Coaching Today

 Motivating Todays Student MH 

By Dr. Jim Krob

Motivating students is one of the toughest jobs that coaches have in today’s athletic arena. There are so many forces influencing kids that if coaches are fortunate enough to get kids to participate in their sport, they may have a tough time keeping them involved and working hard.

Coaches at the secondary level can exert more influence on a student-athlete’s attitude and work habits than at any other point in their athletic career. Upon observance of successful coaches through the years, the one point that stands out above all others is the ability to get the most out of their athletes.

How do these coaches do it? Is it a case of being able to motivate their squad members or is there some secret formula that they use? Certainly, the key is their ability to motivate these young men and women to “give all they have to give,” whether in practice or competition. Following are some ideas on motivation.

Like most coaches, these techniques on motivation have been garnered or taken from other coaches, from experts in the field of sport psychology or from working with athletes. For starters, motivation may be defined as: “Getting someone to do something they don’t want to do or getting them to do something they want to do better.”

Today’s youngsters are motivated to fulfill their needs. Psychologists tell us that the student-athlete’s two most important needs are to have fun and to feel worthy. A third and perhaps most important today would be, “What am I going to get out of it, or what’s in for me?”

What does this mean to you as a teacher/coach? 

  1. If kids are bored, if they don’t get to play, if no one pays attention to them, you’re going to lose them or you’re going to get minimal effort from them. In this day and age, it’s no disgrace to quit. It was unthinkable during earlier generations, which believed that, “You started it and by golly you’re going to finish it.” This is not the case today.
  2. You have to try to find out why the kids are in your program. Ranier Martens, the founder of the American Sport Education Program coaches training curriculum, indicates that kids go out for a sport for five basic reasons:

a. To gain recognition

b. To feel more adequate and accomplish something

c. To satisfy a parent

d. To impress a girlfriend or boyfriend

e. Because their friends are out there

Why are athletes trying out for your team? What is their major purpose for being there? This makes a big difference in being able to “get to the athlete.” I believe that every individual has a so-called “hot button,” something that fires them up or turns them on. If a coach can find it, this will be the key for individual motivation. If you’re working with a small squad, you may be able to identify and work with these “hot buttons,” but if you have a large group this will be quite a challenge.

Tom Tutko, one of the top sport psychologists in the United States, stated that if you wish to motivate an athlete three things must be present –

  1. They have to feel unique or special in some way.
  2. They have to be handled on a personal level.
  3. They have to understand and be in agreement with individual and team goals.

We know that there are two general types of motivation: internal and external. Internal motivation is something over which coaches have very little control. Coaches can only wish every athlete was motivated in this manner. This is the first kid at practice, the last to leave and the one always hustling. When you ask this kid to do something, he goes all out. Unfortunately, we don’t get many of these kids during our coaching careers, and our success more than likely will be determined by the 90 percent of kids we have to motivate. Psychologists call this external motivation. This motivation comes from someone or something outside of the athlete themselves. A coaching friend once told me, “It’s not how much you know, it’s how you handle the Jimmys and Joes!”

How do we provide that “external motivation?” Bruce Brown in his book “Teaching Character Through Sport,” lists eight key points to be able to develop this motivation for today’s student-athlete.


A coach/teacher who is honest, open and consistent will have the best opportunity to get athletes to respond to him or her. Direct praise and/or direct correction is appreciated by this generation of youngsters. Consequently, try to talk to every kid once at every practice. If you have a large squad, get assistants to help. Psychologists tell us even negative comments are better than ignoring someone. Try to make your comments positive. Sometimes that takes a real stretch. Use their name when you do. “Good job,” doesn’t mean as much to a kid as “good job, Joe!” Will Rogers said, “A person can live for a month on a good compliment!” This still holds true today.

Use good communication form. Look the athlete in the eyes and be able to recognize when he or she is not listening to you. If the athlete is looking down, crossing arms or drawing a line with his or her foot, stop and use the magic word – later. “Come see me after practice.”

It is usually good practice to meet with kids individually when there is a problem and listen to their ideas, complaints or problems. Putting down or criticizing youngsters in front of their peers does not motivate most athletes. Athletes will be more involved if they think they’ve had input into what’s being done. As a rule, coaches are not very good listeners. So, really listen to your kids.

Help your athletes set goals for the team and for themselves. You may not be able to do this with each athlete if your squad is large, but your assistants can help. Always use performance goals, not outcome goals. You cannot control outcomes.

One of Bill Snyder’s (Kansas State University football coach) favorite motivation techniques is to ask athletes after practice, “What did you do today to help reach your goal?” Tom Tutko indicates that sincere and enthusiastic involvement with the players towards common goals is the most effective form of motivation.

Discipline is a must for motivation to take hold – a whole different topic, but a must. In the past, pep talks were thought to be a good tool for motivation. Pep talks still work with immature or young kids, but today’s intelligent athletes know what you’re trying to do and pep talks may have little or no effect. It may be much more effective to stay as calm as possible and be realistic and factual. Exercise specialists have proven that getting kids “fired up” can hurt fine muscle control in activities that require that physical attribute. So remember, it’s often not what you say, but how you say it. A few well-chosen words are always better than lengthy talks.


Small successes lead to bigger ones. Coaches who stress athlete and team improvement will be

ahead in the motivation game over the long run. If your athletes gave a good effort in competition or in practice, let them know it. Athletes are most open to communication at a time like this – not after a loss, a bad experience or an error. Use drills and situations in practice that athletes can handle successfully. It will carry over to game situations.


Motivation that works takes a lot of effort – you have to be fired up every day – not only when you feel good or when things have gone your way. Do not let the small bumps in the road discourage you. The highs are usually very high and sometimes few and far between and the lows can come quite often. Coaching and teaching can be a very bumpy ride. If you are going to be successful at motivating others, it must start at home, regardless of the situation.


It’s hard to motivate if you don’t love your job and look forward to coming to practice every day. Always be on the lookout for those “hot buttons.”  Search for creative things to do at practice. Nothing bores kids more than doing the same warm-up or drill each day. You know what happens. They begin to get sloppy and can develop bad habits. Vary your workouts. Obviously, it is a lot easier and a lot less work to have a set routine. There is nothing basically wrong with routines, if they are exciting and interesting. If you love the game, let it show.

Try to match the difficulty of skills and drills to the ability of your athletes so they can be successful. Keep practice stimulating and interesting, and use a variety of drills. Let the kids – especially your seniors – get involved in helping to plan practices. If possible, change your practice site every now and then. A change of scenery can be very motivating. Use music at practice and let the kids help choose it. You need to be careful to make sure it is appropriate. Keep everyone active, so there is no standing around waiting in line. This takes a lot of organization on your part, but is well worth it. Inactivity leads to discipline problems and boredom. Eliminate this as much as possible. Activity is motivating.


It’s been said that, “Choices are the hinges of destiny!” You have a choice each day to be positive about yourself, other people and life in general. Be upbeat even when correcting errors. Use the sandwich approach – start with something positive (this will get their attention) and then give your correction. Finish with some praise or positive comment.  An example might be: “That was a good pass, but you gave away your pass. This time don’t focus on where your pass is going. If you do that you’ll be one of our best passers.”

No. 6 – FIND VALUE  

Coaches who can motivate find and model individual worth. They attempt to find the good in every athlete. Care, respect and love are the keys. Avoid constant instruction in practice and games. Allow your athletes to play at times. Constant evaluation doesn’t motivate kids.


Newsletters, bulletin boards, Web sites, e-mails, videos, letters to parents, remembering birthdays, and having practice gear and equipment ready instead of having the kids do it, are all examples of the little things that count in motivation. As a coach, you need to be aware of the effect these have on your team. Other specific examples are:

  • Rituals (something that remains constant during the season) and gimmicks (a one-shot special for an opponent or a game.) These can be very motivational. Examples could be using special cheers, special drills, formations, etc.
  • Awards for special efforts. These must be special to be motivating, not something that anyone or everyone gets; such as player of the game, practice player of the week, hardest hitter of the game, etc.
  • Signs and slogans. Put these on T-shirts, post them where people can see them, or e-mail them.
  • Keep a team bulletin board. If possible, place it where the general student body can see it and yet not accessible to them so it isn’t vandalized. We set ours in a trophy case. The board must be kept up to date or the athletes will begin to ignore it. Most athletes love to see their name on a bulletin board. In track and field we posted all medals won in a trophy case, on a velvet covered board, with the athletes name and event. These medals were then handed out after the season at an awards assembly.
  • Post pictures of past champions or record-holders. These can become a point of pride and a real goal for some of your athletes. A record board in a prominent place will accomplish the same purpose. This can be especially motivational if used in a weight room with lifting records per weight class or playing position posted.
  • Keep an Internet site, if possible and keep it updated with results and pictures. Make this available to parents and supporters as well. Along with this, it is very important to keep your faculty advised as to team members, absences, accomplishments, etc. Most faculty really appreciate knowing facts about youngsters they can use to motivate them in their classes.           
  • Work with your local news media to get as much publicity as possible. In some cases you may have to write your own story, but it’s worth the effort. Make sure you get results and schedules to the public by all means possible. You must “blow your own horn!”

All of the above take a lot of time and effort, but it will be worth it in terms of providing motivational opportunities for your squad members. It has been said that, “The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary.” This is especially true when it comes to motivating athletes.


Like any skill you try to teach, the coach needs to be the model for his team and athletes. Students will not be motivated if the coach is not. All things being equal, your athletes will take on your characteristics. Bring your love and enthusiasm to practice daily. Don’t ask them to do something you wouldn’t do yourself.

Following is a list of “Thirteen guidelines for motivation.”  

  1. Most important – BE ENTHUSIASTIC! It’s catching!
  2. Love your kids! It’s hard to motivate someone you dislike and all of us will have some athletes on our squads who we have a hard time liking, but do your best.
  3. Use the sandwich approach to correction.
  4. Talk to every kid every day with something positive.
  5. Make all statements to the media, etc. as positive as possible.
  6. Take the blame if the team or an athlete messes up. As a coach, you must accept the blame for anything negative. Don’t blame kids or you’ll lose them quickly.
  7. If anger is called for, make it at the act, never at the athlete personally – get it over with and then forget it.
  8. Use any positive background material on the student that you can find. Personal information sheets filled out prior to the season are a big help.
  9. Don’t ask kids to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself if you were in their shoes. Think before you speak!! 
  10. Avoid tangible rewards if possible; praise is the best.
  11. Don’t punish kids with the activity you are coaching. It’s hard to have athletes enjoy your sport if you punish them with an activity that is part of your coaching. Example, most coaches use running as a punishment, simply because it works, but is it any wonder kids don’t like to run to get into condition? Make the punishment fit the crime! 
  12. Listen to your student-athletes!
  13. Love your sport and always remember point No. 2! 

You influence many youngsters as a coach; take that responsibility seriously. If you want those athletes to give you maximum effort, you must give them maximum effort in return. Motivation begins at home.      

     Act as if: 
To be sleepy, act sleepy.
     The secret is to act.
To be happy, act happy.
     The secret is to act.
To be enthusiastic, act enthusiastic.
     The secret is to act. (Unknown)

Mother Theresa said, “Unless a life is lived for others, it isn’t worth living!”  We all have a great opportunity to work with youngsters and in many cases provide leadership and motivation for them that they will use the rest of their lives.

References in addition to personal experience used in this article –

The books listed below are excellent sources for further help and information on motivation.

  • Brown, Bruce; “Teaching Character Through Sport,” 2003, Coaches Choice, Monterey, Cal.
  • Janssen, Jeff; “Championship Team Building,” 1999, Winning the Mental Game, Cary, N.C.
  • Manos, Keith; “101 Ways to Motivate Athletes,” 2006, Coaches Choice, Monterey, Cal.
  • Martens, Rainer; “Successful Coaching,” 2004, Human Kinetics, Champaign, Ill.
  • Shoop, Robert & Scott, Susan; “Leadership Lessons from Bill Snyder,” 1999, AG Publishing, Manhattan, Ks.
  • Tutko, Thomas & Richards, Jack; “Psychology of Coaching,” 1971, Allyn & Bacon, Boston, Mass.
  • Warren, William; “Coaching and Motivation,” 1983, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

About the Author: Jim Krob, Ed.D., is an assistant professor at Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas. He has been a teacher and coach for almost 50 years and specializes in sport sociology and sport psychology. He is a coach education specialist at Fort Hays.


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