Harnessing The Power of Negative Thinking

“ ‘Let me kiss it and make it well’.  The truth is that unless Mom had a mouthful of iodine, she probably wasn’t going to help”.  That’s one of the first lines in Bob Knight’s new book “The Power of Negative Thinking: An unconventional approach to achieving positive results”.  And yet the book is an uplifting read that leaves you feeling empowered about coaching, mentoring and parenting.  Bobby Knight’s approach to coaching (and life) is one of using negativity to produce a positive outcome.  He uses a glass-half-empty mentality to help his players recognize obstacles, and then expects his players to be disciplined and hard-working while addressing and removing those obstacles.  The end result is the use of negativity to identify your weaknesses so that you can correct them before your opponent can exploit them.  And his suggestions are relevant whether your opponent is a basketball team or the pitfalls of life.  His suggestions are also supported by clinical studies that show a) experts succeed partly because of their ability to identify and correct mistakes before they happen, b) those who are disciplined and cautious live longer, and c) success is dependent upon volition, as well as motivation and ability, all of which are tenets of Coach Knight’s approach.   In the end, both science and Coach Knight’s years of experience support the power of negative thinking, and suggest a potential place for negativity in parenting and mentoring.  

What the research says:

I never played sports growing up, so I’ve always admired athletes who were able to compete at the highest levels. Now that I’m a parent, I also admire coaches who are able to elicit greatness in their players.  Steve Spurrier.  Jon Gruden.  Pat Summit.  Bobby Knight. All great coaches who were able to motivate their players to attain the highest levels of success.  And all coaches who were demanding and challenging. I’m a very competitive person, and I have high expectations for myself and those around me.  So you can imagine my excitement when I heard that Bobby Knight had written a book summarizing his approach to coaching. I couldn’t wait to discover his prescription for success, and was hopeful I could glean some parenting and life advice.  

The book is titled “The Power of Negative Thinking: An unconventional approach to achieving positive results”, and it doesn’t disappoint.  It is a rich mixture of stories from his illustrious coaching career, his favorite motivational quotes, and his approach to coaching.   And it is an interesting look into his strategy of using pessimism to achieve success.  When describing the title of his book, Coach Knight wrote “the Power of Negative Thinking comes into play by recognizing, addressing and removing the obstacles to winning”. That’s a concise synopsis of his coaching approach: hard work, perseverance, pessimism and correcting our deficiencies before our opponents can exploit them. 

If you’ve read this blog before, you know that I use clinical studies and published research to corroborate what we’re being told.  We know that Coach Knight’s system works for him but is there science supporting his approach? I did some searching and found that, indeed, there are clinical studies to support Coach Knight’s advice.  Here I focus on three of the main points in his book.

“Victory favors the team making the fewest mistakes” [7,8,15]. 

This is one of the first quotes in the book, and much of his book (and his general theory of coaching) is based on this concept.  For him, “making the fewest mistakes” is done by identifying weaknesses so that they can be corrected before mistakes happen. 

This is similar to a scientific principal called “falsification”.  Falsification is the act of disproving a hypothesis or theory by searching for refuting evidence, and studies have shown that experts in their fields use falsification to improve their performance.  How?  By thinking as an opponent would, and looking for their own weaknesses.   Cowley and Byrne researched this topic using chess champions.  In their study, “chess players, ranging from regular tournament players to a grand master” were given “six different chessboard positions from halfway through a game” [8, 15].  They found that novices focused on “the countermoves that would benefit their strategy while ignoring those that led to the downfall of their cherished hypotheses”. “Conversely, masters tended to correctly predict when the eventual outcome of a move would weaken their position” [8].  In other words, grand masters looked for flaws and weaknesses in their own strategies, and they tried to correct their mistakes before making them.  Hence, they played according to the adage “Victory favors the team making fewest mistakes”.

“Discipline is recognizing what has to be done, doing it as well as you can do it, and doing it that way all the time” [3,4,5].

Coach Knight talks a great deal about discipline as the key to overcoming weaknesses. He mentions a study by a researcher named Howard S. Friedman who did research on being conscientious. In his studies,  conscientiousness is defined as “the trait of being painstaking and careful”, i.e. being deliberate and cautious.  In these studies, Friedman examined the associations between childhood personality, midlife objective career success, and lifelong mortality risk.  The results proved that people who are conscientious had healthier behaviors, healthier social relationships, more physical health and lived longer [4].  The authors concluded “adults who were thrifty, persistent, detail-oriented, and responsible lived the longest” and “continually productive men and women lived much longer than their more laid-back comrades” [14].  Why, you may ask? “No-worry folks may underestimate or ignore real threats and thereby fail to take precautions or follow medical advice” [14].  In other words, no-worry folks suffered from the pitfalls of not having discipline. The pitfalls of not worrying.  And according to Coach Knight, lacking discipline and cautiousness are also associated with failure in sports.  So the link between cautiousness, pessimism and success are confirmed in both science and life.

“Having the will to win is not enough.  Everyone has that.  What matters is having the will to prepare to win” [1,2]. 

This tenet focuses on volition, which is not just having the desire to succeed, but is the act of using that desire to motivate one’s self into action.  It is not talking about success, but being about success.  And that’s pivotal to Coach Knight’s approach for success; an approach of challenging kids to meet high expectations and relying on his players to have both motivation and volition. 

Clinical studies have also shown the importance of volition to academic success. Calvin Edlund did one of the first studies to examine the relationship between IQ, test scores, and motivation in children [11]. Edlund took low-income 5-7 year olds, gave them an IQ test, and then split them into two groups: one group received M&Ms for every correct answer on a second IQ test, while the other group was simply given the second test.  Amazingly, the group given M&Ms improved their IQ scores by 12 points, while the control group’s scores remained the same.   So kids had the ability to do better on the test, but only did so when motivated with candy. The authors concluded that IQ scores depended on both cognitive ability, as well as the desire to do well on the test.

Several follow-up studies have been done.  For example, Clingman et al. did a follow-up on the Edlund study and concluded that rewards were only influential for kids with low IQ scores initially [2].  This raises the question of whether the low-IQ children did poorly not because they had less ability, but because they weren’t motivated to do well the first time? Similarly, Segal et al. used a simple coding test taken to show that scores were highly correlated with test-taking motivation [1], not cognitive ability.  The authors concluded that “test-taking motivation itself correlates with personality traits like conscientiousness”[1].  “Some individuals do not try their best when no performance-based incentives are provided, while others do” [1].  And this study was conducted in adults, not children.

So what separates those who succeed from those who do not? Ability may be one factor.  But volition, or the act of applying your abilities to do the work required, may be just as important.  Without volition, ability and desire aren’t enough.

What does this all mean?

Ultimately, Bobby Knight’s coaching approach is one of using negativity to produce a positive outcome.  He uses a glass-half-empty mentality to help his players recognize obstacles, and then expects his players to be disciplined and hard-working to address and remove those obstacles before their opponents can exploit them.  This mentality has not only led to a successful basketball career, but has also been supported by clinical research that shows a) experts succeed partly because of their ability to identify and correct mistakes before they happen, b) those who are disciplined and conscientious live longer, and c) success is dependent upon volition, as well as motivation and ability.   In the end, both science and Coach Knight’s years of experience support the power of negative thinking, and suggest a potential place for negativity in parenting and mentoring. 

And I like Coach Knight even more now than I did before reading his book.

References:

1.     Working When No One is Watching: Motivation, Test Scores, and Economic Success. Segal, Carmit. Management Science, 58(8), 2012, pp. 1438-1457

2.     The effects of primary reward on the I.Q. performance of grade-school children as a function of initial I.Q. level. Clingman J, Fowler RL. J Appl Behav Anal. 1976 Spring;9(1):19-23.

3.     Do conscientious individuals live longer? A quantitative review. Kern ML, Friedman HS. Health Psychol. 2008 Sep;27(5):505-12.

4.     A New Life-Span Approach to Conscientiousness and Health: Combining the Pieces of the Causal Puzzle. Friedman HS, Kern ML, Hampson SE, Duckworth AL. Dev Psychol. 2012 Oct 22.

5.     Conscientiousness, career success, and longevity: a lifespan analysis. Kern ML, Friedman HS, Martin LR, Reynolds CA, Luong G. Ann Behav Med. 2009 Apr;37(2):154-63.

6.     When falsification is the only path to truth. Cowley, M., & Byrne, R. M. J. (2005). Paper presented at the Twenty-Seventh Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, Stresa, Italy.

7.     How good players falsify their own winning theorems.  David Norwood. Published August 21, 2004 in The Telegraph.

8.     Science secret of grand masters revealed: Chess experts gain the edge over opponents by falsifying their own ideas. Mark Peplow.  Published August 6, 2004 in Nature. 

9.     Domain and facet personality predictors of all-cause mortality among Medicare patients aged 65 to 100. Weiss A, Costa PT Jr. Psychosom Med. 2005 Sep-Oct;67(5):724-33.

10. The Power of Negative Thinking: An unconventional approach to achieving positive results.  Bob Knight and Bob Hammel.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, published in 2013.

11. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.  Paul Tough.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, published in 2012.

12. The effect on the test behavior of children, as reflected in the I.Q. scores, when reinforced after each correct response. Edlund CV. J Appl Behav Anal. 1972 Fall;5(3):317-9.

13. Role of test motivation in intelligence testing. Duckworth AL, Quinn PD, Lynam DR, Loeber R, Stouthamer-Loeber M. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 May 10;108(19):7716-20.

14. The secrets to a long life. Friedman, H.S. & Martin, L.R. (2011). Parade, Feb. 20, 2011, pp. 8-11.

15. Cowley, M., & Byrne, R. M. J. (2004). Chess Masters’ Hypothesis Testing. Proceedings of the Twenty-sixth Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 250-255).