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The Pygmalion Effect

Brian Grasso explains the Pygmalion-based coaching strategies for you to use with your young athletes.

In 1911, researchers began taking a particular interest in a horse owned by a German mathematician named Von Osten. The horse, aptly named Clever Hans, was reported to be able to count - add, subtract, multiply and divide. It was even suggested that Clever Hans could spell and solve problems involving musical harmony. As mystifying and even magical as this seemed to be, it was concluded following a rigorous study, that Clever Hans possessed no highly intelligent factors nor extraordinary abilities. It was a case of Clever Hans performing what had become expected of him.

Two researchers, Stumpt and Pfungst, realized that when the handlers of Clever Hans posed questions to him, they were providing subtle physical and verbal cues to the horse as it pertained to the answer. This reality was summarized in the book, 'Teachers and the Learning Process' written by Robert Strom (Prentice-Hall, 1971): "Among the first discoveries made was that if the horse could not see the questioner, Hans was not clever at all.

Similarly, suppose the questioner did not know the answer to the question. In that case, Hans could not answer it either - A forward inclination of the head of the questioner would start Hans tapping, Pfungst observed - as the experimenter straightened up, Hans would stop tapping - he found that even the raising of his eyebrows was sufficient. Even the dilation of the questioner's nostrils was a cue for Hans to stop tapping."

In short, inadvertently, people were offering the correct answers to Clever Hans by communicating their expectations via physical signs - and Hans learned to pick up the signals, no matter how subtle. This ascension to what is expected of you is known contemporarily as a self-fulfilling prophecy and was outlined originally in 1957 by a sociology professor Robert Merton, at Columbia University. In his essay, 'Social Theory and Social Structure', Merton suggested that "a false definition of the situation evokes a new behaviour which makes the original false conception come true".

Once an expectation is set, even one of false conception, you will act in certain ways that are consistent with that expectation, causing the results of the expectation to become true. The birth of this theory may be found in ancient mythical legend. It is written in the tenth book of Metamorphoses, in which the sculptor, Pygmalion, who was a prince of Cyprus, sought to create an ivory statue of his ideal mate.

The result of his work was an extraordinarily beautiful sculpted woman, which Pygmalion named Galatea. Because of her beauty, Pygmalion fell desperately in love with the sculpted and began praying to Venus to bring Galatea to life. Venus granted his prayer and thus became what is now known as the Pygmalion Effect.

The expectations you direct towards a person, event, or even yourself will eventually come true. This theory has transcended to become a key instrument of learning for managers and supervisors in the business world. J. Sterling Livingston described it in the September/October 1988 Harvard Business Review in an article entitled 'Pygmalion in Management'; "The way managers treat their subordinates is subtly influenced by what they expect of them".

The Pygmalion Effect can either elevate a worker's productivity or entirely undermine it. For instance, workers who receive continuous verbal praise for their efforts, while being supported by non-verbal means, will aspire and ascend to even more productivity. In contrast, if a worker receives less praise or even communication from management than their peers or co-workers, although nothing is being conveyed verbally, the worker feels as though they are underappreciated and will see a lapse or decrease in productivity.

Livingston substantiated this point

"If he (the manager) is unskilled, he leaves scars on the careers of the young men and women, cuts deeply into their self-esteem, and distorts their image of themselves as human beings. But if he is skilful and has high expectations of his subordinates, their self-confidence will grow, their capabilities will develop, and their productivity will be high. More often than he realizes, the manager is Pygmalion".

Now, apply these realities to the world of youth sports and coaching. If inappropriate managerial skills, in the form of limited positive affirmations or feedback, can affect an adult to the degree that they will have 'scars - cuts deeply into their self-esteem and distorts their image of themselves as human beings', what do you think happens to children under the pressure of inappropriate coaching? In understanding the relevancy and practicality of the Pygmalion Effect, answer these questions for yourself:

  • Why doesn't a 'one size fits all' coaching approach work?
  • Do coaches treat all of their athletes the same, or do they every so subtly play favourites?
  • What would happen to young athletes' ability and self-esteem if their coaches and parents demonstrated great pride in their efforts and positively voiced a level of expectation, based entirely on the notion that the coach 'knows' the young athlete could achieve this?
  • Should we make our young athletes more concerned about the results of a game or training session, or spend our energy heaping positive praise and expectation on them because we know that they are capable of anything?

Here is a list of Pygmalion-based coaching strategies for you to use with your young athletes:

  • Provide athletes with the opportunity to experience increasingly challenging exercises or drills, but do so by making sure that they succeed at each respective level along with way. Many trainers and coaches prescribe exercises or drills that are too difficult for their athletes. Change the exercise so that your athletes can perform it competently before moving on. Not only is this sound from an athletic development standpoint, but also will do wonders for a child's self-esteem.
  • Design training exercises that allow your athletes to create solutions to a proposed problem. For instance, create obstacle courses that require both athletic skill and cognitive reasoning, and have your athletes work as a unit to solve the equation. Enabling your athletes to work as a team through participation in successful projects increases individual self-efficacy and brings continuous productivity.
  • No matter how large the training group or team, purposefully spend a few moments every session or practice working with each member individually. This can be as quick as a 10-second pointer or 2 second high five and positive comment. Focus on positive commentary associated with what the athlete is doing right and not what they are doing wrong.
  • Ask your young athletes what they think. As it relates to a game strategy, exercise selection, or set to rep ratio, get your athletes involved in the process of making decisions. Engaged athletes feel as though they are important, and their productivity will reflect this.
  • Always project the sincere feelings that you are here for them. You are not here to win the plastic trophy, to get a great testimonial from their parents, or to have them become the newest member of your '400-pound squat club'. Young athletes get pulled in various directions, and their productivity or success rate is almost always more important to other people than it is to themselves. You will find that your athletes' productivity will grow dramatically when they feel as though you want to help them achieve their goals.


In conclusion, it is critical to make you aware of your internal mental dialogue and its relation to how you relate to and coach your young athletes.

The following exercise (Tauber, 1997) is intended to make you more sensitive to the power of teacher or coach expectations. Without feeling restricted or inhibited, think or write down the first descriptive thoughts that come to your mind when you think about the people outlined below. No one is judging you, so again, be brutally honest:

  1. A teenager from a family that has strong and vocal political party ties
  2. A significantly overweight teenage girl
  3. A primary school student from an affluent family and is an only child
  4. A middle school student whose two older siblings you had as athletes several years ago - each of whom was often a troublemaker
  5. An Asian boy who is the son of a respected university math professor

Do you see how your initial beliefs may entirely dictate how you relate to or even coach these youths?

Do your initial beliefs and potential subsequent actions communicate a level of expectation to these youths that you may be unaware of?

Do these expectations serve to potentially restrict the athletic development or self-esteem acquisition of these youths?

The Art of Coaching is an incredibly intricate and important element within the youth sports and training world, and one that we must examine further.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • GRASSO, B. (2007) The Pygmalion Effect. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 47/ November), p. 14-15

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • GRASSO, B. (2007) The Pygmalion Effect [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Brian Grasso is the President of Developing Athletics, a company dedicated to educating coaches, parents, and youth sporting officials throughout the world on athletic development concepts. Brian can be contacted through his website at