The Motivation Misconception

Knowing the difference between motivating and incentivizing and when to use each.

By Kate Shipley Richey

As much as many of us may love a good pep talk, motivating your team is more than sharing inspirational speeches and quotes of the day. As a coach, a team captain, or even a player who aspires to lead, motivation isn’t something you can give someone else. You can’t pass it out like energy chews. You can’t bring a pack of it to keep on the sideline. It’s something you can only coax out of a person’s own will. 

Being a good motivator isn’t necessarily something you can measure, and it’s not always something that can be seen immediately from the outside. Is that surprising? Maybe. The plethora of motivational clips just a click or a share away can make us feel as if that’s all we need to do to motivate someone—as if it comes from us, not them. Sure, if we back up and look at it from the outside, sometimes we can judge our interactions with a person and say, “they’re a good motivator,” but is that motivation coming from them, or are they lighting a spark that was already within us? How often are we motivated to do things we truly don’t want to do? It’s probably pretty rare. Or, did our coaches, mentors, and teachers find a way to inspire us to act on what we already wanted—something that was already our own innate desire?

Coaches that are able to do this understand the first lesson of motivation: Motivating a player is different than incentivizing a player. To incentivize a player, a coach must only learn what can prompt high performance quickly. This is where inspirational quotes, speeches, and heartfelt pep talks come into play. A reward or prize can also inspire players in the short term, or, on the flip-side, avoidance of a strong punishment like sprints or other difficult conditioning exercises. When coaches use these tactics, they may see their players go all-out, sharpen their focus, and compete at a high level until the prize is reached or the punishment avoided (but their players haven’t necessarily been motivated). After that, it’s likely that the team or individual players may fall back into old habits and routines (because they’ve simply been incentivized). Incentives are great in the short term—in one inning, quarter, or period—but they rarely prompt lasting improvement.

To motivate a player is more difficult, which may be why many coaches aren’t as successful as they’d like to be. Motivation requires the coach to understand who their player is as a person and what that player wants out of their athletic experience. Then, the coach helps the player align those needs and desires with the goals of the team. When the individual goals of each player align with the larger goals of the team, every action a player takes to reach their own goals will bring the team closer and closer to the overarching objective. Using this approach allows coaches to light a slow-burning fire within their players. Athletes will play from the heart, motivated by their own drive, knowing that their goals also help the team as a whole. (Or, conversely, they may play only to reach their own goals, but if their goals are aligned with the team, it’s a win-win.) Although the outcome may ultimately be the same, motivation is a more sustainable form of encouragement than incentivizing because it is driven by the player themselves, not by the coach. 

To provide great motivation, it can be helpful to know what each player needs and how they like to be coached. Learning a player’s needs can be done through conversations or even pre-season surveys, but we prefer to run our Plaid Sport teams through the Birkman Method personal assessment, which tells us exactly how to coach a player and what they need in order to operate at peak performance. Then, all a coach has to do is meet the needs of their players—like a roadmap. When those needs are met, a coach is better able to connect with players and help them achieve their goals. When a player’s needs aren’t met, stress and distractions can affect their ability to focus and succeed, which can make motivation nearly impossible.

Needs and Stress Equation

Tools like the Birkman Method assessment can make the life of a coach much, much, easier, but the first step is always understanding the core of what’s at stake for the player. A coach should ask: Do I know what my player’s goals are? Do I know what they need to achieve those goals? Are their goals aligned with what we need for the team? 

When it comes to motivation, we should be asking whether we are truly motivating the hearts of our players and what drives them. Or, are we simply providing a reward for those that can perform the way we want them to in one-off plays or games? Which approach is best for your season, your team, and your sports program? Maybe you’ll find there’s room for both motivation and incentives, but we hope you’ll give true motivation a try, first. You might be surprised by what your players do with the motivation you help them find.

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