Motivation of the Student-Athlete

This player is motivated by positive reinforcement. That player is motivated by anger. This one is motivated in games, but not in practice. That one is motivated in practices, but freezes during games. This player is motivated physically, but doesn’t play with intelligence. That one is smart, but her body does not mind her brain.

All athletes in every sport and gender are motivated differently. Today, high school athletes have a lot of pressure on them, but so did yesterday’s athletes and tomorrow’s will, too. The pressures may change, but they are still there. How they cope, how they deal with adversity and overcome challenges on and off the court will determine their character in life. As coaches, we must try and guide them into using their natural instincts and their natural motivations to encourage them to reach their highest potential.

Jeni Hopkins

Some coaches say you have to coach all players the same and they must adjust to your style. I believe part of that is true, but each and every one of our athletes is motivated differently. As coaches, we try to find that “trigger” and use it to pull out the best of them. Treat them fairly, but not all will receive the same style, it is just not possible. Some need to be yelled at and motivated by angering them. Some need positive encouragement to be motivated. Whatever the trigger, the coach needs to find a way to get to know their athletes and inspire them the best they can. This is tough. It takes time. It takes effort. It takes a coach stepping out of the X’s and O’s for a moment and saying they are going to coach the person and not just the player.

Some of the techniques we use to motivate vary from individual conferences to pre-game visualization to checking on them academically to having leadership meetings throughout the season. We have individual conferences several times a season. We make sure players are clear on their role. We make sure they understand our expectations on and off the court.

Pre-game visualization has been a strong motivator for our players, too. Before each game, we take moments to relax the physical body and use the “mind’s eye” to visualize their play in certain areas. They see themselves playing defense and handling the ball and shooting. With all of the distractions in their world, it is a time where we focus and concentrate on the game in front of us in order to be prepared. This technique takes a mature athlete, some get it and some do not, but when used the correct way athletes are focused and energized to take the floor. We also use music during this time. Music is a powerful motivator.

Student-athletes are held accountable for turnovers, fouls, and poor efforts on the court and are rewarded for points, assists, steals, and rebounds. Academically, players need to be held accountable for their grades and behavior in the classroom. Often times, the two go hand in hand and the coach has a big influence on motivating them to be successful in the classroom, as well as on the court.

Leadership meetings are also a great motivator for your juniors and seniors. Upperclassmen have more on the line, their clock is ticking and, for most, this will be the last two years to ever play an organized sport. During our leadership meetings, we discuss what kind of leaders they want to be and how they want to be remembered by their teammates after they graduate. We talk about peer motivation and we discuss vocal leaders and action leaders. We talk about selfish leaders and selfless leaders. Being positive with your peers on the court is so important. Players need to let the coaches coach and the players play. Being an upperclassman on an athletic team is a great opportunity to be a productive leader and instill work ethic and strong traditions in your program.

Knowing how to motivate high school student-athletes is only part of the battle. This is a training ground. These players will not always have college professors or bosses in their careers that will care how they are motivated, they just want them to perform to their highest ability. We do not want to just motivate, but the critical part is when they leave your program, they know how to self-motivate themselves through positive times and in times of adversity to get the job done. Self-motivation rarely comes naturally, so as coaches, we have a great opportunity to teach them through sports how to do this so that they are productive wives, husbands, parents, workers, and citizens. Being a champion is not a part-time gig—all areas of an athlete’s life need to demand excellence. 

Originally published in the January-February 2012 issue of Ozark Preps Illustrated.

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