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Inspiring, Not Forcing, Motivation

For any high school coach, figuring out how to motivate a squad of teenagers can be daunting. However, before spending precious resources on advice books, workshops, or motivational speakers, it is essential to discover what exactly motivates your athletes and things you can do to help them feel inspired.

According to Wayne Goldsmith, a well-renowned sports coach with over 25 years of experience educating teams and coaches around the world, the best place to start is understanding the difference between motivation and inspiration. “Inspiration is something that comes [from] the outside: through observing something which triggers an emotional response,” states Goldsmith in a blog on “Motivation, however, comes from within. It is the ‘fire’ that fuels great performances, outstanding victories, persistence, perseverance, determination and drive. No one can motivate anyone to do anything.”

Attitude, mental toughness, and even strength and character all stem from the motivation and desire lying within each athlete, and coaches need to be inspiring their student-athletes “unleash their fire.” “It is the coach’s role to support the athlete and inspire athletes to feel confident in themselves and to feel empowered to let their ‘fire’ free,” Goldsmith explains.

To accomplish this, coaches must create an environment that provides student-athletes with the ability to express their inner motivations. However, Goldsmith warns against taking it too far. “Too many coaches over-coach in a bid to motivate their team. They believe that the key to motivation lies in constantly talking, ‘psyching-up’ and providing a high energy, high enthusiasm coaching environment,” says Goldsmith. “Motivation does not work like that: in fact, it’s just the opposite.”

One approach is to schedule time at practices when athletes are free to do what pleases them, which can reveal where their inner motivation lies. “Tell them, ‘Hey guys, you can do whatever you like for the next 30 minutes. Work on an aspect of your performance that you enjoy,’” Goldsmith suggests. “Then stand back and watch them. People, by their nature, given free time, will do the things they love to do, which are for the most part, the things they are also good at: their strengths.

“Watch what your athletes do during their free time,” he continues. “Chances are, they will go straight to their strengths and in doing so provide you with a doorway to their dreams and a window to their motivations.”

Goldsmith also recommends working in one-on-one time with each player to get to know each student-athlete on an individual level. Coaches can try working in a five-minute chat with one member of the team before each practice or game and do the same with a different player after each session. “Talk with them about school, family, their life, their dreams, their concerns, their favorite movies -- anything -- just get to know them and understand what it is that fuels their preparation and performance,” Goldsmith explains. “The key to better understanding what motivates your athletes is to get to know them as human beings.”

Once coaches learn the motivations of their student-athletes, teams can begin to realize their true potential. “Motivation is like digging for gold: it can be difficult to find but if you persevere and persist until you find it, the rewards are immeasurable,” Goldsmith concludes. “Coaches cannot motivate athletes: rather coaches must seek to provide the environment and opportunity for athletes to discover what it is that motivates them as individuals. If coaches understand their athletes and what it is that motivates their athletes, great things are possible.”

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