Industry Insights

The Six Habits of Highly Influential People: Applying Effective Persuasion in Youth Sports

By Jamie Hancock
December 4, 2019
6 min

How do you get kids to do something you want them to do? This age-old question has plagued the minds of parents, guardians, and educators around the world for quite some time now. Yes, kids can be stubborn and uncooperative—but let’s be honest, we all can be.


When it comes to youth sports, though, there is another party you must consider: parents, a.k.a. the actual decision makers.


In order to influence people in general, you first need to understand how they make decisions. Then, you can use this knowledge to lead them down a specific path, and eventually manipulate them into doing something.


While the word manipulate typically has a negative connotation, in this case, we refer to manipulation in terms of getting someone to do something that is in their best interest. For young impressionable minds, it means encouraging behaviors that are conducive to their development and can shape them into well-rounded people.


And thus, in the context of youth sports, having the ability to influence both kids and parents is paramount.


According to Gary Belsky, one of our keynote speakers at the NextUp 2019 Conference, influential people—in business, sport, or elsewhere—demonstrate six distinct habits. He refers to these habits as the six keys of effective persuasion


As the former Editor-in-Chief of ESPN The Magazine and, Belsky has certainly made his fair share of convincing arguments in a sports setting. He has also written and edited several books (like this one), and speaks frequently on decision making to business and consumer groups.



In fact, his session almost felt like a lesson in behavioral economics, which largely relies on the work of Israeli psychologists Kahneman and Tversky. If you thought you were here to learn only about sports, think again. Psychology plays a significant role in every industry, and we are seeing sports psychology become more and more prevalent at the youth level.


So, what are the six keys to effective persuasion, and how can you apply them to positively influence the decisions of others in your organization? 


1.   Start Strong


It has been proven that people are more likely to remember the first piece of information they encounter than information presented later on. This tendency is known as the primacy effect, and it is the reason why you should always bring your best evidence first when trying to make a persuasive argument. 


Most people have a short attention span these days. Consequently, there is a limited amount of time during which they are actively listening and engaged. For this reason, journalists are advised to never bury the lede when reporting a news story. Instead, they should introduce the most important and relevant pieces of the story right off the bat to entice the reader.


Youth sports organizers need to approach the messages they send to kids and parents in the same way. For kids, the goal might be to teach an important lesson or technique; for parents, it might be helping them support their child in a way that facilitates better sports experiences.


Regardless of the message, Belsky recommends presenting your strongest idea first to increase the likelihood that your audience will process and retain the information. Then, if you lose their attention later on, it will be less detrimental because you have already gotten your main point across.


2.   Drop Anchor


In addition to starting strong, Belsky encourages people to “drop an anchor” early in their argument. He goes on to explain that the human brain is always looking for a reference point to start from—be it a specific figure, an idea, or a fact. 


This is why manufacturer suggested retail prices are so powerful. To borrow Belsky’s example: if an antique vase lists an MSRP of $1,000, and you buy it at a market for $500, you will feel like you got a 50% discount. Here, $1,000 serves as a reference point that makes $500 seem like a fantastic deal.


You don’t have to say ‘here’s the fact that I want you to know.’ Simply dropping something in lets people know that what you’re talking about matters or they need to at least move off of that spot.


The idea of dropping an anchor can easily be applied in sports by incorporating statistics. Think of the famous Wayne Gretzky quote shown below:



This very obvious statement is less about the 100% and more about encouraging hockey players to shoot the puck whenever they have the opportunity. In addition, the quote comes from Wayne Gretzky, “The Great One.” Dropping his name in an argument would automatically grab the attention of any hockey player, regardless of the generation. 


3.   Signal Trends


Studies show that people are constantly looking for shortcuts or ways to make decision making easier, which often leads to herd bias. The tendency to follow the herd is why we see bull rushes or bear rushes in the stock market, for example. As Belsky explains further:


In general, we are terrified of too much effort in our decision making, and we recognize non-consciously that we don’t know a lot about most things, so we look for signals of what other people are doing.


When trying to persuade someone to do something, he recommends capitalizing on the other people are doing it rhetoric. This can be applied to youth sports in helping kids achieve their goals. If a player wants to get better and reach a certain level (and is willing to put in the effort), their coach should help hold them accountable. In doing so, you might make recommendations for how they can improve—such as attending clinics or summer camps and receiving private coaching.


On the other hand, you might have trouble getting parents to adopt the latest technology that will help provide them and their kids with a better sports experience. In this case, the other people are doing it rhetoric would not only be effective, but also accurate since all of the top youth sports organizations are using team management software.


4.   Instill Ownership


In general, people are more likely to do something if they think it is their idea or if they are invested. This, like many of the other theories referenced by Belsky, has been proven through experimentation. 


He claims that instilling ownership is “a very powerful way to get people to do what you want them to do, which is, in many ways, to get them to think that it’s what they want to do.” Here, the endowment effect comes into play—an emotional bias that causes individuals to irrationally overvalue what they own.


Belsky mentions the idea of assigning youth sports parents responsibilities that are independent of their children. Some leagues give each parent a specific function at games—like mentoring other kids, for instance. While this practice may be implemented to promote cohesion, Belsky also thinks it is a way to foster a sense of ownership.


As a youth sports organizer, you can influence players and parents alike by empowering them to own their role, whatever it may be. In turn, this will create a culture of accountability while underscoring your organization’s values


5.   Limit Choices


We think we want choices, but do we really? Psychologists say the answer is no. As Belsky states, “what [we] want is the illusion of choice and a trusted screener.” A trusted screener gives people peace of mind because they know that someone evaluated potential options.   


Belsky says to keep things simple by presenting people with a maximum of three choices. He claims that if you structure these three choices correctly—placing the option that you want people to select in the middle—then they will more often than not choose it. This phenomenon is known as extremeness aversion.


In youth sports, many parents want flexible payment options. By strategically sandwiching the different choices when presenting them to parents, you can force a desired result (e.g., getting them to set up a monthly Auto Pay plan) while also providing flexibility.


Ultimately, this can lead to an increase in payment collection and growth for your organization—not to mention you will keep parents happy.


6.   Imply Regret


Regret aversion is the idea that people are often not afraid of bad outcomes, but instead how they will feel after a bad outcome. Another reason why people tend to follow the herd is because even if something does go wrong, at least it will go wrong for everyone else too. 


Previously, a study examining Olympic track and field athletes was conducted to determine their level of satisfaction upon receiving a medal. The athletes were asked to rate their thoughts on their performance, while passersby evaluated the athletes’ reactions and emotions. Psychologists found that the perceived satisfaction levels were consistent with how the athletes actually felt. Interestingly enough, the passersby had no idea where the individual athletes placed.


The bronze medalists appeared to be ecstatic or thrilled; the gold medalists were serene, happy, and pleased; and the silver medalists seemed regretful, concerned, upset, and thoughtful. These observations suggest that the athletes who won silver were consumed by what they could have done to win gold.



Consequently, Belsky tells people to “finish first OR somewhere else—just avoid finishing second” because finishing second will lead to utter disappointment. This tactic can be applied in youth sports as a way to motivate players to perform their best or retain those who might be considering leaving your organization.


It is important to remember, however, that winning ranks low in importance when it comes to determinants of fun for kids. Therefore, coaches and parents who focus too much on winning are likely to miss the mark.