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Subconscious Coaching

The Case of "Clever Hans" - The Horse Who Could Count

How does a coach determine if an athlete is independent? How do we know if the athlete really took in the information, or if they were simply following instructions from the coach? The 'Case of Clever Hans' can give coaches a great example of how easy it is to overestimate an athlete’s ability despite perceived success in a skill or competition.

'Hans' was a horse that belonged to Herr Wilhelm von Osten, a German math teacher and amateur horse trainer. He thought that he could teach Hans how to add basic math. He would ask "Clever Hans" to add 4 + 7, for example ,and Hans would tap his hoof on the ground 11 times. Von Osten travelled far and wide, demonstrating Hans’ ability to do math and other basic tasks, such as telling time and dates. Even psychologists thought he had found a way to teach Hans how to do math.

However, soon after one researcher had his doubts. Researcher, Oskar Pfungst decided to try blocking Hans’s vision by putting blinders on that only allowed Hans to see right in front of them. When Hans did not have the blinders on he would get the answer right 89% of the time which is quite impressive, just like an athlete who hits 89% of their vaults over a competitive season.

However, when Oskar put the blinders on Hans, his success rate went down to only 6%! Whooaaa! That is a big difference? So what caused this drastic decrease in performance?

Based on Oskar’s studies of Hans, he found that Hans was not actually doing math, but was simply reading the body language of who asked the question. Hans was watching micro-expressions that were subconscious to Von Osten and other third party questioners. As Von Osten heard the taps for example, his excitement would increase and would send subconscious signals to Hans that told him “he was getting closer’ to the right answer. Von Osten would jump with glee as he reached the answer or turn his back to address the crowd and this would give Hans the signal to stop tapping his hoof.

So what does this mean for a coach? It actually means a few things:

  • It is very easy to assume the cues a coach gives make the difference but a lot of coaching is actually done subconsciously through body language and micro expressions we are blind to most of the time. If a coach wants to know if they have a Clever Hans effect going on with an athlete, put the ‘blinders’ on and give the athlete a challenge that you know you have not specifically taught them but uses similar progressions to other skills that you have taught them. If they can transfer the learning process to a new skill without the coach telling them how to do the skill it shows they understand more than just basic instructions. It means they actually are ‘doing math.’ It means they comprehend the underlying rationality for developing acrobatics. All coaches have those athletes that as soon as they complete a skill, no matter how good or bad it was, quickly look at the coach and look for approval. This is the Clever Hans Effect. If you notice this happening you should, slowly but surely, add in more independent thought questions that actively ask the athlete what they are thinking about and to reflect on their skills compared to ‘following the leader’ so to speak.

  • It also means that a coach needs to be aware of these micro-expressions. Micro-expressions are not just ‘in the moment,’ they can be shown subconsciously to athletes that stem from an experience that happened to the coach before they even stepped into the gym. You have to leave your baggage at the door! It's easy to just waltz on in to the gym every time as if it's just another day. I suggest you make a mental note every time you get to the gym by pausing for a quick second and reminding yourself that you are “On.” You have to try to control your body expressions as much as possible and simply be conscious of them. Think of yourself as a salesperson who is selling education to your customers.

So to conclude, it is hard to know what exactly is making your athlete succeed. It could be your amazing technical drills or it could be your athlete simply following your cues that you didn’t even know you were doing. Be aware of the overall impression you are giving your athletes, it affects their skills much more than you may think.

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