Motivating the disgruntled star player

by on July 15, 2021
in Motivation

The short answer to the question is to talk to the player. I schedule individual meetings with players and/or ask players about their lives as often as possible without being too intrusive. When I see a player who does not seem like herself, I ask her best friend on the team if I need to know anything. Players are people first, and assuming the player is unmotivated or just doesn’t want to play hard is where coaches create conflicts for no reason. Instead, we need to understand the social, emotional, and psychological needs/state of the player.

When I initially took over a women’s team in my first head coaching job above the 8th grade level, I was warned by the previous coach — who had stepped down as the coach to hire me, but remained as the general manager — about one of the players. He went on and on about her laziness and difficult personality. He even knew from where this attitude stemmed: She was deeply protective of her younger sister on the team, and a lesser extent another young player. Despite knowing the source of her problems with him, he complained about her; he seemingly had made no efforts to remedy the issues, and instead referred to her as a difficult player.

It took one practice for me to realize that she was our most talented player. I also quickly realized that this difficult player who worked as a preschool/kindergarten teacher also volunteered to coach three youth teams for the youth club in our small town. I also learned from her younger sister and the other young player that they had felt hopeless in the previous season, and nearly quit basketball, because nothing they did seemed to matter, and they combined for under 30 minutes for the entire season.

Long story short, I did not take him at his word. She became our best player and posted career highs in points and rebounds, and if we had won two more games, likely would have deserved the MVP award. She was not difficult. She gave everything for the club and the basketball community. She saw that I treated her sister differently, even though it did not result in a lot of playing time early in the season. I was willing to work extra with the two young players (or anyone); I told them what they needed to do to earn playing time; I played them when they met these targets. They, and the older sister, were not frustrated about the playing time, but the lack of hope to receive playing time; they felt as though they had no control over their minutes. There was nothing they could do. They did not need minutes; they needed hope that they could earn minutes, and a path to earn them.

The older sister was not demanding that her younger sister play. She simply was hurt to see her sister disheartened by the experience. She was protective, but was not a problem or difficult. She loved her sister like any other sibling and wanted her to have a chance. Once she had an opportunity, she understood it was up to her to take advantage of the opportunity. Nothing was given.

I spent the season assisting my player with her youth teams. She was my closest friend during my year coaching there, and we remain friends.

Any problems that the previous coach had could have been remedied quickly. I did not do anything special except to talk to her, to listen to her, and to treat her like a person before thinking of her as a player. I did not do anything to develop her skills or make her play harder or better; I saw the talent and skills at the first practice. Our system maybe fit her skill set slightly better or maybe we emphasized getting the ball to her a little more, but the true development was in temperament and enjoyment. She was happy because her sister was included as part of the team and given a chance, and consequently, she had her best season.

Often, the motivation piece in coaching is easier than we think. It’s not about slogans, yelling, lecturing players, or posting videos about the grind. Instead, it’s acknowledging that every player is a person first, and there are a multitude of things on and off the court that affect performance and motivation.

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