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Creating an Internally Motivated Team Culture

Internal motivation is hard to find these days, I’ve heard a lot of coaches with the same issue – trouble motivating players to want to get better. I face it as well each season right about at the half-way mark, feeling like I’m pulling my players along towards the end of the season as they begin to wear down and I find myself begging for their focus and drive to improve.

We have started placing a lot of external motivators out there for these kids, always hanging the carrot on a string to pull them along, but in the long run, all that seems to do is create more of the same problem, a lack of internal motivation.

What if there was no prize at the end, no championship game, no awards, no ice cream sundae treat. How many players would keep working hard just because they wanted too? Some would, but not as many as we would like. With our drive to give them a prize to work for, a reward system as a motivational tool, I believe many of our kids have lost the ability to drive themselves and find their inner purpose. We are a reward based society, we don’t take enough pride anymore in a job well done and instant gratification is what our kids know best. Too often, the kids with talent get the prizes without having to get outside their comfort zone, the kids with less skill ride the bench and maybe eventually move on to other things unconvinced that they could improve if they were willing to put in the sweat and time.

Where does internal motivation come from and can we build it in the younger programs without sending all the players off to work on a farm? Players need to see how consistent work put in builds over time, and how a focus on mastery can motivate much more than any external rewards. Coaches who place value in hard work and improvement rather than a focus on wins, scores, natural talent or outcomes, will have a better work ethic, better culture, and more self-motivators on their teams.

There isn’t a magic formula to solve all motivation problems (I wish there was!) but here are some ways to help players find their internal motivators:

  1. Set up individual and team challenges, where the reward for mastery comes in the form of verbal or non-verbal genuine praise. For talented players/more skillful players, focus the challenge on their weaknesses. When players master something, let them show the team, build up the value of their hard work and their earned success.
  2. Make goals effort based rather than outcome based – this allows all players to be rewarded for hard work regardless of their skill level.
  3. Have a rating system at practice – ask the players what level they felt their effort was for the last drill between one and ten. Then ask them what effort they think they could give on the next drill. Call attention to how hard they are working simply by letting them evaluate what they can push harder at.
  4. Name a hard work crew at the end of practice that stood out in effort that day, make them in charge of choosing and then driving, the effort goal at the next practice.
  5. Ask questions instead of talking, let them explain why they think something is important or should be done a certain way. Encourage thoughtful analysis at practice to help keep them engaged in the task at hand and prepare them to make quick decisions while reading situations in games.
  6. Ask them to describe what hard work looks like to them so they can visualize it. How would someone who worked really hard to improve look during drills, after practice, with their teammates.
  7. Praise and call out hard work every change you can rather than calling out a lack of hard work.  If they look sleepy, ask them to turn up the heat instead of telling them to “wake up.
  8. Use the self motivators for yourself as well, there’s always that day (week?) we are driving to practice and wishing we were headed to a beach somewhere.  What are we building, how important will our interactions be with these kids, and how can we turn up the heat on our leadership skills today?

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