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The Secrets Of Happy Teams

posted by Coach Dawn Writes
Friday, September 9, 2011 at 4:51pm EDT

My blog is a place for coaches at all levels who are interested in building teams, motivating their student athletes, and coaching ideas that work. You won't find drills or job postings there, but you will find thoughts from a self-proclaimed coaching nerd who wants to help coaches and teams thrive.

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People are happier when we have choices, right?  Actually, we’re not.  That’s the premise of Dan Gilbert’s TEDtalk, Why Are We Happy?  In a great talk, filled with very cool science (if you’ve got twenty minutes, I’d highly suggest you watch it!), Gilbert extols the virtues of “synthesized happiness.”  As I listened to this talk, I felt affirmed.  Because I, along with anyone who’s taught or coached before, believe that young people like crave structure.  For those of you who think we should present little Johnny with a myriad of options and let him choose, this won’t be for you.  But for those of you out there who believe some limitations are good for the soul, check this out.

What is synthesized happiness?  Our brains can find ways to turn unhappy events on their heads.

Here’s an example: You’ve got a stud coming in this year.  Like, you’re so excited about her and you just know she’s going to rip through your conference…you’re feeling Freshman of the Year!  She comes in and blows out her knee in preseason.  You feel like you’ve been punched in the gut…everything you planned for the season revolved around this young lady.  Fast forward to the end of the season, you look back and think that it was probably for the best that she got hurt.  Your other freshman stepped in and was a rock star…and she wouldn’t have seen the court if the other player wasn’t hurt.  Plus, your coaching skills went up exponentially in order to face the challenge.  And with a year on the bench to watch and understand the game, your rock star will be a terror in your conference next year.  Thinking back, you wouldn’t change a thing.  That’s synthesized happiness.

In the video, Gilbert goes through study after study of Harvard students that show two things with a doubt: the first is those given options when choosing are infinitely unhappier than those forced to choose one thing; the second is they don’t understand this fact.  They think choices will make them happier.

Consider this.  You’ve got a young lady on your team who you’re pretty sure will never contribute in any significant manner on the court.  This isn’t someone who is on the cusp and may see the court when she’s an upperclassman.  To be honest, she’s just not that good at your sport.  Gilbert’s research says it would be better for you to tell her that her only option to impact the team would be as a manager rather than telling her that she’s got three choices: manage, practice hard and potentially see court time, or practice hard and never see court time.  While we think that giving folks options makes them feel better about how things turn out, it turns out that’s just not true.  With multiple options, the player has room to feel regret…with only one, she won’t.  She made the only choice available to her.

The pink elephant in the room.  I’m sure you’re thinking that this synthetic happiness is hooey and just a way for people to trick themselves into making a bad situation less awful.  Again Gilbert has studies for us.  Turns out that synthetic happiness is every bit as good as natural happiness.  The truth is, we have within us the capacity to manufacture happiness.  That’s pretty awesome if you ask me!

One of the things I often tell teams that I coach is that they don’t actually have to be happy to be in the gym, but they’ve got to make me believe that they are…because I sure am!  Now I’ve got to tweak that Dawn-ism.  Now I can tell them that it’s been scientifically proven that if they find the good in a tough situation, they’ll be happy.

How this can help our teams:

  • After a tough loss.
  • When they don’t feel like being at practice.
  • After they’ve lost their starting spot.
  • Will help eliminate outward displays of displeasure.
  • If they’re on the wrong end of an unfortunate injury.
  • After butt-kicking practices.
  • After missing the game winning serve/hit/shot in a game.
  • When facing disappointments or let-downs of any sort.


As I always say, we control our emotions…they don’t control us (another Dawn-ism).  Now I’ve got scientific proof of the validity of that statement.  Our players can think themselves happy.

The choice is theirs.

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