Home Baseball Content How to Cultivate Intrinsic Motivation in Young Athletes

How to Cultivate Intrinsic Motivation in Young Athletes

Written on April 21, 2015 at 7:50 am, by Eric Cressey

Today's guest post comes from former Cressey Sports Performance intern, John O'Neil, who has a huge interest in long-term athletic development. Enjoy!

In his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, author Daniel Pink outlines what defines true intrinsic motivation. As a coach, we clamor for multiple things: control, results, and motivated clients. In dealing with young clients, how do we develop a young athlete from someone who can’t define the word motivation into someone who comes to exemplify the definition of the word? Using strategies I learned practically and have organized through Pink’s motivation structure, here’s an outline of how I incorporate subtle motivation tactics while also gauging a youth athlete’s motivational progress.

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According to Pink, true motivation is a blend of three factors; autonomy, mastery, and purpose. You can’t have mastery or purpose before you have autonomy. Autonomy in the training process is a client’s ownership of their program, understanding that while they are provided structure and coaching, they are the one executing the movements and looking to improve upon their given goals.

Mastery is the ability to perform the process of the given program to the point where variables – movement type, loading scheme, structure – need to be altered periodically to maintain both psychological interest and physiological adaptations.

Purpose is a client’s awareness that movements they are given have reasons in progression towards their goals and the client feeling the need to continue the process to optimize performance.

While this progression is long-term, when these pillars are in place, we have created true motivation within the client. What kind of strategies can we practically implement to lay the foundations for autonomy, mastery, and purpose?

Autonomy: We provide the client with structure, but at what point is structure overbearing to the point where it diminishes an athlete's motivation? There needs to be an element of client responsibility within the process. Challenge your athletes to make decisions in the weight room as they will have to on the field. Incorporate options, not demands. Practically:

  1. Have your youth athletes carry their own programs and write in their own weights. While this sounds simple, how can something seem like it's truly yours if you never carry it, and you can't make your mark on it?
  2. Instruct clients on where to be, but make them responsible for being there. For example, once the kid knows where the warm-up area is, it shouldn't be up to us to lead them there and take them through foam rolling each time. Make sure they're doing what they should be without coaching everything again. Knowledge is power. Allow them to use knowledge you've given them.
  3. Let the client participate in the process of picking weights. Once they know an exercise and have an idea where to start, give them the option of choosing, say, 5 pounds heavier or 10 pounds heavier on the next set. I have one rule with my clients in regards to this: if you pick your own weight from options I give you, you better be confident in your decision. If not, I choose. Confidence in your selection will breed confidence in the movement and in the process in general.
  4. Have them rack and load their own weights. While a coach can and should help sometimes, a coach should never do all of the work for a youth athlete. Make them responsible for their own process and be respectful of where they are.
  5. Consider incorporating varying rep and/or rest schemes. There is nothing wrong with throwing in an exercise here and there that is listed as “6-8” or “8-10” reps. Assuming the client is proficient in the movement and not blowing past technical failure, this forces the client to make a decision while amidst the action. Is there anything more similar to sport than that? Another, and often times easier applicable option, is to allow rest to be up to the client. Give them a window - i.e., 3-4 minutes for a heavy strength set, or 30-60 seconds in conditioning - that makes them take responsibility for when they start the next set.
  6. Include the youth athlete in the scheduling process. In my experience, there seems to be a clear middle school/high school divide in terms of kids knowing their own schedules. Most middle school kids leave it up to mom to be chauffeured from activity to activity, not necessarily knowing what comes next until it's almost time, whereas most high school kids have knowledge of their schedules. While you can't practically leave it 100% up to many kids, you can at least broach the conversation and force them to think about when the best time for them to come back in would be.

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Mastery: Training models should stress the process, not the outcomes. We can monitor and control the process, but we can’t control the outcomes. We can, however, have a heavy influence on the outcomes and give our youth athletes as much opportunity for success as possible. A kid doesn’t necessarily have to be able to execute every movement to a “T” without coaching (most won’t), but they should gain knowledge of what they are trying to do and the difference between wrong and right. They should be held accountable to follow coaching when given and communicate with the coach about what they felt and how it went. Practically:

  1. Over time, the client should gain knowledge of the names and positions of given exercises, and they should be held accountable in doing so. If something says “half-kneeling cable chop” and the client routinely goes to the squat rack for it, we’re in trouble. The process can’t be mastered until it is understood.
  2. Allow this process to shift from a conscious one to an unconscious one. A foam rolling series, for example, isn’t “mastered” until someone can just go from one spot to another without being told and can hold a conversation in doing so.
  3. To steal a quote from Eric, our most important job as coaches is to prepare our athletes for the day they are on their own. While coaching and monitoring will always be paramount, our clients will hopefully go on to play at the next level and won’t always be able to train with us. By the time they do so, they should have an understanding of types of things they should and shouldn’t be doing/feeling.
  4. New variations are understood to be progressions of previous ones. If you spend a month goblet squatting a kid and then progress them to a double kettlebell front squat, you shouldn’t have to re-teach anything except the intricacies of the grip. If you have to, the kid really hasn’t put that mental effort into it that would allow us to believe they have taken ownership of the process.

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Purpose: At this level, the client craves training. They know that the training process is a contributor towards the success they have experienced with their goals, and that without it, they would not have achieved their level of success. You no longer have to stay on top of the athlete about keeping up with things like in-season training or any take-home mobility drills you’ve given them. Rather, you know that it has become as important to them as it is to you. Our practical motivational strategies are moot point with this type of client; they are already ingrained within them. We program and monitor with the goal of optimizing progress, but coaching becomes more guidance than dictation. Success experienced by an athlete with purpose and true intrinsic motivation breeds the desire to continue the process that got them there and builds a craving to experience success at a higher level. It should be every coach’s goal to have a stable of clients that exhibit this.

About the Author

John O’Neil is a strength and conditioning coach at The Annex Sports Performance Center in Chatham, NJ and Drive495 in New York, NY. He previously interned at Cressey Sports Performance and Ranfone Training Systems. You can contact him at joh.oneil@gmail.com and on Twitter.

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