Coaching Today

Motivation and Young Athletes MH 

By Mike Anson

Lou Holtz once said, “Motivation is simple – you eliminate those who are not motivated.” If it were that simple for coaches to just “eliminate” those who are under-motivated. Perhaps that is a viable and even necessary option in some circumstances, but not for most situations encountered in high school sports on a daily basis.

The seeds of motivation can come from a variety of sources.

Dan O’Brien, Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon, discovered motivation through adversity.

“When I didn’t make the opening height for the pole vault in the 1992 Olympic Trials, there was no doubt in my mind I was not going to the Olympics,” O’Brien said. “Sure I was upset, but I dealt with it and quickly moved on. That event set the pace for the next four years of my training. I was driven. I knew I could be the best. I surrounded myself with people who shared that same vision. I wrote my goals down on paper so I could see them every day.”

Only six weeks after the Olympic Trials, O’Brien shattered the world record in the decathlon at the Deca Star Meet in Tolance, France. He went on to become the 1996 Olympic Decathlon champion in Atlanta. Adversity inspired him.

Coaches are always learning and seeking ways to help athletes reach their potential, both as individuals and part of something bigger than themselves – the school and team. Whether insufficient motivation comes from a lack of desire, absence of a solid work ethic, enabling of quitting in past years or a combination of things, coaches are always trying to find answers and workable solutions.

Everyone gets tired and complains to some extent, including athletes. A certain amount of venting can be therapeutic, within reason; however, drowning in a sea of self-imposed despair and hopelessness is another matter. This can be thoroughly self-defeating and can spread to the rest of the team. (And that should certainly not be tolerated.)

Vince Lombardi noted that quitting can easily become a life-long habit. While coaches should discourage giving up and instead foster perseverance, they cannot always force their will on others nor expect that approach to be a particularly effective, lasting solution. At the end of the day motivation is self-determined or internalized.

In some cases, an aspiring athlete will realize a certain sport is just not for him. Many world-class athletes actually began their careers in another sport before realizing their strengths were elsewhere. Quitting should not be indulged after the initial few weeks of “trying out” a sport. Coaches should make clear to athletes that once a certain date is passed, they are either in or out.

Most of the legendary coaches were not particularly accepting of unmotivated athletes. When Steve Prefontaine was feeling sorry for himself and considered ending his running career after a hard-fought but eventually disappointing fourth- place finish in the Olympic 5000 meters, running coach Bill Bowerman suggested, “If you’re gonna run, be at the track and I’ll give you the workouts; or if you’re gonna stop running, then do that. You decide. I can’t coach desire.”

Sports psychologist Dr. JoAnn Dahlkoetter, author of Your Performing Edge, says, “The drive must come from within, regardless of whether you’re a novice, a serious athlete or competing at the elite level. The good news is that building and maintaining a high level of self-motivation is a learned skill that anyone can acquire.”

So how do we do that?
According to Matthew Syed in Bounce, there must first be a spark followed by a growth mind-set. Too often we see the initial passion of the spark that ends up fizzling and frustrated over time.

Shaquille O’Neill went through a period of discouragement at a post-high school basketball camp, competing against the best high school players in the country. One day when he got home, O’Neal told his mother he was having doubts about his future in the sport. She responded by telling him to try harder, but O’Neal was having none of that. Then his mother said the words that would change everything: “Later doesn’t always come to everybody.”

“That got to me,” O’Neal said. “Those words snapped me into reality and gave me a plan. You work hard now. You don’t wait. If you’re lazy or you sit back and you don’t want to excel, you’ll get nothing. If you work hard enough, you’ll be given what you deserve. Everything was so easier after that.”

However, the spark can be short-lived. As Syed notes, “If left to their own devices, children will eventually settle back into the default mindset that predated the initial spark and praise.” This forces us to work toward furthering the long- term growth mindset of praise for effort, not talent. Praising an athlete for talent sends the message that, “Hey, you’ve got it made and can just flip on the cruise control,” which can lead to stagnation and even reversal of performance, as happens so often with child prodigies who have been told far too often how great they are. Always praise and reinforce the effort, not the talent.

During the growth mindset, a coach can use empirical evidence as an ongoing motivator. After working out for weeks, it is normal for athletes to suffer through periods when they lack the desire to work at a high intensity every day. The same is true for all of us.

Here are some tips to assist with establishing a self-motivated athlete: 

Vary workouts. Variety helps avoid boredom and the tendency of going through the motions. We never run the same cross country or track workouts more than once in the same week. Live situations such as scrimmaging tend to engage athletes physically and mentally.

Establishing a productive relationship. Find out what each individual wants to achieve and set specific goals. Sometimes athletes have no idea what they want, but at least try to help them figure it out. Keep lines of communication open. Set aside a few minutes to address these issues outside of practice times. Let’s say for example a runner has a goal of running three miles in 21 minutes. That means training to run at 7-minute per mile pace and our training will be focused in that direction. Periodically, we can look at training progression and in some cases adjust the goal upward as necessary.

Praise effort, not talent. Says Nick Bollettieri of the world famous Bollettieri Tennis Academy: “It is not about the winning or losing, rather the effort put forth in producing the outcome. Nobody in life has gotten anywhere without working hard, by showing tremendous effort and discipline, and by taking responsibility for their actions. That is ultimately what separates the best from the rest.” 

Firm, fair and consistent discipline, balanced with genuine concern for the well-being of the athlete, is crucial. If what’s good for the goose isn’t good for the gander, the players will notice and the entire system breaks down as credibility is shattered. Seniors and other veteran athletes should be setting the example, and all too often we see those leaders taking liberties with the rules. It is worthwhile for coaches to have a discussion with this group before the season and then periodically during the season to remind them of the crucial nature of their responsibilities as leaders – and how the only effective leadership is by example.

Rules and boundaries need to be addressed early and often. Signed athlete contracts can be effective if they are regularly reinforced during the season. Some coaches will have athletes re-sign and verify contracts later in the year.

Ensure that hard work is balanced with rest and recovery. Stimulus combined with rest, over time, will lead to improved conditioning and affect all areas – endurance, speed, strength, explosiveness, mental awareness and technique. Both physical and mental stressors followed by sufficient rest come into play, which is normally on weekends and the easy day before a game. This is not always easy to balance, and it is better to err on the side of caution with a little too much rest than to go into game day stale and tired. Properly managed workouts balanced with rest and recovery will optimize physiological gains and help avoid burnout. Regrettably, there is no perfect formula.

Use mistakes as a tool for learning. Focus on correction, and do not berate athletes. Constructive criticism should not deteriorate into a downward spiral of negativity. Again, always reinforce a good effort. Don’t over-praise with lower standards. 

Purposeful practices. Explain the reason for the day’s workout.

Remove “cancerous” teammates. This is an unpleasant point to address, but necessary nonetheless. After giving an athlete the usual “three strikes” in the form of remedial discipline, such as additional running after practice and counseling, it may be necessary for the good of the team to suspend and/or dismiss such players. Be clear early and often about rules and consequences.

A positive outlook is not a Pollyanna approach as kids can see right through such a façade. Instead, focus on what is possible while defining success realistically. I can’t fool one of my high jumpers into thinking he will jump a foot higher in one week, but perhaps over the course of a season of consistent practices and effort it is possible. Focus on the possibilities.

At the end of the day, motivation must be internalized to be of lasting impact. Coaches play a role in this, but they can’t wave a magic wand and “fix it” in some cases. They don’t always have the luxury of a Lou Holtz or Vince Lombardi to get rid of unmotivated athletes, or a Bill Bowerman to tell them to get their behinds in gear or quit.

Perhaps a coach can temporarily push someone into performing at a higher level through fear or other type of short-lived intimidation, but that is not the optimal approach to get the best out of anyone. Over the long run, this approach will be counterproductive and cause resentment. Yes, there is a time and place to “light a fire” under someone, but that won’t work if it must be employed continually, and its effectiveness diminishes with repetition.

It’s been said that three (or four) areas are outside of a coach’s control: team leadership, individual desire, team chemistry and, in some cases, talent. These components are vital to the success of a team and are present or absent in varying degrees. Coaches simply do the best with the cards they are dealt. Reinforcing effort goes a long way toward achieving desirable outcomes.

While it is not realistic to force long-term motivation on athletes, there are things coaches can do to foster it, such as establishing a trusting, supportive relationship, regularly communicating progress or lack thereof, and, if applicable, refining goals based on realistic expectations that are challenging but within reach with consistent effort. The ultimate success is seeing athletes reach goals and overcome obstacles they thought improbable at the beginning of the season or their athletic careers. Coaches are the mentors who can help athletes move beyond their self-imposed limitations if athletes are willing to cooperate in the process.

 About the Author: Mike Anson is athletic director at Fishburne Military School in Waynesboro, Virginia.



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