Understanding Your Athletes
Keith Manos is the former Athletic Director and current Head Wrestling Coach at Richmond Heights (Ohio) High School.
It's no secret that what motivates one athlete can leave another indifferent. Some live for the fire of competition and anything that will help them better an opponent gets them going. Others need a tangible reward to bring out their best. And some create their own motivation through the internal satisfaction of a job well done. Chances are there’s a mix of these athletes on any given team. But how is a coach to know who is motivated by what?
This essential coaching knowledge is especially hard to come by when each season brings new athletes with different backgrounds, experiences, and motivations. And returning letter winners can grow into much different people than they were the year before. To help all these athletes succeed, it is imperative to learn about each one individually and then use that information as you coach them through the trials and tribulations that a season brings.
The most obvious starting point is to have brief, informal discussions with each athlete about his or her interests and background. Typical questions may include: How important are sports to you? Does competition excite you? What do you like and dislike about practice? These talks are a thorough and personal way to discover information, but they’re also time consuming, particularly with a football team or other large squad.
Another way to learn more about athletes is to have them complete a brief questionnaire about their perception of success. (Click here to access a Web version of the Perceptions of Success survey or here for a PDF version.) This survey identifies the qualities an athlete associates with athletic achievement. For example, do they consider talent more important than attitude? Is possessing physical strength more essential than working hard?
Armed with insights into the athlete's view of his or her potential to succeed in sports, coaches can decide how to better motivate that particular individual—whether to build an athlete’s confidence, work on his or her ability to focus, or improve his or her knowledge of the sport. A coach can learn whether an athlete is better motivated by appealing to his or her competitive nature or by acknowledging that person’s dedication to the team. The bottom line is the coach learns each athlete’s personal beliefs about what it takes to succeed—information that might go unlearned without this survey.
You can obtain a deeper comprehensive psychological profile of each athlete through a competitive behavior questionnaire. (Access the Competitive Behavior Questionnaire by clicking here for a Web version or here for a PDF version.) Athletes answer a series of questions about their response to competition, with stronger reactions resulting in higher scores. High scores (46-56) suggest a high level of tension about competition. Athletes who total 35 points or less typically suffer little anxiety about competition.
The results of this questionnaire enable a coach to discern in detail a player's mental approach to competition and associated anxieties. For athletes who record high anxiety scores, a coach can work on relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, visualization exercises, and a good warmup. For athletes with low scores, coaches may want to provide some external motivation to ensure they remain enthusiastic and excited about competing.
Next, your attention should turn to your athletes’ sources of motivation. A study of 8,000 student-athletes ages 10-18 conducted by Michigan State University professors Martha Ewing and Vern Seefleldt indicated the primary reason most kids participate in sports is for affiliation—they like socializing with others. For a smaller group of athletes, the key motivation is an intrinsic need to perform successfully or an extrinsic need to gain rewards. A minority of youth athletes said they simply enjoy pressure and competition. A motivation questionnaire (click here to access the Web version or here for the PDF version) can help you learn more about the personal motivations of your particular athletes, information you can then use to keep them motivated through the season.
Coaches can use results from the motivation survey to help players set realistic goals. Those who are motivated by the need to succeed or compete will probably respond better to goals centered on performance and improvement. An athlete who is more interested in the social aspect of being on a team, though, will likely respond to goals that reflect being a good teammate and supporting his or her teammates.
Once coaches accept the responsibility to learn more about their athletes they are more likely to build strong relationships with their players and, in turn, enjoy a loyal following. They should see growth in both the self-esteem and physical skills of athletes who will also appreciate that their coach sees them as individuals and understands their personalities.