Critical Essay on Sport Psychology in the Film Coach Carter

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Wesleyan University
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Movie review
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Sports psychology deals with the mental and emotional aspects of physical performance. It involves describing, explaining, and predicting attitudes, feelings, and behaviors in an attempt to improve performance. In the film Coach Carter, directed by Thomas Carter, sport psychology is used effectively to enhance the performance of a high school basketball team. However, this improved performance is not limited to the basketball court, it extends into the classroom where the students use goal setting, motivation, concentration, and confidence control, ultimately to become accepted into college, avoiding a life of drugs, gangs, and prison.

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Coach Carter: Sports Psychology in Film

In the film, many sport psychology techniques are used to turn the immature teenagers of the Richmond Oilers basketball team into a group of intelligent, successful young men. The most important technique is goal setting. All good athletes set goals, otherwise, they can spend a long time doing the wrong training, learning the hard way, getting bored, or taking longer than needed to improve. Athletes with goals set themselves targets and a plan to achieve them, their training involves less trial and error and it becomes an effective learning tool. Coach Carter sets his athlete's behavioral goals, eg: they must turn up to practice on time, short-term goals, eg: they must maintain a 2.3-grade average, and long-term goals, eg: graduating high school and being accepted into college. The behavioral and short-term goals are used as stepping stones towards the long-term goal.

SMART Principle Goal Setting in Sport

When setting goals, Coach Carter implements the SMART principle. The goals are specific, straightforward, and emphasize what he wants to happen. Eg: players must wear a tie and jacket on game day. His goals are also measurable, this aspect allows Coach Carter to see his athletes improve, eg: the teachers supply him with student progress reports. Coach Carter's goals are attainable and realistic, setting goals too far out of reach is difficult to commit to. This is why he doesn't ask his players to be at the front of the class when it comes to grades, but simply to sit at the front of the class to maintain focus. Many of the goals Coach Carter sets have a timeframe.

If a timeframe is not set, the commitment is too vague. It tends not to happen because the athlete feels he can start at any time resulting in no urgency to take action. Eg: when Cruze attempts to get back on the team he must complete 2500 push-ups and 1000 suicides by Friday. Coach Carter may also evaluate his team's goals and change his coaching techniques to suit. This is evident when he decides to lock up the gymnasium, forcing the team to improve their grades before returning to the court.

While Coach Carter's use of the SMART principle is very effective for setting and achieving goals, one aspect, that of individuality, could be improved. Coach Carter makes the entire team sign contracts in which the terms are the same for everyone. While a 2.3-grade average may be a perfect challenge for some players, others may benefit more so from aiming towards an average of 2.7. Perhaps Coach Carter could take a lesson from John Howard and put his players on individual contracts.

Sport Psychology Types of Motivation

Extrinsic Motivation

A significant sport psychology technique used is motivation. In the film, Coach Carter implements both extrinsic and negative motivation. Extrinsic motivation is the desire to perform well, being prompted by external or outside forces. Coach Carter asks some attractive young girls if they would go to the library while the boys are learning. This is their reward for studying hard while another extrinsic motivator, the state championship, is the reward for winning basketball games. Extrinsic motivators have pros and cons, they will increase immediate performance but will have a harmful effect on subsequent performance when a reward is not offered. Additionally, when the promise of a reward is broken, there will be an even greater decrease in performance.

Negative Motivation

Negative motivation is also used heavily by Coach Carter. Negative motivation is an incentive through fear of not performing to expectations and the consequences. When the athletes turn up to training late, they run. As well as negative motivation, negative reinforcement is present in the scene where Coach Carter is giving statistical feedback to his athletes. Mr. Worm, you were five and four: five turnovers and four missed free throws. As a result of these errors, Coach Carter decides to add an extra practice session every morning at 6 am to teach his players the fundamentals of the game.

Intrinsic Motivation

One type of motivation left out of Coach Carter's repertoire is intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is the desire to learn and perform well that comes from within an individual. This is a shame because intrinsic motivation has been proven to be the most successful type of motivation when it comes to keeping a commitment. Although intrinsic motivation does come from within an individual, eg: the desire to win a trophy for a grandfather, it can still be inspired by a coach.

Behavior becomes either more or less likely depending on its consequences. The theory is that if you reward behaviors they are more likely to occur again, while punishment is more likely to reduce the chances of that behavior occurring in the future. Coach Carter successfully uses negative motivation, however, positive motivation is rarely used and sports psychology research overwhelmingly supports the use of a predominantly (80-90%) positive approach. (Peak Performance issue 214) That said, the negative approach works very well in this situation as it teaches the athletes to make decisions on their own behalf, after which they must live the consequences. This approach doesn't allow the athletes to be babied, preparing them well for college.

Benefits of Focus and Concentration for Athletes

A significant sport psychology technique used by Coach Carter is concentration. Concentration is the ability to link movement and awareness to the extent that the individual can focus on doing, rather than thinking about doing. Too much thinking can clutter the mind. In basketball, a player can hesitate and lose a good playing opportunity while deciding which option to take. In the film, Coach Carter teaches his players to concentrate on one aspect of the basketball game at a time by calling out keywords. He also adds an anecdote to the words so the players are able to remember more easily what they mean.

These keywords either represent a play or a certain type of defense or offense Coach Carter wants his athletes to implement and concentrate on. An example is Dianne, an ex-girlfriend of his who was always on his case about every little thing. Therefore, Dianne is the keyword for man-to-man pressure defense. The use of keywords such as this is very effective in the movie and in the sport today, as they act as a trigger in the athlete's mind, reminding them to concentrate on what has to be done. However, all of Coach Carter's keywords are women's names, this could get confusing. Perhaps he could use words that are more distinguishable.

Visualization in Sport Psychology

Another sport psychology technique used by Coach Carter is visualization. However, this technique is not used nearly as much as it could be. Visualization is the process of creating a mental image or intention of what an athlete wants to happen or to feel. Grant Hackett, current 1500m freestyle Olympic champion describes how he uses visualization: "I picture myself on the way to success, mentally rehearsing each step in detail. I concentrate on the difficult moments and make each action perfect. I use all my senses to summon and experience this new reality. I see, hear, smell, taste and feel myself in the desired situation. Then I imagine I'm in a situation in which my wish has been fulfilled and I congratulate myself on the success." Coach Carter does not use visualization enough.

Although he tells his team you have to have a vision and asks them where do you see themselves? he doesn't follow these thoughts through in order for them to be effective. So when Junior replies: “ESPN baby, Coach Carter does not ask him how he intends to get there, or ask him to use his senses to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel himself in the desired situation, in the same way, Grant Hackett does.” If Coach Carter did ask these questions, he could work with Junior to set individual goals, in which they devise a plan on how to make Junior a future star of the NBA. If this were done, Junior would then have an intrinsic motivator to help him achieve his goals. Another perfect opportunity for Coach Carter to use visualization is when he says College, that's a viable option for all of you, but you have to perform in the classroom to have that chance. Upon saying this, he should ask his athletes to create mental imagery of playing college basketball, but he fails to do this.

Controlling Confidence in Sport Psychology

An important sport psychology technique used by Coach Carter is controlling confidence. Overconfidence is the confidence that is not based on ability, it may be caused by vanity, ego, or positive thinking and imagery that is not backed up by ability. Wayne Bennett, coach of the Brisbane Broncos Rugby League team, describes overconfidence in his book Don't Die With the Music In You as dangerous. He says it can set a footballer up for serious failure, devastating the required self-confidence he should possess. Like Wayne Bennett, Coach Carter knows it's important to stop overconfidence in its tracks. When Coach Carter witnesses his team getting to a confidant, he immediately follows through with negative reinforcement: since when is winning not enough, you owe me 500 push-ups a piece.

Another example of Coach Carter bringing the confidence levels of his athletes down is when he says to Timo Cruze: You know your task is impossible: give up, go home. Coach Carter's methods of controlling confidence are excellent. During a training session, he replicates the actions of his players: see that bow, I tied that! I tied that! This shows them how silly and unnecessary it really is. Also, by getting to the player's overconfidence early they do not take a win for granted over players who are smaller, weaker, or less skilled than they are. Even more importantly, they do not lose to an easy opponent, and the self-confidence they should possess, described by Wayne Bennett remains.


The sport psychology techniques, goal setting, motivation, concentration, and confidence control, used by Coach Carter in the film sufficiently improve the performance of the Richmond Oilers Basketball team both on and off the court. There are more techniques, however, such as individual goals, visualization, and intrinsic motivation that could have been used and others that could have been used more effectively. Although the young men in this film are troubled, sport psychology is not just for problem athletes or problem students. Sports psychology and its training are for anyone who wants to improve his or her performance, in any arena.

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