In many ways, the bulletin board is a true dinosaur of communication. There are literally dozens of more effective and efficient ways of letting people know something than by pinning a piece of paper to a flat sheet of cork.
There’s Facebook, instagram, any number of group messaging systems, not to mention digital signage, scrolling boards – really, the list is endless. If you want to let a group of people know a piece of information – like when a band is playing, or where you can sign up for group swimming lessons, there are countless means of doing so that are far better than the antiquated bulletin board, all of which do not require push pins. Which is why your average office building of YMCA or DMV or even coffee shop is more digital than paper.
That said, there’s one place where the bulletin board still seems to reign supreme. That’s in the sports world, where coaches use bulletin boards as a key strategic tool. In fact, if you listen to enough coaches – especially football coaches – you’d imagine the bulletin board is a, if not the central instrument in defeating opponents in important games. Now, it’s not because that’s where coaches post strategy, or game plans, or even something as simple as, say, travel schedules. The bulletin board is used exclusively for what coaches and players call, wait for it, bulletin board material.
For the uninitiated, bulletin board material is something that will motivate your team to play spectacularly, better than you possibly could have otherwise. That’s because bulletin board material is something someone said that somehow insults or marginalizes or underestimates your potential. It more often than not comes from the opponent you’re about to play. Which, according to the bulletin board theory of sports, and yes I just coined that phrase, makes you enraged to prove them wrong. That’s the theory at least, where one team uses an insulting comment from the other team to make them win.
We had two such examples of bulletin board material on New Year’s Day, both for high profile college football games. The first came in the Sugar Bowl between Clemson and Alabama. Apparently, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney voted Alabama fifth, not fourth, in the final coaches poll of the season. Which apparently meant that he thought Ohio State, not Alabama, deserved to be the final team in the College Football Playoffs. Which Alabama safety Tony Brown said gave his team the ammunition they needed to dominate Clemson in Monday’s game, where the Crimson Tide made the top ranked Tigers look like a JV squad. So, I suppose bulletin board material worked.
In the other case, UCF running back Adrian Killins gave Auburn bulletin board material when he said that Auburn hadn’t seen any speed like UCF, which came as a considerable insult to a team that hailed from the powerful Southeastern Athletic Conference. This apparently would give Auburn the jolt they needed to avoid an upset in the Peach Bowl by the upstart Knights. It didn’t, as UCF completed their undefeated season on the backs of a seven-point win. So, I suppose bulletin board material is .500 on New Year’s Day.
A lot of what’s termed bulletin board material seems largely manufactured at best, insults that just aren’t insults. Some coaches specialize in that ethos – an us against the world approach. They’ll say things like, “no one thinks we can win,” even when everyone seems to think they will. Which seems to make other coaches really timid the week before a big game, and tell their players not to give the other team any bulletin board material. Which is also why player and coach interviews on game week tend to be more positive and complimentary than a Joel Osteen sermon.
Which leads us to the question, does bulletin board material work? In other words, can words make you a better football, or basketball, or whatever team? The evidence seems inconclusive, starting with New Year’s Day. Certainly, motivation is a big part of athletic performance. Just ask anyone who played with JaMarcus Russell.
But to suggest that you need a manufactured wounded self-concept to want to perform seems both shortsighted and small-minded. If Alabama football players didn’t want to beat Clemson because they wanted to play for the national championship, or because they worked for like 50 hours a week for the past 15 years of their life for that moment, then I just can’t see how proving that a coach got your team one spot wrong on a poll ballot would be the thing that does. I think bulleting board material is the small talk that gets players and coaches through the motions of any game week, days and hours between the Saturdays or Sundays, when the side show of things like bulletin boards are lost in the intensity of the moment.
Is sport mental? Of course. But it’s not so nearly personal, not at that level, where talent and effort are far more essential than vendetta.
Which means perhaps it’s time to retire the antiquated bulletin board in the locker room. Or at least make space for a digital flat screen.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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