Placebo Effect, Positive Framing, and The Ability to Effectively Impact Your Players

Written By: Gabe Dimock

Is Placebo Effect Real?

At some point, most of us have experienced or at least heard of the Placebo Effect. For those of you who haven’t, the placebo effect is when a positive response is seen after receiving an inactive intervention. For instance, many drug studies include a control group that receives a sugar pill instead of the drug actually being tested. The phenomenon is that the sugar pill group tends to see improvement even though there is seemingly no logical reason for the change. In drug studies, researchers want to minimize the Placebo effect so that they can understand the true effects of the drug being tested.

As coaches and parents on the other hand, we want to maximize the placebo effect so that our players are reaching their fullest potential. Until a few weeks ago, I thought the placebo effect was purely mental and in no way physiological. If someone had told me that it was a good thing to maximize the placebo effect, I would have thought them to be misguided at best and a scam artist at worst. That was until I learned that the placebo effect actually has real physiological effects, meaning when a perceived positive intervention or drill is implemented, endorphins are released by the brain which leads to improved results. This was proven when researchers performed a study in which they sought to elicit the placebo effect in multiple groups but blocked the release of endorphins of one group. The group that had the endorphins blocked, did not exhibit the placebo effect.

So what is the significance of this to baseball performance? Let me start by clarifying what I am not saying. I am not saying that it is unimportant what quality of coaching methodology you employ when it comes to hitting or pitching mechanics. I am saying that it is extremely important that players are completely bought into their system of training in order to see maximal results of that system. Because of this, it is rare to see a player who lacks confidence succeed even if their talent and skills warrant success. Let’s walk through a quick example of how this idea can be practically applied from a coaching perspective. In fact, this is an area where I have made numerous mistakes. We often hear players who feel their swing “click” or “synch up”. When asking what they are feeling, they often respond with something that makes very little logical sense. In the past, I would think that it was my duty to correct them and explain why their response didn’t make sense and provide them with a more logical reason for their swing improvement. This seemed like the right thing to do but anecdotally, those players would generally regress after that conversation. Why did this happen? This is because their belief that what they were feeling, no matter how illogical, was the reason for the swing improvement was powerful! Even though my explanation to the player might have been accurate, it did not maximize the placebo effect and therefore diminished the player’s success.

Positive Framing

Positive framing is a concept that most of us know to be true intuitively. Framing is the concept that the way we say things matters. Positive framing is when you present a technique or drill in terms that make the player feel like it is likely to help them. Negative framing, on the other hand, is when something is presented that makes the player less likely to think that an intervention will have a positive impact. This was shown in a study done by Chad Cook at Duke University as it relates to physical therapy patients. The study was designed so that the exact same treatment was performed by therapists of opposing viewpoints so that one presented the treatment in a more positive light compared to the other therapist. The study showed that the group treated with positive framing showed greater improvement than the negative framing group. Let’s provide another hypothetical example to bring this to life. If I am teaching someone the Baseball Rebellion Rebel’s Rack progression and when introducing it, I explain with excitement that this has been designed to fix specific movement flaws and that this has been shown to work for thousands of students of all ages and that I think that it will work great for them, this is positive framing. It is also true! If I present the Rebel’s Rack progression but lack excitement and say something like, “try this and we’ll see how it goes”, this is negative framing. I am far more likely to get a more beneficial outcome when utilizing positive framing and so are you!

While utilizing research and data-based coaching methodology should be at the top of the priority list for any coach, having the interpersonal skills to know your players, maximize their placebo effect, and frame information in a way that makes it most likely to be effective is vital to optimizing your players’ results on the field.

Thank you for reading and feel free to ask questions in the comments below!