Thursday, December 17, 2015

Fuel Inject Your Practice Plan Through the Art and Science of Motivation

The American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) recently determined that collegiate beach volleyball has a smaller percentage of its season devoted to competition than any other NCAA Division I women's sport.  In a 22 week season only 8 are allowed for competition with the remainder reserved solely for practice and conditioning.  In many programs, players start training in late August but don't compete until early March.  That's a lot of training, a lot of waiting, and a lot of opportunity for motivation to wane.

So that got me thinking, what is the coaches' role in sparking motivation and why should we care about it all?  Given evidence that motivation can be as important to performance than intelligence, ability, and even financial reward, better understanding the puzzle of motivation may drive us to become better for and to our players.

In the following sections we'll take a look at some principles of motivation culled from scientific research and explore some methods for bringing those principles to practice.


Progress in Principle

Nothing sparks motivation like progress.  Of all the events that can spark a person's drive to perform, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work, says Teresa Amabile, whose work on motivation in the workplace appears in her insightful book, The Progress Principle.

According to Amabile, a consistent amount of even minor success is more frequently associated with high motivation than any other workday event.  People, it seems, have their best days when they feel like they accomplish something, even if its not a major breakthrough.  In fact, just movement in the right direction can be enough to boost people's emotions and perception of the work.  "When people sense they're making headway, their drive to succeed is at its peak," she says.  The "power of small wins" can make all the difference in how people feel and perform.

Figure I. 

So if this all seems obvious to you (of course people are more motivated when they're doing well) then you're ahead of the many managers Amabile studied. Not only did she find that companies made little effort to enable progress in the workplace, when asked to rank factors that might inspire motivation, managers ranked "progress" dead last.

It seems that the power of progress is both great and overlooked.

The exciting news is that, like workplace managers, we coaches have a wonderful opportunity to facilitate progress in how we choose to interact with our teams.  We must creatively work everyday to ensure we're shaping an environment in which progress can be identified, enjoyed and celebrated.  Opportunities for meaningful accomplishment must be woven into our daily routines.  That's where the art of coaching comes into play.

Progress in Practice

There are a lot of things we can do in practice to nurture progress.  Among them, let players know why they're doing what they’re doing.  If it’s a drill – why that activity?  If its game – why that scoring system?  Tell everyone what the goal is and make it challenging and attainable.  Have a back-up way to measure progress even if a goal is not attained.  Was performance closer than yesterday, last week, last month?  Track performance from day to day, week to week, even year to year.  Keep data and review it periodically for opportunities to show improvement.  Day to day a player may feel like she hasn’t changed.  Show her results trending over a few months and it’s a great visual image of what she’s becoming.  Movement in the right direction is a powerful catalyst.  Videotape performance as much as possible.  It’s an investment worth making for many reasons, not the least of which is you never know when archived footage can be a great motivator.  Show a player who thinks she’s in a rut what she looked like a year ago – she’ll see progress and be energized from the experience.


If progress is the best motivator, setbacks can have the opposite effect.  Some research suggests that setbacks can be even more negative than progress is positive in its impact on motivational drive.  For this reason coaches should plan carefully what we ask of our players.  Think carefully what goals we set and activities we design.  Work with players to customize how we challenge them, and perhaps most of all be cognizant of how outside influences have colored the day.  Our players have busy lives and may suffer setbacks before they even get to practice from home, work or class.  The design of practice should include ways to neutralize those setbacks and allow some meaningful progress to fuel their motivational fire.

In addition to neutralizing setbacks we need to help change how setbacks are viewed.  Experiencing and dealing with setbacks is an essential part of the learning process, it's how we characterize them that matters.  We can minimize the impact of setbacks by emphasizing the good in them.  Perhaps nowhere is this more possible than in our approach to mistakes.  By encouraging experimental error and facilitating improvement through mistakes we can lead our players to a mindset of growth and awaken their senses to what is possible.

[This is Part I of a two part series.  In Part II, we'll continue to look at motivation from the standpoint of autonomy and purpose and discuss ways to incorporate those elements into our practices as well.