of our sporting events, the goal - winning - isn’t all that salient at the beginning. There are 48+ minutes to go (depending on your sport), and a lot of small successes and failures along the way. Because so much of sport is unpredictable, teams redirect their focus to the present moment (generally good for performance, though perhaps absent of motivational consequences) and on “controlling the controllables” (a soapbox for another article). Teams are focused on executing their game plan, finding their own flow in the game, or simply letting the game unfold.
Unfortunately, game plans are imperfect. The moment-to-moment of the game changes players’ feel, and time starts to slip away. The salient consequences of play - what to do next possession - loom larger than the big, motivating goal of the game - to win.
This is also, I suspect, why games that have playoff implications tend to feel like playoff games that just happen to be in the regular season. At that point, there’s no escaping the reality that each game outcome matters more than the smaller, individual outcomes on the playing field. As a result, each game action is connected back to the larger goal - winning - and not the smaller subgoals, like breaking a record or scoring more points.
How Does the "Goals Loom Large" Effect Work?
The "goals loom large" effect works through a combination of cognitive and motivational processes. In terms of cognition, when a goal is salient, it tends to capture our attention and activate related thoughts and memories. This can make it easier to stay focused on the goal and to come up with strategies for achieving it. It’s kind of like a gentle guide and reminder. It forces a framing of our pursuits, which changes the context of our actions. In turn, our repertoire of behavior flexes to match the new situation - and thus we get increased effort, intensity, and the “hustle plays” we wish we saw at tip-off.
Goals also enhance motivation. Once a goal is activated, our desire to get after it goes up - either because we think the goal matters, there’s a reward on the other side, or we’re afraid of failing. This increased motivation can help us overcome obstacles and persist in the face of challenges, which further fuels the hustle.
So what can we do about it?
The next time you want to activate some of the competitive drive of your players and start fast, the first step is to make the goals and consequences of the game more salient. That might mean talking explicitly about what the game means if we reach a specific outcome, or talking more directly about specific tactics to execute that are likely to lead to a faster start.
It’s not enough to script plays for strategy. We need to script for energy. That means making the main goal the frame of the performance, and regularly guiding our athletes back to that state of mind. Over time, they’ll draw the link between a fast, intense start and better odds of reaching the goal (hopefully). By keeping the goal top of mind, we can keep performance in top shape.