The Quickest Way to Drop 20 IQ Points

Inside the lower part of your brain, located in the limbic system, is a little almond-sized thing called your “amygdala”. We’ve all got one, and it is one of the most significant parts of every human body. Research has shown that our amygdala is the control center for decision-making and emotional responses.

It’s important for coaches to understand how the amygdala works because it helps us to empathize better with our athletes’ emotional responses. With this understanding and the right strategies, we can move from a team of reactors (i.e., act first, think later) to a team of responders (i.e., think first, act later).

“When your mind reacts negatively to something, the first thing your brain does is turn off 10-20 IQ points as a result. This is a physiological function of your brain designed to help you survive threatening situations by turning off less-critical systems and shunting energy to your survival systems. After all, if we encounter a deadly snake, we don’t need to think too deeply to figure out how to run away. So, when we experience negative emotions like anger, fear, or even just high stress, our brain turns off the prefrontal cortex, otherwise known as our ‘thinking brain’.”

—Sean Webb, Mind-Hacking Happiness, Volume 1

We want our own athletes to compete with high IQs, and so, it’s our role to help them regulate their limbic systems, so their lower brain can communicate with their higher brain.

For those of us who have a habit of losing our temper, yelling, threatening, or lashing out at our team, it’s really important that we develop the ability to regulate our stress response system so that we, in turn, can help our players develop this ability, as well. We want our amygdala to function more as a guard dog by alerting us of problems, not an attack dog lashing out at problems.

Engage, Don’t Enrage

“We want to engage the upstairs brain, rather than enraging the downstairs brain. Engage, don’t enrage. When we enrage the downstairs brain, that’s usually because our amygdala is firing, as well. And guess what the amygdala wants to do? Win! So, when the amygdalae in both [people] are firing at top speed, both looking to win, it’s virtually always going to be a dramatic battle that ends with both sides losing.”

—Daniel J. Siegel, No-Drama Discipline

I used to justify my yelling and screaming at players with the “they can handle it” and “tough love” arguments. Now, I have come to realize that those players were probably just better at regulating their amygdala than I was as a coach.

When a player is making poor emotional decisions, our anger only further aggravates their emotional response. It is critical that we respond calmly as the leader of our team in these moments if we hope to help our players take back their control over their decision-making.

Using some of our transformational discipline strategies (like the use of questions and “name it to tame it”) is one way that we can engage both our athletes as people and the higher-functioning parts of their brain.

Another really important function of the amygdala that is worth mentioning here is how it can serve as a guide dog, as well as a guard dog. As Daniel Coyle explains in his book, The Culture Code, “Science has recently discovered, however, that the amygdala isn’t just about responding to danger; it also plays a vital role in building social connections. It works like this: When you receive a ‘belonging’ cue, the amygdala switches roles and starts to use its immense unconscious neural horsepower to build and sustain your social bonds. It tracks members of your group, tunes into their interactions, and sets the stage for meaningful engagement. In a heartbeat, it transforms from a growling guard dog into an energetic guide dog with a single-minded goal: to make sure you stay tightly connected with your people.”

So, if you want stronger relationships with your team, then your regulated response can help a player who is experiencing an emotional moment, as well as strengthen your connection with them.

Four Steps to Take Control of Your Anger

  1. Learn a New Way to Operate. First, we need an alternative and better way to respond. In Episode 113 of Coaching Culture I share some of the most powerful strategies to communicate to your players in a positive, calm, and firm manner.
  2. Film and Record Yourself in a Practice or Game. Spend time listening and watching yourself in emotional moments. When the coaches I support do this, it brings out a whole new level of self-awareness. You start to realize how unnecessary and ineffective your anger is for your team.
  3. Ask Players and Assistants for Coaching. You expect your players to receive coaching in the moment, because you know it’s important to helping them improve. Who is giving you coaching on your coaching?
  4. Chart Everything You Say. To become more intentional and in control of everything that I said during the course of a game or a practice, I did this activity for a month. I’d carry a notecard and pen during games and practices. After I said anything, I had to chart it in one of two ways: (1) if I said something in a positive or constructive manner, I would put down a “+”; and (2) if it was said with anger, sarcasm, or in a threatening manner, I would put down a “-”.

Need More Ideas?

There are a host of other reasons why we shouldn’t yell at athletes. Here are 10 of them. If you really want to change this aspect of your coaching, then you need to become really aware of your triggers, and why they occur. I’ve discussed what this process looks like for many coaches in the article “How to Stop Getting Angry as a Coach”.

Works Referenced

  • Mind-Hacking Happiness by Sean Webb
  • No-Drama Discipline by Daniel J. Siegel
  • The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle