In the movie A league of Their Own Tom Hanks delivered one of the funniest lines in one of the movie’s funniest scenes. As a washed up baseball coach who was hired to coach an all-female professional team, Hanks was dumbfounded when, after yelling at one of his players for a bad play, she began to cry. It was then that Hanks incredulously responded, “There’s no crying in baseball!” If only it were true. Unfortunately, since there is yelling in baseball, there is also crying in baseball as there is in most sports, especially where kids are involved. In fact, in any situation where yelling and other coercive methods are confused with attempts to motivate, the result is usually sadness, disappointment and low self esteem. But the impact isn’t limited to kids. Whether the recipient of such misguided “motivation” is a ten-year old Little Leaguer or a 35-year-old business employee, the psychological reaction is essentially the same.
So why is yelling, threatening, intimidating and other generally Nasty behavior such a poor approach to motivating others? Well much of the answer can be found in the complex neurochemistry of the brain. Simply stated: the human brain just doesn’t like getting yelled at.
The Prefrontal Who?
Through advances in brain imaging technology scientists have been able to track brain development and function from birth through adulthood. In doing so they’ve learned a lot about the capacity of the human brain during various ages. It’s been established that the brain does not reach full development at least until a person is well into their 20′s. And they’ve shown that while children are going through adolescence and puberty, their brains are not only growing, but actually experiencing some of the most significant neurological transformation since early prenatal stages. Perhaps most importantly, they’ve also discovered that the last part of a child’s brain to develop is the prefrontal cortex; that’s the part of the brain that controls so-called “executive function” which includes elements like judgment, processing complex circumstances, assessing task difficulty and connecting the dots between inputs and outcomes. In other words, before the late teen years, kids just don’t have the developmental capacity for most of these functions. The auto insurance industry may have been first to appreciate this scientific fact. Just try to insure any driver in your family under the age of 25 and see what happens to your rates. Insurance companies have statiscally validated the lack of fully developed judgment in teens and young adults. And while my teenage sons believe the insurance companies are practicing age discrimination, I’ve tried to explain that they are, in fact, actually practicing prefrontal cortex discrimination.
Any teacher or coach who understands this simple brain biology will have much greater success in their dealings with young people. Let’s use an example from the ball fields. In the absence of significant executive function capabilities, little Jimmy - the 10-year-old 2nd baseman – has no ability to judge the relative difficulty of catching a ground ball as it moves rapidly towards him along a bumpy dirt or grass surface. Measured in pure physics, the task of trapping the ball in Jimmy’s glove is relatively challenging, requiring a perfect orchestration of mind-body connections and hand-eye coordination that only comes from multiple repetitions, confidence building, and is likely enhanced by a genetic predisposition to building such motor skills. But measured in terms of Jimmy’s perspective – that’s Jimmy, the kid with the under-developed prefrontal cortex – the task is clearly a do-or-die situation, with an outcome whose success or failure has no mitigating circumstances; at least none that little Jimmy is able to process.
In the absence of that deep executive function, little Jimmy defaults to the only known point of reference that any kid his age has, a comparison against his peers. While Jimmy can’t comprehend task difficulty and other circumstantial parameters for catching – or missing – the ground ball, he can comprehend that little Johnny always seems to catch the ground ball while he himself seems to miss it quite often. With no other information for Jimmy’s brain to go on, Jimmy has no choice but to become dismayed and discouraged, and (all too often) develop a low self esteem. Parents and coaches who fail to recognize this prefrontal cortex connection might dismiss Jimmy’s reaction as a lack of effort or interest. In an attempt to “motivate” Jimmy they might scold or yell at him to try harder. But Jimmy’s young brain will react in a way that says, “Are you crazy? Why should I try harder at something I’ll never be any good at?” And while he is likely wrong about his own prospects for improvement, he would draw no other conclusion because Jimmy can’t yet connect the dots between task difficulty and his ability to affect outcomes. Being yelled at only reinforces his position.
Amygdalae – What?
As little Jimmy becomes big Jimmy and enters adulthood, the good news is that he develops his full range of cognitive abilities as it relates to executive function. (The other good news is that while Jimmy never played baseball beyond 12 years of age, even little Johnny quit playing after freshman year in high school to take up golf, so there’s no need for any bitterness stemming from Little League.) But the bad news is that now big Jimmy has an “old school” baby-boomer-aged supervisor at work who has little patience for the care-free approach of his twenty-something subordinates like big Jimmy; and this supervisor has no qualms about regularly unleashing some coercive words of “encouragement” towards Jimmy and his young peers. And while Jimmy now has a respectable-sized prefrontal cortex to help him put this unpleasant treatment into perspective, the other bad news is that he – like the rest of us – still has a healthy pair of amygdalae in his brain.
The amygdalae are the parts of the brain involved with our emotional “fight or flight” mechanism and help us store threatening and unpleasant activities in our memories for future reference. So every time Mr. Nasty Old School barks an insult to Jimmy about an error in his latest report, this region of the brain has an instant chemical reaction, sending a variety of natural defense mechanisms into action. In medical terms Jimmy’s heart rate and respiration increase, his body releases stress hormones and his amygdalae file away the incident for future defensive reactions. In Jimmy’s terms, he just feels angry, anxious and stressed, and will harbor resentment about such treatment in his future dealings with his boss. These are not the elements of a strong motivational influence for Jimmy, or for anyone.
In the long evolutionary lifespan of the human brain, the prefrontal cortex is the most recently developed region of the brain; a relative baby at just 2 million years old. Scientists believe we still have a long way to go until our prefrontal cortex develops a good working relationship with our more primitive amygdalae. In the meantime we have to work with the brains we have, and we can start by acknowledging the differences between the brains of a 10-year-old and a 30-year-old. Then we can realize that young and old brains alike have at least one thing in common; they both hate being yelled at. With all that in mind, perhaps we can hope for a slightly different Tom Hanks quote, something like: “there’s no yelling in baseball,” or any place else, for that matter.