Intrinsic motivation: Can it be taught? First understand then empower

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Below is a small portion of a clip I shot last week of a player practicing in the park. Or so it seems.

Max FKs
just kicking a ball in the park right?

What you do not know however is that this is actually shot in the evening following our club’s midweek training. The player had been playing alone for 20 minutes prior to this footage and is now playing against his father, perfecting his dead ball technique. Oh and this player is arguably the best in the club and perhaps one of the best in the region. So what does this show?

Well this is a rare sighting of a very intrinsically motivated player in today’s saturated society of overly available technology.

It got me thinking what is missing in today’s youth. Why are they not driven to perfect their technique? Why do they not seek help to reach their goals and aid their development? Honestly I believe they do not care enough. I think players partake in sport for their own enjoyment first and foremost in social conditions where the emphasis is massively on fun.

Rightly so.

But. The evolution of these players desire for enjoyment into a desire for mastery often never materializes with the average player.

And I guess that is in essence the reason. The acceptance that they are just an average player.

The acceptance that deep practice in the quest for mastery is too hard. Its’ not worth it. But then what separates the average player who isn’t motivated to make time to practice to one who is opportunistic about creating practice time? I think the difference lies in the reasons for enjoyment. The average player plays for fun, for that social involvement, for being part of a team. The better player knows that is a given. Their enjoyment comes from getting better. Simple.

Practice = gains
Practice = gains

Whether this is making technical improvements or ‘gains’, turning their technique into a skill in order to use in match situations or improving a weakness to get it up to a stronger standard, the motivated player finds a pleasure in practice where others find frustration.

So how can we help find this love for practice in our average player? I think first we must seek to understand the player.

Do they actually have a desire to be better? Do they know what’s required? Are they willing to sacrifice some time on a daily basis? Some basic level questioning to see what kind of person is on your hands will allow us an honest assessment of what is needed to give the player in question the tools they need to get the most out of their development.

More likely than not they will have some desire to be better. Everyone wants to improve. It may be at a low level initially but of course they wish to increase their skill level. But what they do not likely understand is that increasing their skill level requires some quality practice. I believe most average players massively underestimate this or maybe do not even understand this.

So once we’ve established what the player wants from their development, now then there are several avenues we can go down to help build those intrinsic motivational fires inside them in order for them to continually improve.

I found an excellent graphic online created by Mia Mac Meekin which outlines ’27 ways to create intrinsic motivation’. Looking at these solutions it can be seen that there is a real range of actions the teacher or coach can take all of which are very person and player centered.

Little things us coaches can all do
Little things us coaches can all do

Some of these solutions I believe should underpin every session are circled in red. These relate to  engagement, connecting with the people and trying to create a bond between you, them and the group and to strengthen this connection over time. Words like sharing, trusting, praising are all mentioned sometimes more than once. But this all stems from discovering i.e. understanding, your player. We must continually show them how much we care about them as a person as much as a player and make ourselves relate-able to them by putting ourselves back in their shoes. We all once set on a journey of skill mastery too, and our experiences can greatly aid theirs if channeled in an engaging manner.

The solutions circled in yellow relate to session design. These are simple variables that once incorporated into the session can allow for continual desire to play. Sessions need to be fun at the very least and that will always be interpreted differently by different players. Defenders see preventing strikes as fun, whereas strikers see striking as fun for a very basic example. But looking over the session design solutions, I noticed an overriding sense of creating autonomy; giving the players freedom and ownership of their development by removing ‘one size fits all’ approaches and providing a platform for creativity and choice of action.

Then one stood out to me which I couldn’t quite seem to agree fitted in either group of solutions. That was #13; ‘Discover your passion’, meaning the coach should know what they are passionate about. Talking personally, my big reason for being involved in coaching is to see players move through their years increasing their love for the game and at the same time increasing their skill level. I am a very process orientated person and I like to do things because I get to do them, rather than for a final outcome. If you love what you do enough, those allusive final outcomes such as trophies, accolades and other achievements should naturally come anyway. Passing that process orientated mindset to the players is my burning passion.

Having an understanding of what drives the coach is crucial in being able to help drive the player. If they are both in alignment then there is the makings for an excellent relationship which will hopefully lead to an empowered player. But even if they’re not if the coach understands their own and their player’s passion they can be in a position to adapt themselves in order to best find that alignment.

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