Motivation Series: Wise Words From Hippocrates Himself

 In Coach

One of the biggest questions for coaches is ‘what motivates players and how do you do it?’. I discussed this idea in my last article.

Winning is the only motivation for most sportspeople, right? Well… not necessarily.

Winning vs participation and motivation

There has been a long-running debate in sport about ‘winning versus participation’. Some educators and sport psychologists have, I think unfairly, been viewed by some as avoiding reality for suggesting that we should focus on teaching youngsters skills, and above all, that we should make sure they are enjoying themselves.

The implication has been, in the minds of some, that we think that winning isn’t important and that this approach has produced a generation of soft kids – “namby-pambies” – who are nowhere near tough enough and lack the killer instinct.

Frankly, I reckon that criticism is at best simplistic and at worst, rubbish! The very nature of the word sport implies competition, and competition produces winners and losers. That is the nature of sport: by its definition.

Going out for a mountain bike ride on your own is leisure. Taking part in a race organized by your local club is sport. Kicking a ball round with your mates is leisure and playing in a rugby game is sport.

Supporting the ‘participation’ part of this debate, research shows that young athletes, although they enjoy winning and are motivated by it, are also motivated by their level of satisfaction in the quality and positivity of their relationships with their teammates. There is also evidence supporting their motivation and satisfaction through their enjoyment of sport, which often relates to their social motivation.

A young athlete’s relationship with their coach is also a key factor in their satisfaction and enjoyment of sport. Research has shown that positive, supportive and instructive coaching, which develops a strong coach-athlete relationship, increases a young athlete’s enjoyment of their sport, and their motivation to keep participating. If they are happy with their coach, they are more likely to feel satisfied and continue playing.

Of course, the opportunity to win is also a major factor for motivation. I don’t think kids are any less competitive than they were when they get out on a field in the 50s and 60s. They may or may not be as physically ‘tough’ or hardened as they were (there were no TVs, computers and play stations when I was a kid), but they know what winning is and they are keen to win.

But winning’s not everything.

Everyone needs a challenge.

I remember having a debate with someone years ago who reckoned winning was all that counted. So, I asked him, “OK, you’re coaching a good U19 team. I’ll organize for your season to be played against U16 teams. Your boys will win every game 100 to nil. How much satisfaction will they get out of that?”

Of course, the answer was that they’d soon get sick of it. Challenge is clearly a big part of motivation for most – pitting your skills against your peers, improving every game, and becoming better than before.

So how can you ensure that you assist your players to retain and even enhance their level of motivation?

Well, the first thing is to remember what the father of modern medicine Hippocrates said over 2,400 years ago (in The Epidemics): “As to diseases, make a habit of two things— to help, or at least do no harm.” He was talking to Greek doctors, but if you substitute sport for diseases, the same advice applies to all coaches when it comes to dealing with players’ motivation.

If you can’t enhance motivation, at the very least do not damage the motivation that already existed when the player turned up to play for the team you are coaching.

It may sound a bit tough, but think about it. Ask yourself if your coaching is helping your players to improve their skills, their decision-making, their health and their enjoyment of trainings and games. Is your coaching helping them to grow and learn and develop as humans? If you can answer “Yes” to that (and you’re correct!), then I take my hat off to you – you’re doing a damn fine job and we need more of you around the place.

If you sometimes wonder whether you’re turning a player off, or you’re not really reaching the player with your coaching, ask yourself:

  • What does this player want to get out of playing?
  • Why did they turn up at the start of the season? To use a modern business expression – what bang did they expect for their bucks?

If you can answer this question, you’re well on the way to being able to be able to motivate your players, and you’re far more likely to “do no harm”.

While powerful, emotive pre-game talks may inspire some of your players, and may raise their arousal levels, the biggest tool you will ever have as a “motivator” is the knowledge about why each of your players is playing. If you have some idea of that, you can try to make sure that your coaching is satisfying these needs, and you can appeal to this aspect when talking to your players before games.

Find out what your players are thinking.

A simple technique is to distribute a pre-season appraisal (the wording will alter according to the age and sophistication of your team) that looks something like this:

As your coach, I want to find out what makes you tick and what you want to get out of your season, so I can do a good job of coaching you. Simply select the number that indicates how important each of the following factors are to you:

Many of you have limited time with your players, and this little appraisal can give you a head start. It also helps drive the definition of your team values.

It’s not very scientific, but you’ll be surprised at how much useful information you will get back from this simple exercise. Obviously the better you can get to know your players, the more you will find out about their intrinsic motivators, and the better you will be able to use that information to appeal to your players for a big effort.

The player who scores high in “being with mates” will likely respond well to “Come on Rangi, the boys need a big one from you today. You know how much the boys respect you – well they really need a big one from you today. You’re good enough and the boys really need you today”.

Another player may respond well to “Just get out there and enjoy yourself Sarah. You’ve got great skills and I want to see you using them today. Enjoy the sun on your back and the wind in your hair. Get involved and enjoy it today!”

Of course, motivation changes over time and the things that motivate players when they are seven or eight years old will likely be different from their motivation when they are fourteen and playing in their college team, twenty-one and just having made a senior elite team, or in their last year of state or national selection, before heading off to an overseas contract.

But as a coach, your ability to “get inside the head” of your players and understand why they are playing, what they want to get out of it, and what they actually are getting out of it will largely determine how effectively you coach them – assuming you have all the other skills.

Knowing this information will allow you to adjust your coaching to fit the individual and to direct your motivational comments at what you know are the players’ core motivators. Your words are far more likely to hit the target if you know where you are aiming.

You will also need to make sure that you are creating a team environment that the players are enjoying and that your trainings are not only providing the players with what they need to develop technically and tactically, but also that they are interesting and stimulating.

It’s a big order, but I know you can do it and that many of you are already achieving it. If you need help on any of this, ask your local coach development manager or any knowledgeable coach.  Or join in the conversation on Coach’s Companion.

I hope the season has gone well (or if you are still playing when you read this) is going well. Keep up the good work, and remember what Hippocrates said – “First do no harm”.  It’s a great start for doing some real good!



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