I coach my 7-year-old daughter’s soccer team. It’s been a tough Spring season so far: they lost the first three games by 1 goal margins. But this week they won something like 15-1.
I noticed something interesting. In all of the close games the girls were emotionally drained. By the end of the game they didn’t have much energy left. Many of them asked to be rotated out.
But this week nobody asked to be rotated out. In fact this week they had the minimum number of players so each of them played the whole game and still nobody complained of being tired. Obviously they were having fun running up the score but they didn’t get tired.
Incentives are about getting players to want conditions to improve. So incentives necessarily make them less happy about where they are now. Feeling good about winning means feeling bad about not winning. That’s the motivation.
But encouragement is about being happy about where you are now. And it has real effects: it energizes you. You don’t get tired so fast when you are having fun.
There is a clear conflict between incentives and encouragement. At the same time incentives motivate you to win, they discourage you because you are losing. A coach who fails to recognize this is making a big mistake.
And I am not giving a touchy-feely speech about “it’s not whether you win or lose…” I am saying that a cold-hearted coach who only cares about winning should, at the margin, put less weight on incentives to win.
If my daughter’s team loved losing, is it possible they would lose less often? Probably not. But that’s because the love of losing would give them an incentive to lose. They would be discouraged when they win but that would only help them to start losing. (Unless the opposing coach used equally insane incentives.)
Nevertheless, to love winning by 10 goals is a waste of incentive and is therefore a pure cost in terms of its effect on encouragement when the game is close. Think of it this way: you have a fixed budget of encouragement to spread across all states of the game. If you make your team happy about winning by 10 goals, that directly subtracts from their happiness about winning by only 1 goal.
My guess is that, against a typically incentivized opponent, the optimal incentive scheme is pretty flat over a broad range. That range might even include losing by one goal. Because when the team is losing by one goal, the positive attitude of being in the first-best equivalence class will keep them energized through the rest of the game and that’s a huge advantage.