When I look back on it, I took the easy way out most of the time as a young coach. No one taught me how to influence others, so like many other coaches I simply adopted the same strategies my parents, teachers and coaches used.
As my career as a coach progressed, I noticed that while conditional attention, aggression and manipulation are fast, effective and reliable tools, they are tools of coercion not motivation.
The secret to motivating others has more to do with the position we choose to take as a coach than the programs we write. This is a story about how I learned to motivate others in a way that built belief, strengthened relationships and won respect.
I was more clown than coach.
Earlier in my career I specialised in coordinating the return to play component of injury rehabilitation. My task was planning and prescribing strength and conditioning loads in the gym and on the field to ensure athletes returned from injury ready to perform.
This turned out to be harder than I thought. I had the authority that comes with expertise and position, but I was not yet respected as my superiors were. Unlike my seniors I could not rely on my status to manipulate my athlete’s effort. I had to learn how to manufacture it instead.
My strategy was centred on competition and entertainment. I would try to out train my athletes and encourage rivalry. I devised all manner of weird and wacky sessions that were more ‘specific’. My theory was ‘if I can beat them at this stuff and keep them interested, I will win respect and they will work harder for me’.
After a while playing the role of class clown exhausted me. I realised I had the whole thing wrong. My aim should not be to entertain or coerce them to work harder for me. I should working to help them see how training harder would matter for them. Training should build athletes up, not break them down.
My competing with athletes did not really inspire them. In fact, I realised some resented it. After all, it’s not about me. It’s about them. The coach who is fitter than their athletes can be a great role model, but not if his or her physical form comes at their cost.
I also realised my overly complex sessions actually made others feel stupid and created an unhealthy dependency. They were not in control of their destiny, they were my passengers. The thing about passengers is, they only go where the bus takes them, they never explore the outer limits of possibility.
Change the Frame to Change the Game.
I decided to rethink the entire premise my sessions were based on. Instead of trying to keep them interested and impress them. I would build a system that put them the driver’s seat, and inspired them to seek out and find the edges of their capacity.
First I simplified my sessions and created a standardised format. This meant that once I explained one session to you, you knew how to complete all other sessions. After I did this I noticed athletes started coaching each other, explaining sessions and making the program their own.
The next thing I did was change the frame. Most programs finish when the work is done. That means the focus is on ‘getting it done’ rather than doing it better. I changed the conditions upon which the session ended. Athletes would only finish when they failed to maintain a prescribed work rate.
No one likes to fail. So now no one wanted to finish. As soon as I made this subtle change I saw huge changes in effort and application. Athletes who before would just comply, were now committing and giving their all. On some occasions I was forced to make guys stop for fear they would miss other commitments.
To progress from one session to the next, athletes were required to beat their previous session. Kind of like those video games where you race your own ghost. Now sessions were focused just as much on effort (internally referenced), as achievement (externally referenced).
Because I started this system at a low level, I made it easy for athletes to acquire quick wins, this built confidence and momentum as they worked their way through each progressive level. Now when it started to get hard, they had a history of success to lean on and push them to new levels of performance.
The last thing I did was create a community scoreboard where athletes in the same subgroups (related to prescribed workloads) would record their results for each session. Now there was a balance pushing themselves and being pulled along by others. I noticed a healthy sort of competition emerging among athletes.
The community scoreboard also worked to promote playful interaction between injured athletes and those in the team. When an injured player would surpass another players record (which may have been set months ago), first thing he would do is let that guy know who the new champ was.
As the sessions got harder, I noticed athletes started taking these sessions very seriously. They would say things like ‘I am going home to get a good sleep before tomorrow’s session’. Or: ‘I need to recover well and nail my nutrition. I think if I come in ready to go if I am going to beat my last effort.’
The best part? my energy was no longer spent on ‘keeping them interested’ or compelling them to try harder. I found myself having real conversations like ‘why don’t you believe you can do this?’ or ‘who do you want to become as athlete?’ or ‘why are you not setting your sights higher?’ Over time I came to realise these are the interactions where coaches really make an impact.
Power vs Force.
About five years later, I had started working with a new team. After my first few months some of my colleagues expressed concern I was not ‘coaching’ my athletes enough. They wondered why I was not pacing the floor, barking orders and standing over athletes. Their mental model of coaching was more expressive instructive and directive. Mine had changed.
Most of us adopt the same behaviours we picked up from others when it comes to getting others to do what we want. As a younger coach my strategy was to look fitter, and bamboozle my athletes into believing in me. It comes from a place of insecurity. Other common strategies are bullying, threatening or ignoring athletes whom don’t live up to expectations.
The above are all methods of force. Force is a popular tool because it is quick, easy and (in the short term) effective. However, the laws of physics tell us when we apply force in on direction, we create an equal and opposite force. As coaches we call this ‘resistance’ and blame and judge others for their ‘lack of commitment’ or ‘heart’ or ‘grit’. Yet the problem is of our own creation.
When we come from a place of power, we get powerful response from our athletes. We call this ‘buy in’, ‘work rate’ or ‘professionalism’. When we come from a place of power, our perspective moves from getting others to believe in us, to helping them believe in themselves. This subtle twist changes everything and instead of using tools of coercion, we discover new methods of motivation.
The difference between power and force is whether you are acting as the driver, or the engineer designing the paths that leads to success. On game day, our athletes are out there alone. If as coaches we set ourselves up to be the saviour, we set them up for failure.
The task is not to drive the bus, but let athletes drive it for themselves on the roads we build for them. Once I decided to spend less time driving and more time shaping the path, I saw huge changes in my athletes. I also heard these words consistently: ‘I am the fittest I have ever been’.
Was it true? Who knows? I was not in the habit of running maximal fitness tests on athletes just prior to their return to play. What I do know is this, once I changed the assumptions I had based my job on, my athletes worked harder than I could ever command them to, and I was no longer the clown trying to keep them entertained, I was the coach.
One of my favourite books on leadership is the Tao Te Ching. I read and reread this verse regularly.