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Should athletes turn to their coach when searching for motivation?

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SETTING TONGUES WAGGING: Can pre-match anthems and traditions derail performers' focus? The Haka raises passions but appears to help, not hinder the All Blacks.

  • Getting and staying motivated should be a joint effort between coach and performer
  • It is the coaching team’s responsibility to create an environment for motivation to flourish
  • Representing your country – or, at grassroots level, for your club side in an important competition – can provide its own motivation
  • Injections of inspiration may also be needed at times to maintain or boost perfomers’ levels of enthusiasm
  • Making sessions challenging but enjoyable will help fuel performers’ motivation
  • Applying the principles of Self Determination Theory is a good way to build a healthy motivational climate 

The Rugby Football Union and Football Association have poured cold water on plans by campaigners to replace God Save the Queen at international matches with a more motivational patriotic hymn.

A bill proposed by Labour MP Toby Perkins has had two readings in Parliament but the likelihood of Jerusalem, I Vow to Thee My Country or Land of Hope and Glory usurping the traditional anthem that precedes games seems as unlikely as Dylan Hartley taking up embroidery. 

Fans seem to be under the impression that a blood-pumping, vein-popping national anthem stokes the internal fires of the players to ensure they come storming out of the blocks. 

It certainly excites the passions of the spectators, the 12th man, and helps to create a partisan atmosphere contagious in its fervour. 

On the sporting stage, where even the most microscopic advantage is highly prized, supporters argue that a rousing anthem serves an important purpose. 

But while renditions of Flower of Scotland, Land of Our Fathers and Ireland's Call may well be goose bump-inducing for those in the stands ahead of Six Nations clashes with England, the minds of the players are impregnable to outside influences minutes before a game, and focused on the orders of the coach, not on the dulcet operatic tones of a Katherine Jenkins or Susan Boyle. 

The whole debate set me to thinking about the issue of motivation in sport, supposedly the cornerstone of success for athletes. 

A high quality coach must endeavour to provide an environment for motivation to flourish. They should also possess the ability to inspire their athletes and fuel their fire by transferring their own passion to the players. 

But is it really a coach’s responsibility to be the single biggest source of inspiration for their players? 

Balancing act 

ConnectedCoaches member and one of the England Under-18 Girls' hockey coaches, Andy Bradshaw, thinks it’s a bit of both and believes a balanced approach is advisable. 

When you are working with a national team, representing their country, this in itself often provides sufficient motivation. But there might still be times when you need to inspire and provide a touch more external motivation to the players.

‘When might you need to balance this approach? It depends. Each individual will be different and what gets them going will vary. Motivation might change considerably between training, fitness work, friendly matches and internationals. It will also alter across the age groups as experience grows. 

‘There may be times when you need to provide some extra prompts because, particularly with developing players – and although they are playing for England – they often still need some further inspiration.'

One method Andy and his team have explored, with great effect, is to use senior players as role models, sharing their experiences and journeys with younger squads. 

‘You need to be able to judge the situation and be flexible about how you, as the coach, approach things,' he adds. 'Knowing your players and your group and judging what is required, in what format and when, is crucial.’ 

Jon Wyse is the British American Football Association’s (BAFA) Director of Coaching. He believes it is the coach’s responsibility to provide a suitable environment for athletes to discover for themselves what motivates them. 

‘A coach should look to manipulate the environment and to set up structures that aid motivation,’ he says, ‘and to make the experience so enjoyable and challenging that it ignites a spark in the players or adds fuel to the spark they may already have. 

‘It’s really important to facilitate the players’ motivation, just occasionally pushing or pulling them, planting suggestions in the player or offering them challenges that get the players to recharge their enthusiasm. 

‘It’s a joint effort, therefore. In football, it’s become something of a cliché that information should be initiated by the coaches and maintained by the players. And I think that’s the same with motivation – the coaches should provide the basis for motivation but it’s then down to the players to pick it up and run with it.’ 

Ingenious strategies 

An effective coach will arm him or herself over time with a catalogue of motivational techniques, drawing on a particular approach to fit the circumstances. 

Jon made reference to former San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh, whose methods were quite ingenious. 

He would intentionally create tension with his assistant coaches – who were in on the act – by manipulating situations in training. 

After rebuking his assistants for errors the players had made, the latter would then feel responsible and set about making amends. As a motivational strategy, it worked wonders, although it was used sparingly for fear of the players cottoning on. 

Harking back to national anthems, Andy reiterates the need for balance. 

Whether plodding and prosaic or wonderfully uplifting, what stirs the passions varies from performer to performer. 

Some may thrive on the emotion, others may struggle and need support in developing coping strategies to stay focused. 

‘When our girls stand up and sing God Save the Queen it still makes the hair stand up on my neck, on the side of the pitch, and it’s a hugely proud moment for them. 

‘But in the time immediately preceding an international, you also want your players to be focused on the game-plan. You expect them to go through the pre-match preparation of warm-ups, line-ups, national anthems and swapping pennants in a calm and collected way, rather than allow themselves to get too over-hyped. 

‘You want that embodiment of national pride, of course, but a heart in the fire and head in the fridge is the ideal pre-match psychological state. 

‘Of course you want passion but you want the players to be able to execute their game-plan effectively. If they are over-energised, some won’t be able to do that.’ 

Andy says the Under-18s coaching team have explored one of the techniques the All Blacks use to help their emotion regulation – and recognition of when they might be just tipping over the edge:

All Blacks

‘What we have worked on with our players is an understanding of what this means for our squad and them as individuals. What Red Head and Blue Head look like and feel like for each player, what terms/language might suit us better. Then try to apply these three areas in training and matches: 

  • Seek to stay in Blue Head as your default setting.
  • Sense cues when you are entering Red Head mode.
  • Use a physical or mental trigger to get yourself back into Blue Head. 

‘It’s been a work in progress but, as ever, just discussing this with the players has been a useful and powerful exercise.’ 

Invoking passion through the medium of song may be ideal preparation in the minds of the fervent spectators, but for performers the challenge is to channel the passion and keep emotions under control.  

As for the All Blacks, they have clearly worked on this … the pre-match Haka certainly raises the pulse a beat or two but appears to help, not hinder, most of the time. 

Theory into practice 

The motivational environment that is created by the coach is an area that Andy in his ‘day job’ as a member of the Talent & Performance Coaching team with sports coach UK regularly focuses on – using Self Determination Theory to help coaches further understand and apply this.

Figure 1

Andy explains: ‘The three key psychological needs of autonomy, relatedness and competence have to be satisfied for motivation to be maintained and grown.

‘The research describes autonomy as the feeling that you have control over your own actions. Relatedness is having a sense that you belong and competence is having the perception you have adequate ability.’ 

But what does this really mean for coaches and how they coach?

  • Autonomy – are performers given ownership, encouraged to input and provided with choices? Do they have time for themselves to work on their own at times?
  • Relatedness – is group identity explored, cohesion developed and friendships explored? Is it also clear how training sessions relate to match play or how conditioning/fitness programmes impact on performance levels?
  • Competence – are players rewarded on their effort, self-development and progress? Is the focus on task and mastery rather than just winning? (although this balance will change the further performers go).

Andy concludes: ‘There is so much within this theory that coaches can explore with their performers and within their coaching teams. It is a really accessible theory and one that makes a lot of sense when you start to unpick the detail.’

Have you any motivational tips? Please share them below

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Comments (2)

Great article, I am working with a rowing 4 whose confidence is massivley impacting on their ability to produce the form they are capable of when competing. Really like the Blue/Red Head thinking. Only got 2 weeks before the big event for this boat. Approaching this by looking at the individuals and how they experience this and where their individual triggers and tipping points are and what happens for them then going to look at them as the whole boat to keep focus on what they can influence and control and not on anything else.

I don't think the coach can provide the motivation and belief but can guide the individuals and team to find their own.
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Appreciate the feedback Andy and best of luck on the big day.
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