Archive for February, 2011

Equity Theory and the Pittsburgh Steelers

February 28, 2011

I must admit to being a big fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL. Sadly they didn’t win Superbowl XLV. Watching a bunch of documentaries on their history and championships, I stumbled on a bizarre quote from their 4-time superbowl winning quarterback, Terry Bradshaw.

Bradshaw could easily described as a “stud athlete”. He could be brilliant but erratic. During one practice scrimmage, defensive end Dwight White knocked off Bradshaw’s helmet. Angry, Bradshaw yelled at White:

“You may lose with me, but you’re never going to win without me”

I’m guessing it was this sort of reasoning that kept Brendan Fevola on football rosters despite his off-field indiscretions until recently, (however, David Parkin once stated publicly that Carlton would never win a premiership so long as Fevola was at the club). As a coach, you would prefer to think that every player is replaceable, but the reality is that’s simply not the case, and you do have to treat players differently.

In any sport, it’s not uncommon to see an ordinary player getting substituted if they make a number of mistakes, but a stud player being left on for making the same number of mistakes (or sometimes even more mistakes). If you’re losing and your best player is playing badly, sometimes the only thing you can do is wait for them to come back into form. In professional sport, this reasoning seems to apply to both performance and behaviour.

As a player, Steelers’ Superbowl XL winning coach, Bill Cowher was on the other end of the spectrum, describing himself as a “bubble player” – the players who work the hardest but still get cut (Cowher had a brief playing career playing on special teams). An experience i can definitely identify with when i played.

Where this is interesting to me is how it affects the motivation of the rest of the team. Equity theory, suggests that people who receive different outcomes from the same inputs as their peers can become distressed. It sucks sitting on the bench while the showpony player gets to start and stay on when their performance is as bad as yours.

The caveat being that equity theory only applies when the individual can find a suitable peer to compare themselves to. As unpleasant as it is, at some point you have to confront the fact that not all of your teammates are your peers. Not all players can do this and find peace in it. Ultimately, it’s the coaches job to manage the athletes and their expectations.

Hugh McCutcheon said it best a few months ago when interviewed on The Net Live:

“We’re not going to treat people the same. People are different, we want to respect everyone, we want everyone to reach their full potential, we hope that they will all be Olympic champions and be on the team but the reality is not everyone will be. Now what that means of course, in day-to-day behaviour, is that we tolerate some behaviour from athletes that we wouldn’t from others and that’s a function of who they are and what we’re trying to find out and where they’re at. That can be perceived as a double standard and I understand that perception but ultimately the idea that we’re all going to do the same, and be the same and get treated the same, is not the way to do it.”

It sounds enlightened when he puts it that way, but definitely easier said than done.