Emotional contagion is defined by Wikipedia as “the phenomenon of having one person’s emotions and related behaviors directly trigger emotions and behaviors in other people.”
Emotional Contagion’s Effect on Basketball.
I first came across the meaning of emotional contagion while listening to a podcast called WorkLife with Adam Grant. I immediately thought of Brad Stevens, the current head coach of the Boston Celtics, and previous head coach of Butler University. Whenever watching his teams play, I always kept my eye on his body language, facial expressions, and overall behavior. I could never tell if his teams were up 20 points or down 20 points. I’m watching the basketball game, but I’m watching Brad Stevens closely on the sideline. I’m realizing that his emotional contagion is having a positive effect on his team’s mental state and performance on the court.
In Season 1, Episode 3 of WorkLife with Adam Grant, Sigal Barsade, who specializes in contagion and culture explains further. She says, “We literally mimic the non-verbal and facial expressions of the people around us.” That is what she calls behavioral mimicry.
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Coach Brad Stevens
Brad Stevens is one of the best at being aware of his own mood and how his emotions may affect others. This YouTube video of Brad Stevens coaching at Butler University shows a great example of how he maintains emotional evenness during both a success and during a failure. His calm demeanor on the sidelines allowed him to make a critical decision to substitute in another player, which impacted the game on the next play. In addition to having that “next play” mentality, his players also stayed calm because their leader was calm. Again, behavioral mimicry!
Seconds later, his team won in dramatic fashion, and Brad showed zero emotion. This time, he was thinking of others and how it would affect them. He realized there was another team on the other end that just lost a heartbreaking game. He won with humility and class.
Witnessing Emotional Contagion Firsthand.
This is such an exciting time of year for Philadelphia High School Basketball. On Thursday, February 21, 2019, the final four teams of the Philadelphia Catholic League head to the Palestra to battle it out in the Semi-Finals. The top two will then go to the Championship on Monday, February 25, 2019. (For an insightful preview on this year’s PCL’s semi-finals – check out Post and Pivot Podcast’s latest episode: Palestra Preview & Will Chavis Interview.)
I wanted to share this story of emotional contagion now, because it reminds me of my own personal experience in the championship two years ago…
On Monday, February 27, 2017, I was able to witness emotional contagion firsthand from John Mosco, our leader and Head Coach of Archbishop Wood Boys Basketball. I saw this emotional contagion in action during halftime of the PCL Championship. Coach Mosco led the team to their first ever PCL championship game in school history. In addition, we were facing Neumann Goretti, where Coach Mosco previously coached for 18 seasons. He was competing against his good friend, Coach Arrigale, who he had been an assistant coach to all those years.
In front of 9,000 fans at the Palestra, Archbishop Wood was down 31-18 at the half. I have been an assistant with Coach Mosco for a couple of years. I’ve seen him deliver some pretty harsh halftime speeches in the past because he expects the best effort out of his players. This time was extremely different. We walked into the locker room and it was quiet. The players were sitting down and the coaching staff was standing around the perimeter of the locker room. Everyone was staring at the guy up front, Coach Mosco.
Coach Mosco was calm, he had a smirk, and said, “Everybody relax. We’re going to win this game. We’re getting good shots…keep taking them. They will fall in the second half. Let’s keep sharing the ball and keep shooting.” We didn’t make any adjustments. There were no harsh words. Coach Mosco simply instilled confidence in his players.
We opened the 3rd quarter by making back-to-back 3 pointers and went on a 13-5 run. We outscored Neumann Goretti 25-10 in the 3rd quarter and went on to win the PCL Championship. The final score was 65-58. As the final horn went off and our bench was celebrating our first Philadelphia Catholic League Championship, Coach Mosco’s first reaction was to give his friend and opposing coach, Carl Arrigale, a hug. Just like Brad Stevens, Coach Mosco had enough self-awareness to embrace that celebration with humility and unselfishness.
Behavioral Mimicry at its Best.
After the celebration ended and it was time to go home, I couldn’t stop thinking about Coach Mosco’s demeanor at halftime. His emotional contagion at halftime kept the players and coaching staff loose in a stressful environment. His leadership at halftime won us the game. Our players came out of the locker room with confidence in themselves, and felt the support from their leader.
Coach Mosco didn’t deliver some heroic speech, change personnel, or stray away from what led him to the championship. He simply trusted his players, trusted his experience as a coach, and trusted his strategy. It was more of his facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language that stays with me today.
These expressions, tones, and body language were directly referred to the players through behavioral mimicry. This article from the Bucks County Courier Times, ‘Archbishop Wood captures first boys basketball Philadelphia Catholic League Title,‘ really says it best when they explain how then-player Collin Gillespie (who now plays Division 1 Basketball for Villanova University), kept the same facial expression throughout the entire game, even at the point where Wood won the game. Jarrad Saffren, author of the article, states, “Finally, only after he climbed the ladder to cut off the last piece of net from the rim, only after he held it up with his coach for the cameras to see, did he finally crack a half-smile.” This was behavioral mimicry at its best. It was absolutely incredible to see how Coach Mosco’s emotions and behaviors directly triggered emotions and behaviors in his players.
The Best Leaders have Emotional Contagion Regardless of Circumstance.
In addition to learning great leadership qualities as a coach, I learned that the best leaders have emotional contagion regardless of the circumstance or situation at hand. During that entire 2017 championship run, Coach Mosco’s wife, Diane, was very sick. She had a bone marrow cancer called Myelodysplastic Syndrome. Their two children were in 7th and 8th grade at the time. I watched Coach Mosco the the entire season go from work, to the hospital, to practice, and back to the hospital. Somewhere during that time, he was also picking his kids up from school, driving them to their practices, doing laundry, paying bills, and trying to keep his house in order. He had a full plate, but his priorities never wavered. He was a father and a husband first, and a high school basketball coach second.
We learned from that championship season that Coach Mosco was all about other people. We had plenty of phone calls while he was in the hospital with his wife; he was very optimistic. Leaning on his assistants, family, friends, and prayer got him through this stretch. We discussed the difficult, but honest conversations he had with his sons while their mother was hospitalized, and how they were dealing with the situation. Throughout every obstacle that Coach Mosco faced during that 2017 season, he was a fearless leader who still made it all about his family and his team.
On September 19, 2017, Diane Mosco lost her battle with cancer and passed away at the age of 52. To witness someone lose their wife and see two teenage boys lose their mother was devastating. To witness how Coach Mosco and his sons deal with this situation and continue to live this new life has been inspiring and uplifting to me. I know his boys are in good hands, and I’m fortunate enough to coach them currently. I get to see their progression into young men firsthand, and it is incredible to watch.
Applying Emotional Contagion at Work and Home.
I try to adopt this approach and philosophy of emotional contagion at work and home. I approach winning and losing streaks completely differently now than I would have 10 years ago as a young manager. For example, when things are going really well at work in things such as sales, net profits, employee morale, or customer satisfaction, I find myself coaching harder and motivating more. When things at work are stressful, either internally or externally, I attempt to mellow out a bit. I try to be more supportive and understanding to the situation. I try to be extremely optimistic and carry a positive attitude throughout the day. In addition, I maintain the same high energy level.
It’s not just what I say when others are in front of me. I am also constantly aware of my body language, facial expressions and my overall demeanor. I have to coach myself in my head that “Calm heads prevail,” or “I’m always on stage,” or “Palestra Speech.” Those types of short sayings help me protect myself from reverting back to the 23-year old manager I was at the beginning of my career. Back then, I would walk fast with an intense look. I would ultimately tighten up to the point where my decision making was poor. I was reactive and impulsive. Now I am thoughtful, understanding, and plan ahead for every situation.
So today, I want others to mimic my behavior and feel confident about the outcome. This way of coaching and leading in business has been extremely effective to me. And it is even more rewarding to see it through the others side.
The most valuable lesson I learned about emotional contagion is that it can be used at home. When we encounter stressful days or a tough loss in a game, it is easy to bring that poor attitude back home. Well not anymore! Now that you understand the definition of emotional contagion, you can execute it!
I hope that all coaches, business leaders, and even parents can learn something from this leadership style. I know I did. Thank you, Coach Mosco!
Have you witnessed emotional contagion before? Another great coach I’ve seen with emotional contagion is Coach Mike Krzyzewski, head basketball coach of Duke University. Check out this clip of Coach K, where he discusses a game against Louisville where they were down 16 points with less than 7 minutes to go. (Special thanks to Alan Stein, Jr. for posting the clip on LinkedIn, which is where I originally saw it!) Who else do you know with great emotional contagion? Comment below or contact me and let me know!