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Building Motivation: turn on the lights


A coach should strive to see the light come on inside their athletes, and fear the day they might make it go out.

Have you seen it? That moment that your athlete’s posture changes, the smile breaks out on their face, the confidence shift? I live for that moment, it’s what keeps me in the coaching game and I’ll come up with any and every way to explain something until that click happens. It’s the visual confirmation of the difference we make as coaches.

Have you seen the other side? The moment the light goes out? That quick remark you made, that verbal correction that was in front of too many people, the shoulder drop, the eyes darting to the ground, the slow walk away? I’ve seen it, and as a human trying to coach humans, I’ve caused it.  No matter how intense the moment may have felt, it never fails to rip a little hole in my coaching heart when I realize I stole the light I try so hard to give my players.  And those are just the times that I noticed it..

Our words carry with them an incredible power and it took awhile for me to see just how much they matter.  They can propel someone towards their unlimited potential, or they can destroy.  Often, as we see someone struggling and giving up, our knee-jerk reaction is to “ride them” until they turn around.  I know many coaches still feel this way, because it’s the way many of us were coached.  But despite your ability to pull them out of a funk this way and light a fire under them, what are the long-term affects?  Does this create internal motivation; a coping mechanism they can draw on later in life?  Or does it simply create a dependent relationship where they need a push from someone to succeed from now on?  What are the words they learn to use on themselves in their self-talk from that style of motivation?

When I build belief in my athletes, when I turn on the light and they see that they are capable of doing more than they thought and have a purpose in their actions, I am creating a self-motivating mechanism in them.  The light we can help turn on is something they can draw from when they need it, and that will get stronger the more we reinforce it.  Not only am I affecting that athlete, but as they learn this way of motivation they begin to practice it and apply it towards their teammates.  That light can be passed on, it’s incredibly contagious when we feed it.

On the other side, if yelling, humiliating, or giving the hard truth to my athletes no matter how harsh it may come across is how I get results, then this is how they learn to push their teammates too.  Your methods ARE the culture that will be passed along. Perhaps both work, but one is looking at the long game and the other is seeking only immediate results. One builds connections and the other often builds, over time, resentment, frustration, and the need to be re-motivated when there is a need for effort.

Have you ever put out a candle with one of those snuffer things? It only takes a second to do it. Bigger flames are harder to put out, so we hope that we reinforce that light at every interaction. But if we forget our purpose, our words, our mission and we throw water on it, it’s much harder to light again. Keep this in mind with word choices, but more than that, keep this in mind with new players.  Some of these kids come to us with candles that have been flooded for years from past coaches or even from authority figures at home. It may take longer for these kids to turn that light on, but when they do, it will all be worth it.

This is not about sugar coating anything. It’s about saying something in a way that builds their belief in themselves instead of doubts or shame.


“You’re slow as mud, even I could have beat you to that ball and Im way over here!”


“I’ve definitely seen you get there faster than that, try to anticipate that rather than waiting until the ball has already moved and I’ll bet you’ll have it next time.” 


“You haven’t caught a single ball today, there’s 5 people who want your spot, and Im about to give it to one of them.” 


“You’re not catching the same as I’ve seen you in the past, I noticed you’re starting to throw before the ball is settled. Try to calm that down and talk yourself through the catch and see if you can’t clean that up and show me that stick work you impressed me with!”

The skill correction is still there, but the message needs to say: I respect you, you are struggling with a skill but you are not less of a person on this team just because things aren’t perfect right now, I believe in your ability to do better, I want to see you try something that will correct this, and I have a suggestion that will directly help you to address it.

Live and coach to turn the lights on; players can’t reach their potential in the dark.

Dedicated to Coach Sweeney – thanks for turning on the light.

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