Thursday, August 21, 2014

Motivation and the Young Athlete (Part 2)

   Here's the second of the two-part guest post from Dr. Tony McGroarty, a sports psychologist with whom I play basketball. In this concluding post, Tony discusses motivation in the context of specific feedback given by young players and coaches themselves. Although his data is older, newer studies have resulted in similar findings (e.g., the importance of FUN). As in the first part, his ideas apply equally to all sports.

The Players Speak

If we have the prudence to ask, players will tell us what conditions create motivation to begin playing in the first place, what conditions create the motivation to continue playing and what conditions lower that motivation, sometimes to the point where they drop out. The Athletic Footwear Association sponsored a survey of youth sports participation conducted by the Youth Sports Institute at the University of Michigan. They did ask some kids - 3,900 boys and girls, grades 7 to 12, to be exact. The number one reason both boys and girls gave for playing sports was "To have fun". The first two reasons for quitting a sport were: "I lost interest" and "I was not having fun". The number one change which would bring players back to a sport they quit was, "I would play again if... practices were more fun". The lists follow.

The 12 Most Important Reasons I Play My Best School Sport

1. To have fun 1. To have fun
2. To improve skills 2. To stay in shape
3. Excitement of competition 3. To get exercise
4. To do something I'm good at 4. To improve skills
5. To stay in shape 5. To do something I'm good at
6. Challenge of competition 6. To be part of a team
7. To be part of a team 7. Excitement of competition
8. To win 8. To learn new skills
9. To compete at higher level 9. For the team spirit
10. To get exercise 10. Challenge of competition
11. To learn new skills 11. To compete at higher level
12. For the team spirit 12. To win

The Coaches Respond

These findings speak for the soccer players we are charged to train. They can be seen as guides which steer us in the right direction while developing a mission statement for the organization or a philosophy of coaching. The kids can tell us so much about what they need in order to begin playing soccer and to continue in the game. Their words can be used to help us formulate a set of principles youth coaches can use to increase player motivation.

Coaching Principles
The overriding goal of soccer coaches for all age groups is to find the balance between being an external source of motivation and encouraging the growth of internal motivation. How this is done depends on an assessment of where the athlete is in the process and then judging how much external motivation is necessary to help the player improve.

Another guiding principle for the coach is to make the expectations for the players clear and challenging, yet attainable. Coaches should strive to introduce new skills and tactics which stretch their players' abilities; but not so far that the players become too anxious about failing. On the other hand, coaches should avoid making the expectations too low because the players will learn nothing new and become bored.

The principle of providing encouragement through the use of positive feedback is more complicated than it appears. It turns out that giving players only positive feedback does less for their motivation than mixing it with honest criticism of their play. Players who receive honest feedback about mistakes as well as instruction on how to improve their game are happier with the sport experience and their coach than are those who are only praised. This is not criticism in the form of putting the player down. It is constructive in that mistakes are identified and corrected. In this way the player is clear about how far off the performance is, about the proper way to execute the skill, and about what to do to improve.

The method of offering feedback when a player has made an error or when trying a new move but does not have it down quite right is called the "sandwich" method of offering constructive criticism. Teaching the player how to do it correctly is sandwiched between two evaluative statements. For example, lets say the defender failed to offer support to a teammate on defense and the error in judgment led to a goal against. The coach could make the following three statements: "Where's your head? We went over that yesterday in practice. You have to pay more attention in practices." he coach using the sandwich method to teach the same player would make these three statements: "Jimmy, you didn't support Alex there. When Alex steps up you need to stay connected on the inside. You'll get it next time!" This second coach's statements convey specifics about what the younger, and sometimes the older, player needs from the coach to maintain motivation--to learn new skills and see that the coach has confidence in them. As athletes mature and gain experience through playing time, similar phrases become internalized and are used by players to criticize, correct and encourage themselves.

Coaches who adopt the principle of teaching players to think for themselves and to learn from the consequences of making their own decisions will have athletes who learn faster because they are more focused and better able to evaluate themselves and others. Soccer is a game of instant decisions requiring players to be creative on the field. Coaches who are constantly yelling instructions from the sidelines inhibit their players' ability to think for themselves. The players are distracted from what is happening on the field because their attention is directed at the sideline, not on the here-and-now flow of the game. There are some things coaches can do to promote focus, communication and creativity in their soccer players. Most teaching should be confined to practice and half-time. Coaches can help players focus on the flow of the game by being as quiet as possible during the scrimmage at the end of practice and during the game. When a player comes off the field or when the team gathers at half-time, self-evaluation can be encouraged by asking what is going well and what needs to change before the coach launches into instructions. If an important adjustment must be made during the game, the coach can tell the captain or the closest outside midfielder to convey the message to the team on the field. This approach gives players opportunities to practice leadership and effective communication.

Fairness and consistency are very important principles for promoting internal motivation in the younger athlete. If players go in and out of the game using rolling substitutions and learn they will play an equal amount of time regardless of how they are performing, then each player will feel relaxed enough to try new skills during the game without the fear of being taken out because of a mistake. Effort is emphasized over immediate results, success is defined by player improvement rather than by goals scored or wins and healthy risk-taking is the norm rather than the exception. This approach most closely resembles the atmosphere of a neighborhood pick-up game where the kids figure it out by themselves. The coach who teaches skills and allows the kids to play the game accelerates the "figure it out" part. The players do not need the coach to show them how to have fun.

If we let our young athletes "play" the game, we can learn a lot about human potential from our players--and have fun in the process. When the players and the coaches have fun at practices and games they will be motivated to be with the team again next season. That kind of success is a great source of motivation which makes winners of us all.

Dr. Tony McGroarty is a clinical and sport psychologist in the Pittsburgh area. He welcomes your questions and suggestions. Please contact him at: or (412) 983-1790 or 242 S. Highland Ave. Pittsburgh, PA 15206.

Copyright © 2014 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved

If you enjoyed this article, you may like my book: The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the Best Youth Sports Experience for Your Child

($8.95; Kindle: $2.99)


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Motivation and the Young Athlete (Part 1)

   Here's the first of a two-part guest post from Dr. Tony McGroarty, a sports psychologist with whom I play basketball. In these articles, Tony discusses motivation and how it impacts the performance and development of young soccer players. Although the article is directed at the soccer community, his ideas apply equally to all sports. Tony's philosophy mirrors many of the principles I advocate in my writings, but he goes into much greater detail and brings a professional psychologist's perspective.


Thought, emotion, and movement are woven together to create the performance you see on the soccer field. You, athletes and coaches, love what you do! Right? I hope so. You work hard in practice and in competition year after year, persevering with a sense of joy. This, of course, is the ideal situation. It is ideal; but it is not unrealistic to expect a good dose of joy along the way as you accomplish the goals you set for yourself. It keeps you going, no matter what the pursuit. You feel motivated! Others say you are a motivated coach and soccer player.

What is motivation and how can the player and coach make it happen? Some things in soccer are clear because they can be measured: your time in the 40, the score of the game, goals per game average. Other aspects of the game are not so easily understood: shifts in momentum during the game, the appearance and disappearance of a slump, the experience of being in the zone. Motivation is likewise a perplexing concept. Because it takes place within the individual player or team member, it cannot be seen nor easily measured. When the goalkeeper spends time after practice on footwork, when the defender doggedly marks a forward for a full eighty minutes, when the two captains run and lift weights during the off season, we say those players are motivated. However, what we observe in the players' actions at practice, during games, and in the off season is not motivation. It is the end result of motivation which really is psychological activity occurring within the soccer player. Motivation takes place within the individual.

What is it that occurs within a soccer player that constitutes motivation? Thoughts and emotions are the two psychological activities continually at work within each of us as we go through the day. Motivation is a particular form of thinking and feeling about something we want to do.

External and Internal Sources of Motivation

Young children rely on adults to teach them how to think clearly and how to understand and properly express their feelings. Much of the motivation to play soccer, especially for micro through U-8, comes from the external world of important adults such as parents and coaches. As children get older, the source of their motivation to play gradually becomes more internal. But, throughout childhood and adolescence there is always a mix of internal and external influences on motivation. Even the youngest athlete is internally motivated to some degree and older players still require external sources of support to maintain their motivation.

External Sources for Motivation
Young children characteristically are motivated by external forces. External motivation refers to the situation where the player decides to play or to continue playing because of the influence of others or because they expect rewards or punishments. From the viewpoint of the child, the influence can either be positive or negative.

Positive External Motivation
Here are some examples of positive external motivation: the child plays soccer to please the parent, to wear a "cool" uniform, or to be thought of by friends as part of the in-group. These types of reasons for playing produce the joy of anticipation before the game and feelings of pride when others show enjoyment from the sideline.

Negative External Motivation
All forms of external motivation are not accompanied by such pleasurable feelings. Negative external influences also act to motivate the athlete. An example of a negative external influence is when the child keeps playing during the season because of fear. The player may fear that a parent would be angry and resort to punishment if the child did not finish out the season. The child might be afraid to lose friends for not joining the team. Sometimes, the child who is motivated at first by a negative force such as fear may actually learn to enjoy playing soccer and become influenced by the more positive sources of motivation.

Internal Sources of Motivation

As the child grows motivation matures. During the middle school years the U-12 through U-14 soccer player begins to show signs of genuine internal motivation to play the game. It's great benefit to the player is that there is less need to depend on outside influences to keep playing Internal motivation cannot begin to arrive on the scene until the child can think analytically and have control over emotions. On the middle school soccer team we often see fluctuations in the balance between external and internal motivation. One day the player is excited about practice or makes plans to go jogging. Another day this same child would rather play a video game or hang out with friends than go to practice or even play in a game.

Changes take place within the middle school player which support the internalization of motivation. They can think more abstractly. Abstract thinking ushers in the possibility of making a more realistic evaluation of themselves and others. Coaches and parents now begin to see the appearance of true competitiveness and authentic feelings of soccer competence. Self doubt may appear for the first time as a consequence of the young player's making a realistic appraisal of skills and finding areas of weakness. The U-13 players who understand their emotions better can, for example, use aggression appropriately without losing control and seeing constructive aggression turn to undermining anger. However, kids at this age still get too angry at themselves and others during practices and games.

One can expect the high school player to have methods for motivation in place. Internal motivation requires higher-level thinking for players to put setbacks into perspective and for working toward a goal far into the future. In order to counteract feelings such as boredom, frustration and discouragement experienced during the demands of a long season, the high school player will intentionally think about winning the state championship game to generate happy feelings connected to the win. But just because internal motivation predominates, it does not mean that the high school player is ready to go it alone. Although players U-14 and older can gradually make better evaluations of the performances of self and others and set realistic goals for improvement, they still need the support of others. In fact, the truly internally motivated player knows when help is needed and how to find it.

The Goal: Skills for Healthy Self-regulation

The key difference between the athlete who becomes internally motivated and the one who remains dependent on motivation from without is that the player who is internally motivated is less vulnerable to the inevitable setbacks and obstacles encountered by those who put themselves on the line and strive for excellence. Internal motivation develops when the athlete and coach plan strategies for improvement and find a network of people who provide support. Athletes still playing at the high school level have developed psychological skills which strengthen internal motivation through self-regulation of their thoughts and emotions. For instance, they can change doubt to hope by transforming thinking from negative to positive. They can control competition anxiety through the use of routines and self-relaxation methods. High school athletes look to their coaches for skill and tactical training and, just as importantly, coaches become a source for rebuilding the internal motivation which can be seriously challenged by the physical and psychological demands of playing at a high level.

Next Week: The Players Speak and The Coaches Respond!

Dr. Tony McGroarty is a clinical and sport psychologist in the Pittsburgh area. He welcomes your questions and suggestions. Please contact him at: or (412) 983-1790 or 242 S. Highland Ave. Pittsburgh, PA 15206.

Copyright © 2014 Jeffrey S. Rhoads. All Rights Reserved

If you enjoyed this article, you may like my book: The Joy of Youth Sports: Creating the Best Youth Sports Experience for Your Child

($8.95; Kindle: $2.99)