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The Motivation Enigma

At one time or another every coach has faced the Motivation Enigma!!   Why do these kids play?  What makes them tick?  How can I get them to play at a higher level?  Why don’t they want to get better?  Why can’t we be consistent?   These questions and more are asked on soccer fields across America every single day.  It’s time to have a look at what, why and how we can motivate our players.

Motivation is evolving.  Back in the day motivation consisted of the coach yelling at the players.  The coach did not care how the players “felt”.   The coach cared that the players worked hard and yelling and coercion were the best and only way to make it happen.  Many coaches were successful with this method – see Bob Knight.  This method worked partly because the players did not know better.  The expectation was that the coach was going to yell and scream, so get used to it and play.

The next step in the evolution of motivation was the “rewards and punishment” theory.  An enterprising coach saw that rewards went a long way to motivating the athletes.  Punishment was still important.  After all to eliminate negative behavior and sloppy play punishment was the key.  The players were less likely to repeat unacceptable behavior if they were punished.  But to enhance positive behavior and good play a reward might work as well.  And it did!!

Today it is clear that neither of these methods is the best way to enhance motivation.  The coach’s goal to improve and sustain motivation is to create a positive environment.  This environment should, as much as possible, eliminate anything negative.  Soccer is one of the most negative games to play.  How many things must go right to score a goal?  After 90 minutes the score is 2-1!!!   Can you imagine an NBA game played for 90 minutes?  186-175????

How Not to Motivate Athletes

Sports psychologist Mark Anshel dispels the 10 most common but incorrect myths about motivation in his book Sports Psychology:  From Theory to Practice.  He claims that many coaches use these strategies because they think they work.  They don’t.

Myth #1:  Use Exercise for Punishment:  There is nothing more demotivating than using exercise to punish a player or a team.  In the short term, it creates a negative environment on the team.  In the long term it could turn athletes off to the fun and benefits of exercise.

Myth #2:  The Pregame Pep Talk:  Most players are ready to play before the game.  The pregame pep talk may push these players over the top to over arousal, which kills performance.  The pregame pep talk should be simple, brief and to the point.

Myth #3:  “Our opponent is weak”:  Instead of motivating athletes, this is demotivating.  It sends the wrong message to players.  It may not be true and sends the wrong message to the players – no respect for opponents.

Myth #4:  “Our goal is to win”:  Winning should NOT be the player’s primary goal.  Player’s should focus on the process and their individual performance.  Winning will take care of itself.

Myth #5:  Treating Team Players Differently:  Athletes get upset when the coach is not consistent in his or her interactions with all team members.  A recent survey of former professional athletes asked what were the characteristics of their “best coach”.  All agreed that the ability to treat all athletes with the same respect and maturity was at the top of the list.

Myth #6:  “If they don’t complain, they’re happy.”  Coaches assume a quiet player is content.  Not so.  Most players are hesitant to approach a coach with a problem.   They keep it inside.

Myth #7:  “What do athletes know anyway?”  Most coaches think they know more than the players.  They believe that if that if they ask the players for advice, it is a sign of weakness.  Good coaches ask players for information.  It creates a very positive environment and makes the player confident and motivated.

Myth #8:  The Postgame Rampage:  After the game players are emotionally and physically drained.  What and how the coach addresses the team will have immediate and long-term effect.  This is the time to acknowledge the teams hard work and success.  Game analysis can take place at the next practice.

Myth #9:  The Napoleon Complex:  Some coaches want to be the “boss”.  They put a great deal of effort into showing players they are the boss.  Research shows that coaches who motivate athletes are secure, knowledgeable, intuitive and sensitive.  Coaches who share their “power” with the players create a positive motivating environment.

Myth #10:  Fear Works!:  Fear creates a hostile environment.  Fear increases anxiety in players that hurts performance.  Fear breeds resentment and disloyalty toward the coach.  Fear does not work.

How Can we Improve Intrinsic Motivation?

 The goal of every coach should be to increase intrinsic motivation in his/her athletes.  Here are a few suggestions:

Guarantee Success in Training:  Success in training increases confidence, which increases motivation.  Manipulate the variables (space and time) to ensure that the training session is positive.

Give Athletes a Role in Goal Setting and Decision Making:  This will empower athletes and make them feel they have some control.  Self-control is important for a positive team environment and motivation.

Praise Performance, not Personality or Character:  In terms of intrinsic motivation, praising a person’s actions offers tangible and concrete information about competence.  This, in turn, creates a positive feeling in the players and enhances intrinsic motivation.

Set Realistic Goals:  The feeling of competence is enhanced when players have realistic goals.  Goals that are unattainable build frustration and are demotivating.

Use Feedback:  When teaching a new skill feedback should be positive and constant.  When working with older, more talented players feedback should be intermittent.  All feedback should be positive and informative.

Vary Content and Sequence of Practice Activities:  There are certain activities that wee must do every day like passing.  Changing the activity will help keep motivation at a high level.  Practice should be pleasant and exciting and filled with learning opportunities.  Your players should look forward to coming to training every day.

Get to Know Each Player, Build a Relationship:  Good coaches know the importance of relationships with players.  Relationships build trust.  The players feel the coach knows me and recognizes me.  Relationships build confidence and motivation.

Everybody Needs Recognition:  The need for recognition is a fundamental need of all humans.  Recognition of all types create all types creates a high level of motivation.

Consistency and Sensitivity are Signs of Strength:  Many coaches believe that sharing feelings and showing sensitivity are a sign of weakness.  Good coaches know that these emotions are very effective in creating trust and intrinsic motivation.

Make it Fun:  The players went back to their second soccer practice because they had fun at the first practice.  They are still playing because they have fun playing soccer.  Don’t make soccer work.  Adding fun and humor to the team promotes intrinsic motivation!

Not all of the above may be applicable to your situation.  Some environments are more conducive to improving intrinsic motivation than others.  Teams that have a locker room or a meeting/team room may have more luck than club teams that meet on a field for practice only, but many of these strategies can be used by all coaches.  Most of these suggestions are a “mentality” on the part of the coach and they work!

Dr. Jay Martin

Editor: United Soccer Coaches, “Soccer Journal” Author: Recently published his first book, “Lessons from a Great Coach: Develop a Winning Team Culture That Lasts!” Head Coach: Ohio Wesleyan is the winningest coach in NCAA men's soccer history with 749 wins, making him the first men's soccer coach to reach 700 wins. Heading into the 2023 season, he boasts a 749-158-80 record and a career winning percentage of .799, ranking 14th all-time in the NCAA. Under his guidance, the 2022 Bishops were NCAC tournament champions, and the staff was named NCAC Coaching Staff of the Year for the 10th time. In 45 seasons, Martin's teams have a 297-30-24 conference play record, winning 26 conference crowns. Martin led Ohio Wesleyan to NCAA Division III national championships in 1998 and 2011 and has reached the NCAA Division III semifinals nine times. His teams hold records for playoff appearances (43) and victories (65). Awards: 16-time NCAA Regional Coach of the Year. Inducted into the United Soccer Coaches Hall of Fame in 2020. Beyond soccer: A successful lacrosse coaching career and has turned out 61 All-America and 214 all-region or All-Midwest players in both sports. He served as president of the NSCAA and spent six years on the NCAA Division III selection committee. Martin, a professor and former athletics director at Ohio Wesleyan, has also been a color analyst for the MLS's Columbus Crew for nine seasons. Learn more about Dr. Jay Martin at Super Soccer Camp at Ohio Wesleyan University.