The Ins and Outs of Motivation

Article originally appeared in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, November/December 2009.

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In the summer of 2002, I worked the Stanford University women’s basketball camp. In 2002, the And1 Mix-Tapes were nearing the height of their popularity. At the camp, a couple girls saw me messing around and doing some ball-handling tricks during the first break. One girl – a 14-year-old from Anchorage, Alaska – asked if I could teach her how to do the slip-and-slide, a move from the Mix-Tapes. I said that I could, but she had to learn to dribble better first.

At lunch for the rest of the week, we sprinted to the cafeteria, hurried through a sandwich and spent the remainder of the break on the outdoor, asphalt court working on ball handling drills. While the other players sat in the air-conditioned dorms and the coaches went to Starbucks, she spent 45 minutes doing extra drills.

ballerI made a deal with her: if she did the drills, I would teach her the slip-and-slide. The slip-and-slide is not a move that she would use in a game, but she wanted to impress the boys back home. When the other players and coaches walked up to the court for the start of the afternoon sessions, they saw her rolling on the ground while dribbling the ball, trying to master the slip-and-slide.

The coaches rolled their eyes. Nothing drew a coach’s ire from 2001-2003 quite like the And1 Mix-Tapes, as coaches believed that the tapes embodied everything wrong with the American player. Most coaches blamed the tapes for everything from unmotivated players (“they just want to do tricks”) to poor shooting (“they have no fundamentals”).

Some players could not believe this girl, as she finished lunch dirty and sweaty, with the asphalt all over her hands and legs, while they returned from their dorm with fresh make-up and a spotless white tee. However, a couple players asked if they could join. By week’s end, four or five girls were hurrying through lunch and skipping their break so they could practice their dribbling.

A Whole New Mind author Dan Pink argues in his TED (Technology, Education and Design) speech that “there is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does” in terms of incentives, bonuses and motivation.

He provides several economic studies (based on the Candle Problem) and argues persuasively against the “carrot and the stick” approach to motivation. Instead, he shows that people perform better when intrinsically motivated and offers a new model for motivation based on “autonomy, mastery and purpose.”

Pink’s presentation focuses on business motivation, management and the creative class, as he advocates for a new world order based on right-brain thinking: the subtitle of A Whole New Mind is “Why right-brainers will rule the world.” However, his argument easily lends itself to coaching and youth sports.

nap timeAt the Stanford camp, as with most camps, stations represent the bulk of the instruction and non-game time, and fall into two categories: boring/poorly taught or recreational with little relevance (the Stanford camp is notorious for the numerous cheers that players master as well as time-wasters like “Land-Sea-Air”).

For instance, I worked another camp where an instructor spent one hour lecturing, demonstrating and drilling the first step on a closeout (when a defender plays help defense and then runs to his man when he receives the pass). The players never worked against a live defender. Instead, they spent one hour running back and forth from Point A to Point B as if they always would start and end in the same spot and not have to react to an offensive player who could shoot, drive left or drive right. The coaches praised the session as “fundamental” and “great teaching,” while I and many of the 13 and 14-year-old players were bored.

Many coaches assume that players learn best through these repetitive drills which break the game into almost unrecognizable segments only to return to 5v5 scrimmages with minimal transfer from the drill to the games. When the skills fail to transfer, coaches blame the players for not listening, lack of concentration or lack of effort.

Rarely does a coach examine the teaching methods and question why the players fail to understand or transfer the skill from one setting to the next.

While there are several variables, Pink explains that people have the “urge to direct our own lives; desire to get better and better at something that matters; and yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.”

The same mismatch that Pink sees between science and business happens in coaching too. We live in a world of external rewards. However, people learn best when intrinsically motivated: in an environment of autonomy, mastery and purpose. At the camp, the girl asked me to help her (autonomy); she wanted to learn something new (mastery); and she had a goal that was important to her (purpose).

Often in coaching, especially when we organize drills that are far from the actual game, we fail to motivate the player intrinsically, so coaches fall back to the “carrot-and-stick” approach: “work harder or you’ll run!” The purpose is no longer intrinsically motivating (avoiding punishment), and the coach focuses on outcomes, not the learning or improvement.

In the studies cited by Pink, external rewards improved performance on mechanical tasks. Therefore, in a drill like the closeout drill, the fear of running improved performance in terms of more hustle and less talking from the players.

However, on cognitive tasks, or tasks requiring creative thinking, higher external rewards hurt performance. The ball handling drills involved a creative element, and more importantly, their transfer to a game requires cognitive skills, as the player uses the dribble to create a pass or shot and must evaluate options while dribbling.

The reward system works for many coaches who stress order and structure; for instance, a basketball coach who runs a continuity offense and just wants the players to run the offense or a soccer coach who just wants his fullbacks to boot the ball down field as far as possible rather than playing the ball out of the back.

However, this reward system fails to motivate in situations where developing independent and critical thinking is important.

Most invasive games (soccer, lacrosse, basketball, field hockey, water polo, etc.) require critical thinking skills, flexibility and creativity. These games involve movement, perceptual and cognitive elements, while other sports like swimming or running involve primarily movement elements. Using the “carrot-and-stick” approach is not the best way to develop skills and players in these sports.

Instead, players need some control over their learning. This does not mean that coaches cede control to the players. However, asking players questions and empowering players to make decisions builds intrinsic motivation. For instance, at practice the other day, I asked the players what they thought of the drill and whether we should continue or move to something else.

I often ask players which drills they like and do not like, and I spend more time on those they enjoy. If they enjoy what they are doing, they will work harder and improve more than if they are forced to do drills they dislike. The challenge for a coach is to devise drills that the players enjoy which teach the skills and game concepts that he knows are important to their development and success.

Coaching is not a matter of giving into the players and their desires. However, the coach and players should work together; the players should not view the coach as an antagonistic force. When players and coaches communicate (in both directions), they work together for the same goals. When this communication breaks down or the coach ignores the players, players see the coach more as the person taking the inherent fun out of playing rather than a guide trying to improve one’s skills to enhance the enjoyment of the game.

At its core, we play sports to have fun, and a coach’s role is to enhance the enjoyment of the activity and to develop skills that allow the players to continue playing. When coaches focus on these roles, they ignore the “carrot-and-stick” approach and move to a more empowering approach which builds the players’ intrinsic motivation, often eliminating the need for discipline.

I did not have to motivate the young Alaskan. She chose to work out during her break and do extra drills because the goal had meaning to her; she felt that she was improving and learning something new; and she had some control over her environment.

By Brian McCormick
Coaching Director, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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