Urban and Competition Psychology

By Chad Peltier on May 24, 2012 at 4:00p
Coombs looking to get a shot at ShazierRDS dominating in the circle drill 

One of the biggest differences between the Tressel and Meyer regimes has been Meyer's increased intensity and competition - his desire to separate winners and losers in a way that Tressel never did.

Practice observers have noted the changing atmosphereincreased competiton and Urban's intensity, which apparently looks something like "he’s some sort of a cross between an evil-genius and God-like figure in Columbus; the man is so intense he may or may not breathe fire."

This has led to several new programs and traditions, including at least four "winner-loser" days of practice in which winners received gatorade while losers enjoy gassers, his three-tiered caste system and champion's club based upon classroom, weight, diet, and on-field performance, and the circle drill on display before the spring game. 

The approach seems to be popular with the players, with Stoneburner, Guiton, Goebel and Hankins voicing their support for the increased competition. 

Under Meyer, everything is incentive based:

Everything we try to do around here is incentive-based. You want to live off campus, I have no problem with that. But you have to earn that right. A big thing is wearing visors or changing your number to No. 1. I don't really care what you wear but don't come see me unless you are taking care of your business in all the other areas that we evaluate."

And leaders are supposed to emerge from "corporate, cut-throat" and "Darwinian" competition: 

"I really want to see guys lead by not losing. You want to be a great leader? Go win. That's where we're really pushing Braxton. All the players, when you go against someone -- don't lose. There's a million excuses. Our whole focus is, go win. Winners have a tendency to stand in front of the team. Losers don't. So we're really pushing that winner-loser mentality right now." 

Urban clearly believes that he is best able to motivate his players through intense competition that results in the public separation of winners and losers. Maybe due to his psychology degree, Urban's new traditions have their roots in one strain of education psychology known as achievement goal theory.

Achievement goal theory differentiates between learning goals and performance goals. While learning goals concern one's personal understanding and appreciation for what is being learned, performance goals involve increasing one's status by outperforming peers. Achievement goal theorists hypothesize that performance goals "trigger superficial, rote-level processing that exerts a stultifying influence on achievement" while learning goals favor deep processing of information and increased scholastic achievement. 

Meyer at least informally recognizes this differentiation based upon the incentive structures of programs like the winner-loser days and the circle drill. The goal of these drills is not simply learning technique and football, but to increase players' competitiveness. For Meyer, competitiveness itself is a goal rather than simply a means to other goals. 

While many psychologists deride performance goals within classroom settings, they clearly have a place on the instrinsically competitive football field, where everything is a relative competition at the internal level (fighting for first string, offense vs. defense winner-loser days) and external level (winning the game). Goebel demonstrated the need for competiton when he said, "You can only push yourself so far, and then you need someone else there by you with equal talent pushing you. It just makes you both that much better. It's awesome."

Intensity emanating from his palms Some people thrive in stressful environments

Many studies have demonstrated that "public recognition for doing better than others (reinforcing of performance goals)...supports such prosocial behaviors as submission to teacher authority and a willingness to try hard." These two goals - coach acountability and competition - are the crux of Meyer's approach to coaching.

All of his new traditions are designed to publically recognize winners. It's clear why Meyer opened the spring game with a circle drill in front of all 80,000 fans - besides getting the players hyped for the game, it created easily identifiable winners and losers in front of a large audience. It's easy to miss individual battles being won and lost during scrimmages and games amidst the chaos of a play, but the circle drill focuses everyone's attention in on the outcome of just a single battle.

Furthermore, he is extremely candid about his opinions of his best players - enough to publically reward Boren and Simon (annointing Simon as a captain already) in front of the media. Simon of course responded by saying it only mattered to him if his fellow players also elected him as a captain demonstrating how Simon made captainship a learning goal rather than just a performance goal.

One of the fears with such a focus on competition is that the rewards - first string, being in the champion's club - become more about just avoiding failure. Some education scholars believe that this approach causes students who receive poor grades to feel worthless, without any alternative sources of personal satisfaction. 

This is not to say that Urban never employs learning goals, but football itself naturally attracts a specific subgroup of "overstriver" individuals who are competitively and defensively motivated to avoid failure. For these overstrivers, "the direction of the impact of tension on the quality of test preparation is reversed. Instead of impairing their studies, as it does for failure avoiders, the presence of emotional tension actually mobilizes the enormous capacity of overstrivers for study, which typically takes the form of slavish overpreparation." 

That is, overstrivers thrive in the intense, competitive and high-stress environments that Meyer cultivates. Meyer recognizes that the individuals he works with are different and he's adjusted his incentive structures accordingly. 

All coaches implicitly incorporate these ideas to various degrees, but Meyer is clearly driven by performance goals that foster a competitive environment for overstriver players. 


Comments Show All Comments

CowCat's picture

Interesting read. 
It makes sense that performance striving is correllated to the competitiveness of the task at hand.
In my life I can see this in table games:
In billiards, I can't shoot bank shots, I'm not super accurate. I rely mostly on thinking and experience (from striving to learn).
However in foosball, if you can't out-execute your opponent and match their control and speed you get slaughtered.  The only way I can compete is through constant playing and practice and striving to overcome certain opponents (striving to perform).

"We get paid to score touchdowns, not kick field goals"
-- Urban Meyer

buckeyedude's picture

You shouldn't be playing foosball anyway...It's the DEVIL!



pcon258's picture

very interesting read. chad, you are quickly becoming the most academic of the 11w writers (if i'm not mistaken, you also do the statistics articles?). its an interesting motivational technique, and i really like it, for the most part. I just feel like the people who are consistently on the losing end, will end up becoming resentful of the coaching staff, other players, etc. Although, I'm sure he has some sort of way to keep those guys motivated as well

slicksickle's picture

I have a feeling he wouldnt set the same group of people up for failure year in and year out. You're right - that would take a toll on someone, especially a young, impressionable mind. Look at how Grant was after just one year.

hodge's picture

Exceptional read, really digging the new in-depth articles. The juxtaposition 'twixt these and the site's editorial material makes for an exciting cocktail. Keep up the fabulous work, everyone!

WoodysGlasses's picture

As long as the approach doesn't become too dominant, I think it's a good one.  I don't get the distinction between overstrivers and failure avoiders.  The definitions above seem very similar.

ShadyBuckeye's picture

Im not really qualified (intelligent enough? lol) to comment on some of this psychology termanology but Im not quite sure u can force someone to be more competitive. You either have that in you or u dont. Im probly wrong but I like what Urban Meyer is doing regardless. Bring in talented kids, get everything u can out of him in the weight room, teach teach teach in the film room and encourage (force!) them into competitive situations to see how they react. I dont think coaching matters at all in the NFL, if u got Brady, Manning or Rodgers you will win atleast once in 10 years no matter what but it really does make a difference in college.

CowCat's picture

With the new four year guaranteed scholarships even the "losers" get a solid chance at a major college education, which is cool
So few players get to the NFL -- which is to say most players "lose" if you only look at playing time or elite status.  Life in the NFL is short-lived too.
The things you keep forever:  a college experience, an education, life lessons, and the chance to be on the field as a Buckeye are areas where all players can "win".

"We get paid to score touchdowns, not kick field goals"
-- Urban Meyer

45buckshot's picture

i would be interested to learn if Coach Meyer has some other motivational tools that he uses to encourage players who aren't overstrivers. i doubt every player on a team is an overstriver, and so you would have to develop motivational techniques for those players as well, or else you'd fall into the 10% trap UM3 warned the Ohio HS coaches against (spending all your time trying to develop the 10% of your top players that don't need your help anyway). 
Although that being said he appears to be trying to make Braxton into an overstriver rather than motivate him in a different way. Would you say that's correct?
But it definitely has to be a concern that you could alienate players that aren't performing well. Do you think he tries to mitigate that in some way or is he hoping they'll leave?
That would explain the player who spoke out in the TSN article...

“The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”
—G.K. Chesterton

45buckshot's picture

this is what the wikipedia article on goal theory says:
"Performance orientation is thought to increase a student's intrinsic motivation if they perform well, but to decrease motivation when they perform badly."
i suspect UM3 has some way to mitigate this; again, i'm just wondering what it might be...

“The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”
—G.K. Chesterton

Right Again's picture

What an upgrade in attitude.
What's not to like about this guy?

WoodysGlasses's picture

I'm always a little confused about why people say this is such a drastic improvement.  It's not like Tressel let the guys tackle children and high five each other all day long.  I think the biggest difference with Meyer is that he does it in the public eye.

buckeyedude's picture

All you have to do is look at OSU's recent offensive line to see what entitlement gets you: fat and lazy. And that is what lost us the national championship in 2006.
I love Tressel, but his method of redshirting freshmen and automatically giving the senior players the starting job, NO MATTER WHAT, is what kept him from being one of the greatest coaches ever.
Urban gets it.
Just like in the real motha freakin' world, we have to compete every day against our peers. It never really ends. Until we retire that is.



Poison nuts's picture

Tressel is one of the greatest coaches ever. As is Meyer IMO.  
Terrelle Pryor was a fresheman when he started over Boeckman. Just sayin...I'm always hearing people say Tress favored seniority over talent. Maybe - but there are plenty of cases where he played the best guy.

"Do not pass me, just slow down - I can move right through you" Superchunk - Precision Auto.

buckeyedude's picture

TP was one incident you picked. It was far from the norm. I think Tress was a great coach and I still think he is a great man that made a mistake.



Poison nuts's picture

Yeah - TP was an easy one as it came to mind first. I also know he made that switch due to the team struggling. Just saying he didn't always choose seniority although he was prone to being overly loyal...

"Do not pass me, just slow down - I can move right through you" Superchunk - Precision Auto.

nickma71's picture

So there you have it. A good showing of the diffence in approach between the US Army, and the Marine Corp. The Army seperates achievers and shows it. The Corp does not, they win and lose as a team.

Grayskullsession's picture

The main difference between Tressel and Urban is how they view talent and experience. Tressel always favored experience over talent and only swapped methodologies when he saw his team struggling, E.G Boeckman benched in favor of Pryor.
Urban is using competitiveness along with evaluating the players' talent to judge the starters and depth chart. Lets hope it pays dividend come the fall.

"if irony were made of strawberries, we' d all be drinking a lot of smoothies right now."

Man of Scarlet and Gray's picture

@Hodge is so right, the mix up of articles is incredible. 11W is by far the best written and most interesting blog on the net and I'm sooo proud it's a buckeye blog! Basically what I'm saying is this is another thing Ohio State fans can brag about and michigan still sucks. Amen

 "I like to believe that my best hits border on felonious assault."
--Jack Tatum

Chad Peltier's picture

Thanks for all of the comments guys - I really appreciate them. 

@ShadyBuckeye and 45BuckShot- I think the literature supports some kind of mix between innate competitiveness and learned competitiveness. Those who aren't overstrivers either learn competitiveness through Urban's public competitions or they become discouraged and generally fall in the depth chart (or leave the team). 

As 45BuckShot said, when players don't do well in a competitive environment, it certainly decreases their motivation - but this is ok for Meyer. The object is to use competitive drills to find the best talent, not keep a uniform level of motivation.

I think a prime example of this is Curtis Grant - while extremely discouraged about not playing last year, he thrived so far this spring with the increased competition. Sure, a lot of his improvement was finally grasping the defense and playing more instinctually, but by playing more naturally he's able to thrive in such a competitive atmosphere. 

This success is then further reinforced by Urban's public statements - saying that the team "needs him" and that he's coming along strong.