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How can coaches influence players and motivate athletes?

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Lindsay Kibler

Women’s Lacrosse Coach, Linfield University, DU Alumna, 2017

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female lacrosse coach talking to her team on the field

It may be one of the most common questions coaches strive to answer.

I’ll explore this topic using 5 simple steps. But first …..

What is motivation? A quick Google search might tell you that it’s, ‘the reason one has for acting or behaving in a particular way.’ Other terms that come to mind may be inspiration, ambition, or determination.

I did a quick survey of athletes in my own community, asking them how they’ve been influenced or motivated by coaches and mentors. Here are a few responses I received:

Athlete 1: I had an assistant coach in high school who was the Pastor at my church and the dad of another player, but someone I didn’t know all that well. He made a big difference for me during my very first practice freshman year of high school. We were doing full field sprints, just down and back, nothing else to it. It was my first time doing full field sprints, and I was really struggling to make it and felt like I needed my inhaler. Next thing I know, he’s running alongside me, holding my inhaler. He finished my sprints with me, no words said, no pity, no nothing. He simply knew I needed support, and he provided it.

Athlete 2: In one of our individual meetings, my coach told me that she admired that I never quit even when it took me way longer than everyone else. I always finish. Now, when I feel like I can’t finish, I remember how many times I’ve finished before when it was hard. Basically, when coaches see things and intentionally point them out, they influence you to stay positive, or even to just keep going.

Athlete 3: One of my middle school coaches used to bribe us with those sugar cookies with the frosting, which I think works really well on young athletes.

Athlete 4: I think the pregame speech holds a lot of weight for me as I’ve gotten older. If my coach is hyped up before the game, then I feel like the hype carries over to me and my teammates.

What phrases come to mind when you’re trying to motivate an individual or a team in the moment?

These are some of mine:

Dig deep! You’re strong!
I believe you can do this!
I want you to aim ‘here’ or move ‘here’ next time you’re on the field.
What else can you give to the team?
Leave it all on the field!

These phrases that we throw out to our team on game day are simple, quick, in-the-moment reminders of motivation. Motivation is something built over time. We may find motivation from someone or something else, but ultimately, it’s your own body and mind that discover the will to move forward.

It’s rare that we are instantaneously motivated to do something. There’s usually a predetermined factor that moves us to take action. A coach or mentor may say something or give an example that resonates with you, which sparks that motivation.

This brings us back to the question at hand.

How can coaches motivate athletes?

I find that the simplest answer to this, is reminding athletes of their why. What do they want, and why do they want to achieve it?

If coaches can help athletes answer their why, and better understand their reason for showing up to practice every day, then we can discover their innate motivation. I believe coaches are a vehicle for bringing the puzzle pieces together to show athletes their purpose, which creates motivation. To build off Eleanor Roosevelt who stated that, 'no one can make you feel inferior without your consent,' I apply this to motivation in that, ‘no one can motivate you without your consent.’

Here’s a quick recap from Psych 101. You may be familiar with motivational theories from psychologists such as B.F. Skinner and Abraham Maslow (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). In short, Skinner delineates behavior and consequence focusing on positive reinforcement, positive punishment, negative reinforcement, and negative punishment (more on that HERE) better known as Extrinsic motivation. While Maslow is known for his Intrinsic motivational theory (more on that HERE).

Imagine a time when you were struggling to overcome an obstacle. It may have been physically difficult, mentally difficult, or overwhelming both mentally and physically. Why did you lack motivation? Was it fear of failure? Lack of preparation? Perhaps lack of confidence? Lack of reward? Lack of basic needs?

What helped you become motivated? Was it an extrinsic reward such as money? Was there a self-fulfillment need (a personal accomplishment)? Or, were you motivated by a basic need like food or water?

As you realize that you may have a preference or need for motivation, it’s important to realize that each athlete has a different need as well. Here’s my process for motivating athletes:

5 steps for coaches to motivate athletes:

Step 1: Identify what the athlete wants

Step 2: Identify why the athlete wants what they want

Step 3: Develop an action plan to achieve their wants (or goals)

Step 4: Utilize tools and resources such as speakers, books, stories, quotes, reflection and/or visualizations to remind, re-establish and encourage them to pursue their intention.

Step 5: On game-day, remind athletes of their why

See how Coach Kibler kept her team motivated throughout the COVID pandemic.

I love serving as a coach because I find it most rewarding to see the potential in athletes and to watch them realize their potential as they grow. That’s how I approach motivating my athletes. I build off the skills they have, and I’m fueled by what they could achieve. I study my athletes and build relationships with them. I help them identify what they want to achieve. I openly share with my athletes the potential I see in them.

Motivation is built over time. Theodore Roosevelt said, ‘They don’t care about how much you know, until they know how much you care.’ This concept can be seen as a building block to motivating athletes. They need to know you believe in them, so they believe in themselves.

Building motivation over time can look like many different things. I suggest that you, as a coach, ask your athletes what motivation means to them and how they prefer to be motivated. Some athletes want a coach that will push them, and they respond well to a more intense tone. Others prefer routine check-ins to keep them on track. You may have athletes who prefer to hear stories and examples that they can relate to. Some are better motivated by their peers, while others prefer visualization. And in some cases, an athlete may not know what is most motivating for them. Everyone is different, and it’s important for coaches to realize that you can’t treat all athletes the same.

The work you do as a coach to build motivation over time, is what allows you to have a bigger impact during those in-the-moment, game-day and pre-game talks. Once you’ve built the foundation, you’ve helped instill the confidence as fuel for motivation because they will feel prepared. And in those short bursts where you need to motivate athletes in their pregame, it simply becomes the extra kick into gear, because we fall to the level of our training.

I’m not here to tell you what’s right or wrong. Based on my own experience, I correlate intrinsic motivation with athletes and those who seek to achieve success for something bigger than their self.

Imagine that you are the athlete, and your coach shouts the below phrases to you during a game. Which one causes you to feel more motivated, phrase 1 or phrase 2?

Phrase 1) “You’re doing great!”
Phrase 2) “The way you flipped your hips in transition to slow the ball down was exactly what we worked on! Did you feel that? It looked great!”

Phrase 1) “Make smarter decisions!”
Phrase 2) “During that interception you threw, you had a teammate wide open on the left side. Next time, try to scan for more options and I’ll tell your teammate to call louder for the ball when she’s open. Sound good?”

Phrase 1) “We need to stop dropping the ball…”
Phrase 2) “If you drop the ball again, try to remember to box out so you can have more space to pick it back up! Remember how we positioned our feet in practice to establish our space?”

Would you agree that Phrase 2 adds more value to the athlete’s understanding? Would this perhaps better motivate them to improve?

To expand on the 5 steps mentioned earlier, here are a few tips and reminders:

  • Identify, and then continually remind athletes of their why.
  • Build a relationship. Find out what motivation tactics an athlete finds helpful.
  • Remember: They don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care.
  • Prepare every day. Use different resources and challenges so that on game day, you can flip on the switch and remind them of what they’re capable of because they’ve already done it before.
  • Be grateful. Release whatever stress you’re feeling, and allow room for growth and opportunity.

I’m not a motivational speaker, and sometimes I struggle to articulate the impact I hope to have on the team. Here are some books I recommend for coaches who want to have a meaningful impact on the athletes they serve:

The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey
Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink
Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins
PUSH by Jon Willis


Meet Lindsay Kibler:

Lindsay is currently the head women’s lacrosse coach at Linfield University. She earned her Master of Arts in Sport Coaching degree from the University of Denver in 2017.

Connect with Lindsay on Instagram @CoachKibs_45

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