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.

Coaching behaviors build from general beliefs about human nature

I learned two rules during my childhood that I will never forget: (1) Turn off the lights when you leave the room; and (2) if you’re not early, you’re late. The tweet below captures the second rule and represents a standard belief among many coaches. I think this tweet says a lot more.

Now, being early is a good thing. When players rush in right as practice starts, they may not be prepared or ready to go. Of course, why are they rushing or late? I am rarely bothered by a player arriving late because I assume that the player had to do something important that prevented her from being on time. Players had classes, one had to babysit her little brother and sister and pick them up from school, players had to rely on the athletic trainer being on time at a school that refused to pay for a full-time trainer, and more. I trusted that players wanted to be at practice, and consequently their tardiness was due to something important and/or unavoidable. The only time that tardiness irritated me was morning practices when players did not have classes or anything prior to practice, and tardiness was due to forgetting to set an alarm clock or hitting snooze too many times. However, even then, I never had much to say to the player who had to rely on her grandfather to drive her through traffic because she lived at home and did not have her own car, while the majority of players lived on the corner and rode their bikes 5 minutes to the gym.

I trust players want to be at practice; the attitude expressed in the tweet suggests a belief that players do not want to be there. In an old Harvard Business School article titled, “On managing with Bobby Knight and Coach K”, Sean Silverthorne wrote:

I don’t have a lot of rules or use a lot of punishment because I believe my players want to do their best and are self-motivated. Despite not having this arrive 15-20 minutes early policy, players often arrived 30+ minutes early and stayed after practice until the men’s team or volleyball kicked them off the court. They played shooting games or did their rehab exercises or sat and talked. No rules were needed; just high expectations, and self-motivated players.

How does a coach maintain or strengthen the players’ self-motivation? Autonomy helps. Creating more rules does not give players greater autonomy.

Errors, Ideals, and the Unorthodox

Originally published in Free Play: A Decade of Writings on Youth Sports

Adults see errors when we watch children play sports. Their skill performance differs from our mental models, which are based on our own experiences or our images of expert performers. When we see a young basketball player with an awkward-looking shot or a baseball player with a funky delivery on the pitching mound, we see mistakes and a need to correct. 

The tendency is to change the individual techniques to match our ideal or mental model. In an ESPN article about Don Bradman, one of the best batsman in cricket history, Jon Hotten wrote, “Bradman developed in childhood an unorthodox but entirely natural way of controlling the bouncing ball. As he made his way in the professional game, attempts were made to change his method, to ‘correct’ his grip and his backlift, but he resisted them. [Dr. Tim] Noakes’ research with groups of young cricketers in Cape Town has confirmed that those who are un-coached tend towards Bradman’s technique naturally. It is only when conventional coaching takes over that their methods become altered.” Are coaches correct to alter the natural technique to a more conventional style of batting?

When I worked a basketball camp for a perennial top 10 NCAA basketball program, the coaches taught the campers a certain method of footwork when shooting. During a break, I watched the university’s best player work out. His footwork differed from their instruction. I asked his teammate about the differences, and he answered, “Oh, that’s Blake. He’s the best shooter in the nation so they let him do whatever he wants.” In my head, I thought, “Why correct young players who shoot like their best shooter?” What makes one technique more correct than another? Why attempt to fit every player into a single ideal technique?

In Human Movement: An Integrated Approach, Joseph Higgins described this as the “ideal form myth”, and wrote that “continued focus upon the ideal form at high levels omits or loses important individualistic aspects of the skill.” Technique is not absolute; individual technique depends on individuals and the environment in which they perform. The shooter excelled with non-ideal technique from his coach’s perspective; fortunately, the coach did not change him, but we spent hours changing youth players to fit the coach’s model.

Higgins explained that there are 3 categories of constraints that contribute to skill performance: Biomechanical, morphological, and environmental. Biomechanical constraints are similar between performers; a shooter overcomes gravity to shoot the ball 10 feet in the air. Every shooter overcomes the same biomechanical constraints, and each technique has some commonalities, even the outliers or those with the awkward-looking shots. 

Morphological constraints include anatomical and perceptual factors. These factors create the greatest differences in techniques between performers. Children cannot shoot with the same technique as Stephen Curry because they have different bodies: Different size, strength, limb lengths, coordination, rhythm, and timing. Young players need techniques that fit their anatomy.

Environmental constraints create the greatest differences within a performer. Individual techniques vary due to temporal or spatial components. The speed of movement prior to the shot, the proximity of defenders, the accuracy of a pass, and more affect the organization of one’s technique. The spatial and temporal constraints change the technique. 

Each player has different morphological constraints, and each performance features different environmental constraints. The ideal technique may not fit a certain individual’s morphology, and the ideal may not be possible under all conditions. In This is Not a Textbook, legendary track and field coach Kelvin Giles wrote, “World-record holders don’t show us ‘perfection’ in technique. They simply show us how their bodies have adapted to the challenges. Better to learn from the way they found the adaptation rather than what they found.” 

In his portrait of Curry for ESPN the Magazine, Dave Fleming wrote about Curry’s grandfather’s hoop where he learned to shoot: “The soft wings of the backboard had more give than a fence gate. The thick steel rim offered no absolution; only shots placed perfectly in the middle of the cylinder passed through. The institutional green metal breaker box just behind the hoop gave off a constant static hum that lured a shooter’s focus away from the target. And the splintery wooden utility pole wasn’t squared to a single landmark — not the white ranch-style house, not the driveway, not the Blue Ridge mountains to the south of the creek to the north. So every shot required instant, expert recalibration.” He adapted to the environment through play and trial and error, as opposed to following a strict model. Later, as he approached the end of high school, his father helped him to change his shot to shoot faster against bigger and better competition, but the roots of his shot, and his adaptability, are derived from his grandfather’s hoop. 

Players do not need to eschew the gym for a hoop on a splintery wooden utility pole, but as Giles suggested, we should learn from the approach rather than trying to mimic the shot’s specifics. I once trained two 9-year-olds, Kevin and Pete. Kevin’s father insisted that he shoot with ideal, adult technique. He lacked size and strength, and this adult technique with the ball starting above his eyes limited Kevin to shots within 15 feet. Pete shot from a lower starting position to generate more strength, and shot 3-pointers comfortably. Kevin’s father believed that Pete had a poor shot because of its low starting point, but Pete was a more accurate shooter who made a wider range of shots.

Pete found his own technique that worked for his morphological constraints and under many different environmental constraints, whereas Kevin’s father focused on an ideal form that was unattainable for a short, slight 9-year-old. Like Curry, as Pete matured, he adjusted his technique to fit his new morphology; he grew taller and stronger. He moved his shot to a slightly higher starting point. His shot did not look like Curry’s, but he followed the same basic path of experimentation and adaptation to find success in different environments. He eventually changed his technique when the new morphology and environmental constraints enabled and demanded adjustments to maintain success. 

Pete’s initial technique worked for him when he was 9, and he played on a basket that was too high and with a ball that was too big for him to shoot with an adult technique. Rather than discourage individual technique and learning through trial and error, he adapted a technique that worked for him at that age, size, and strength level. His technique was not wrong, although it did not look the same as an adult technique. It was correct for him under those constraints at that age.  

Every technique has some consistencies because the biomechanical constraints are the same for each player; put the ball in the basket 10 feet in the air from various distances on the court. Every player’s technique has some variance because no two players are created exactly the same, and therefore each player solves the problem in different ways. Within an individual, no two repetitions are the same because environmental conditions change from repetition to repetition: The defense, distance to the basket, and movement speed and direction change on each shot. 

Young athletes solve movement problems and organize their movements based on the morphological, environmental, and biomechanical constraints. When this technique varies from the coach’s mental model, the technique is not necessarily wrong. It may be the athlete’s current solution to the problem, which may change with maturity or it could be an individual style that works for a certain player and allows him or her to excel. Before changing a player’s technique to fit an adult’s mental model, acknowledge the brilliance of the body to solve movement problems, and remember that athletes such as Bradman excelled despite nonconventional technique. A child is not an adult, and expecting one to have the same technique as an adult is setting up the child for failure, as with Kevin’s father and his unrealistic expectations. 

Learning like the YouTube Man

Originally published in Free Play: A Decade of Writings on Youth Sports

Athletes from Kenya regularly win Olympic medals. Kenyans are known for distance running, winning events at the 2016 Olympics from the 800m to the marathon. Medaling in the javelin, however, is unexpected, but Julius Yego followed up a 2015 World Championship with a 2016 Olympic silver medal. 

Affectionately known as the “YouTube Man”, Yego learned to throw a javelin by watching YouTube videos. In 5 years, he progressed from a novice to a world champion. Through trial and error and self-discovery learning, he reached the Africa Championships and 2012 Olympics. He was self-taught and did not have a coach because, as he said in an interview, everyone in Kenya is a runner. Once he reached the Olympics, he found a coach who helped him transition from elite to world champion, and his winning throw at the 2015 World Championships was the best throw in the world in over 14 years.

The Internet has changed the manner in which children learn sports skills. When I walked into the office of a sports development club near Jinja, Uganda, considered one of the poorest towns in Africa, the children crowded around a small laptop watching videos of skill development coaches ripped from YouTube. They accessed moves and drills that I never saw as a player developing pre-YouTube. 

The Internet has benefitted not only athletes in Africa who may lack access to specialist coaches, but athletes in the United States. This spring, I met a young woman who earned a basketball scholarship who had learned her post moves by watching YouTube because she was from a small town and lacked access to quality coaches. Similarly, I worked with an NCAA Division II 2-sport athlete who earned All-American honors in the javelin who said that her primary coach was YouTube. 

In his 2007 TED talk, Sugata Mitra, a professor of education technology at Newcastle University, described his “hole in the wall” experiments. He dug a hole in the wall in the slums of New Delhi and put an Internet-enabled computer into the wall and a video recorder to record what happened. Children who had no previous exposure to computers managed to learn to use a computer and teach other children. He demonstrated that children can teach themselves, much as Yego taught himself to throw the javelin. 

This self-discovery learning runs counter to the assumptions of many. Rather than give freedom to children to explore and learn through trial and error, parents are more likely to hire a private coach to instruct their child in the perfect technique. Professional athletes have private coaches, and even the “YouTube Man” needed a coach to become a world champion, so we expedite this process by hiring coaches for children at younger and younger ages. If a personal coach is important for a professional or elite athlete, imagine the benefits for an inexperienced child!

Some may imagine the possibilities for Yego had he been coached earlier in his development. The Guardian wrote about Yego’s winning throw at the 2015 World Championships: “It’s ungainly. Unorthodox. And my goodness it’s worth it, the spear flying way past the 90-meter mark! It’s a throw of 92.72, a season’s best!” A throw that is unorthodox and ungainly probably would have been changed by a coach at an earlier age, but that described the best throw in the world in the last 14 years. Did Yego need a coach at an earlier age to perfect his technique? 

Psychologist Jean Piaget wrote, “Each time one prematurely teaches a child something he could have have discovered himself, that child is kept from inventing it and consequently from understanding it completely.” Maybe Yego won the world championships because of the manner in which he learned to throw the javelin, not in spite of his lack of coaching. 

Similarly, a recent study of adolescent soccer players found that those who improved more between the ages of 11 and 13 accumulated more non-organized soccer play and organized training in other sports, but not more organized soccer practice. In a retrospective study, highly skilled adult volleyball players highlighted the value of their involvement in unstructured activities with older peers and recognized the importance for achievement. 

These results and examples appear counterintuitive to a generation that has transitioned childhood toward structured activities, but when we consider the traits and commonalities of expert performers, the need for self-discovery learning should be understood. 

In a series of papers that studied different avenues of life, University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth has shown that grit predicts success. Grit was defined as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. How does one develop this perseverance and passion?

Passion for sport and music were linked to feelings of autonomy. Factors as simple as allowing a child to choose when to practice as opposed to a parent forcing the child to practice influenced the feelings of autonomy. Typically, when a child engages in unstructured or non-organized sports or self-discovery learning, the child chooses this activity without external pressure. The child has the autonomy to pursue these activities, and consequently, engaging in these activities may increase the passion that they feel. 

Duckworth divided perseverance into perseverance with the lower case ‘p’, which is working daily to get better at something, and Perseverance with an upper case ‘P’, which is continuing in the face of adversity. Psychologist Christopher Bergland suggested changing one’s mindset to view struggle and perseverance as a path to pleasure. Of course, when a child chooses to play in an unstructured activity, such as pickup soccer, the experience is rewarding and fun, but is also a daily effort to improve. It does not take a lot of effort to persevere when one chooses to engage in the activity, and the activity is inherently fun. 

Training for Perseverance is more difficult because the adversity that one must overcome to become an elite performer often is unexpected, whether a player overcomes being cut from a team, losing a parent at a young age, a single-parent household, a major injury, or other circumstance. There is no preparation for an athlete suffering her first ACL rupture and missing an entire season or for being cut from a team. 

The ability to cope with adversity with autonomy created self-reliant and resilient athletes and separated the experts and super champions from their peers.19 Allowing children the freedom to play and learn through trial and error may be one way to create these adaptive behaviors. When children engage in free play, they solve problems beyond those within the game, as they are the referees, the team-makers, the rule creators, and more. If one faces small doses of adversity frequently in low impact environments, such as unstructured play, one may develop more resiliency for more serious situations. 

For Julius Yego, learning to throw a javelin without a coach likely was difficult. Watching videos provided only so much information, especially for a technical sport and without the benefits of a high-speed camera and/or super-slow motion footage. Many people would give up or never attempt to learn to throw the javelin in those circumstances. Through trial and error, he faced frequent adversity in low-impact situations. Because he had no coach, he problem solved. He devised solutions. He developed his autonomy and resilience. Because he chose the javelin, rather than following everyone else in Kenya into distance running, he was invested personally. He developed passion for the javelin. Ultimately, this combination of passion and perseverance developed his grit, and his grit, his learning, his practice, and his athleticism led him to sufficient success to attract an expert coach who could assist with his development from elite to world champion. 

Yego’s experience contrasts with that of many children who have private coaches and organized lessons and parental expectations that take away their autonomy and prevent the development of passion and resilience. The children become dependent on the lesson time and the coach, and they lack the internal qualities required to develop and sustain success over a period of years. 

Diversifying Developmental Sporting Experiences

Originally published in Free Play: A Decade of Writings on Youth Sports.

Parents and coaches seek a formula or recipe for developing athletic (or educational) excellence, but no formula exists. Every child is different. We read the stories of those who have accomplished great victories and attempt to replicate their paths, but these stories often simplify a complex topic to a single attribution. 

In Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, K. Anders Ericsson argued that deliberate practice differentiates the elite and the non-elite. Parents and coaches have cited Ericsson’s research to justify early specialization and early professional training (i.e. deliberate practice) to jump start the road to excellence, but Peak simplified a complex topic and ignored evidence or research that conflicted with its message. 

Peak cited the early play experiences of hockey great Mario Lemieux to support its argument against natural or innate talent. “Although I don’t know of any studies that look at the value of this sort of play practice, it seems likely that these children were taking their first steps down the path of expertise.” Jean Cote and colleagues have published numerous studies about this exact type of “play practice”, which they named “deliberate play”. Cote and colleagues have suggested that development is more complex than deliberate practice, and argued against early specialization and early professional training in favor of diverse sporting experiences in early childhood.

Conditions of Children’s Talent Development in Sport introduced a spectrum of early childhood activities, each of which has value and importance in the development of motor and sports skills. Cote’s deliberate play lies on one end of the spectrum. “Deliberate play involves early developmental physical activities that are intrinsically motivating, provide immediate gratification, and are specifically designed to maximize enjoyment.” Ericsson’s deliberate practice, defined as practice requiring great effort, generating no immediate rewards, and motivated by the goal of improving a specific aspect of performance, is at the other end. Deliberate play is child-initiated and participant-regulated, whereas deliberate practice occurs with a coach or teacher who designs the drills and provides the feedback. 

Between deliberate play and deliberate practice are adult-initiated play practice and organized competition, and child-initiated spontaneous practice. Play practice maintains the fun and game play of deliberate play, but adults organize the activity with the intention to improve performance. Organized competition provides the high concentration and effort of deliberate practice, but the games are not structured to improve specific aspects of performance, and the effort is generally enjoyable. Spontaneous practice occurs informally and is child-initiated as with deliberate play, but has the specific goal of improving performance, as with deliberate practice. Cote and colleagues5 suggested that “the different social contexts of the various play and practice activities fulfill different needs in children’s current and future involvement in sport.”

In today’s youth sports environment, play practice, organized competitions, and deliberate practice dominate, and deliberate play and spontaneous practice have all but disappeared. When adults organize the sporting activities, the range of activities narrows. Coaches or parents guide children toward the “right way”, which is based on adult perspectives. Adults discourage exploration and imagination, and direct and instruct children toward the desired technique or tactic. Adult-initiated activities emphasize competition and results, whereas child-initiated activities emphasize inclusion, development, and fun. 

As an example, in organized sports leagues, birthdates separate divisions; a child born on December 31 is placed in a different division than one born on January 1 despite being born hours apart. I played in a different soccer division than the majority of my classmates because the cutoff date for schools (September 1) and sports leagues (January 1) differed. On the playground, in deliberate play activities at recess, I played with and against my classmates because we created the games; I did not play with children in a different grade because I had a different birth year. 

In child-led activities, children play with younger and older children. The rules often are adapted for each individual based on skill or size. When playing stickball in a dirt field, children may pitch faster to the older children, but slower and from a shorter distance against a younger or less-skilled child. These rules are not pre-determined for the sake of fairness or competitive equality by administrators in an office, as with adult-led activities, but are adapted in the moment by the children to make the game more competitive. The children’s rule adaptations not only maintain the competitiveness and enhance their skill development, but improve creativity, self-regulation, motivation, and more. 

Cote and colleagues categorize these activities in terms of the learning environments that they create. Deliberate practice is rational learning because of the logic and order in an adult-led practice. Play practice is emotional learning because it promotes fun and enjoyment. Spontaneous practice is informal learning because the child has the desire to improve through the self-initiated and self-regulated practice. Deliberate play is creative learning because the child designs the environment. Each learning environment plays a role in development, especially during early childhood, and ignoring any environment may be detrimental. 

When parents and coaches narrow the child’s focus to deliberate practice, the child may suffer from emotional burnout and quit, which is the extreme negative consequence. Beyond quitting, the rational learning may not improve the player’s creativity, problem-solving, and decision-making skills, and the explicit learning environment may lead to skills that break down under pressure. 

On the other hand, a child who engages solely in deliberate play may develop poor technique due to the lack of instruction and/or insufficient repetitions. A child who engages only in spontaneous practice may develop poor technique, and may not transfer the practice from the individual, isolated context to the more social, game context. Play practice may not lead to emotional burnout because the goal is to create fun and enjoyment, but the child may lack sufficient repetitions of important skills, and the activities may limit the child to certain solutions, thereby reducing creativity and problem-solving skills. 

The best developmental environment is one that affords children the time and opportunity to participate in each activity. In our current competition-focused, year-round sports environment, children often miss out on spontaneous practice and deliberate play. The blame falls on the children and technology, but in the average child’s over-scheduled life, when does he or she have time to practice spontaneously or to gather a group of children in the neighborhood for street hockey or stickball? By rushing into early specialization, adult-initiated activities and professionalized training, there is a time cost that limits or eliminates the opportunity to engage in other activities, and ultimately narrows the child’s development unnecessarily. One activity is not necessarily better than the others; learning to practice with concentration and effort, to win, to self-regulate, to include others, to explore, to try new things, to expand one’s skills, and more are valid and important reasons for sports participation. Developmentally, a balance of activities is best. 

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