Working with athletes to develop their performance brings on a host of unique challenges. Arguably the greatest challenge is associated with the intrinsic motivation level of young athletes. The varying levels of self-driven motivation among the young athletes at GP is interesting to observe, especially as the character of the athlete begins to emerge. Motivation level becomes even more apparent as we progress through the training program, taking notice of what the young athlete is willing to do on their own to improve their performance. Ultimately the question becomes, can they sustain the motivation year after year if they begin a structured training program early in their career? There are several factors which can influence an athlete's dedication, below are just a few that come to mind:1) Unrealistic pressure at an early age.
Too often when parents bring their young son or daughter in to begin training at GP, some of the expectations placed upon these athletes is pretty surprising. This certainly is not unique to our business. Likely anyone involved in the sport performance industry is very familiar with this situation. During the initial consultation, parents will often state:
- “My son/daughter is the best athlete on their team.”
- “ My son/daughter was just voted the best player in their age group at a recent camp.”
- “My son/daughter is a natural athlete and they always get placed on the highest level teams in the area."
While we aren’t here to dispute these claims, if you are 12-15 years old and have been hearing this type of ‘hype’, what is the motivation to want to continue working hard or even begin to work hard? The reality is, little priority can be placed on improving physical skills when you believe you are better than your competition or continually hear that you are better. To further complicate the matter, several of these athletes participate in multiple sports and over-compete year around, giving no substantial amount of time for physical development to occur because of the intense competition schedule. Parents can further reinforce this, believing that more competition is what their young athlete needs. We addressed the mistake of this thinking in this article
2) Short-term focus, lack of quality coaches.
Far too many programs at the youth level carry a “win at all costs” mentality. This has tremendously negative impacts on limiting physical and motor skill development as they become a secondary (at best) focus for young athletes. Coaches with little to no experience, no education of physiological adaptations or skill development are often times responsible for these young athletes. The short-term focus of winning becomes the ‘norm’ and developing young athletes becomes an after thought in the name of winning. This system favors the ‘early developers’ or simply the young athletes who develop faster at a young age. These kids become more likely to make high-level club teams at younger ages, but how does this affect their motivation to continually work hard as they mature and other athletes, or ‘late developers’, begin to catch up with them? Does it generate a weak-minded athlete who lacks grit and determination to want to do the extra work needed to fulfill their potential?
3) Poor management of Late Developers.
What happens to the kids who are ‘late developers’ as coaches who lack education in talent selection bypass them to win games? These coaches are likely not willing to spend the extra time needed to help young athletes develop because, for many of them, they don’t have a clue what to do for them. They select the ‘early developers’ and this helps to mask coaching incompetency. Some athletes will use this as motivation to work harder and smarter, as they enjoy the long-term process of improvement. Other late-developing athletes will quickly lose motivation, as frustration mounts and they quit sports because they find no enjoyment in the process. Coaches need to look at many factors when developing athletes, wins and losses should not be the primary concern.
4) Injury and burnout.
How can young athletes make a difference in their careers when so many require medical intervention at increasing rates? According to statistics, of the 38 million athletes (ages 6-18) who participate in sports in the United States, 1 in 10 have significant injuries, which will have impacts on their future development. Also consider that many of these athletes at young ages (13-14), will have a competition schedule that includes 70-90 games per year. Honestly, this is not appropriate. Common sense is lacking in the process of athletic development and athletes that do succeed in these models are often “survivors” of the system in spite of it.
5) Long-Term Development.
Education needs to be the focus in order for change to the current model to positively impact all involved. Coaches, trainers, parents, and athletes must understand what is required of them and begin taking a long-term approach to athletic development. Parents and coaches both want athletes to succeed in the long-term, however many are short-term in their approach. This becomes detrimental to the athlete’s success when it really matters.
6) Willingness to Sacrifice.
The current myth of overnight success has blinded us to the fact that the elite athletes we see on television have all sacrificed. They were not just simply "born with talent". This is where understanding the 10,000 hour rule
comes into play. Elite athletes have practiced and sacrificed long hours, day after day. Even when they wanted to quit, they did one more repetition, ran one more sprint, or practiced their skills a few minutes longer. In order to do this, they sacrificed and conducted themselves with a high degree of discipline to pursue their goals. They made it hard on themselves and this is a huge reason why they make it look so easy when it comes to athletics. But the sacrifice and discipline needed is no easy task and it can place one outside of their comfort zone.
Most of the athletes we work with may never achieve their true potential because the thought of sacrificing X,Y,or Z in order to achieve athletic success is something they are not willing to commit to on a consistent basis (or even at all). You can have the greatest coaches and training in the world, yet if the athlete is not willing to commit themselves to the process, their potential will suffer the consequences.
Developing a Champion's Mindset
So what are the key characteristics of well-motivated athletes? Here are some thoughts from JoAnn Dahlkoetter, Ph.D., author of Your Performing Edge, and an internationally recognized sports psychologist. She has identified characteristics that make a champion athlete that are able to be developed by anyone who wants to excel in sport.
- Enthusiasm and Desire - Top athletes have a hunger, a fire inside which fuels their passion to achieve an important goal, regardless of their level of talent or ability.
- Courage to Succeed - It takes courage to sacrifice, to work out when you’re tired, to seek out tough competition, to stick to your program, to test your limits, and to overcome obstacles.
- Internal motivation and self-direction - Direction and drive need to come from within. The goals must be ones that you have chosen because that’s exactly what you want to be doing.
- Commitment to Excellence - Elite athletes know that to excel at their sport, they must decide to make it a priority in their life. They make an honest effort each day to be the best at what they do. At some point you must say, I want to be really good at this; I want this to work.
- Discipline, Consistency, Organization - Elite athletes love what they do and it is easier for them to maintain consistency in training and in competing. Regardless of personal problems, fatigue, or difficult circumstances, they can generate the optimal amount of excitement and energy to do their best.
- Being focused and yet relaxed - Champions have the ability to maintain concentration for long periods of time. They can easily let go of distractions and take control of their attention. They don't let emotions get the best of them and cause poor performance.
- Ability to handle adversity - Top athletes know how to deal with difficult situations. Adversity builds character, but adversity also reveals character. When elite athletes know the odds are against them they embrace the chance to explore the outer limits of their potential. Rather than avoiding pressure they feel challenged by it. They are calm and relaxed under fire. Setbacks become an opportunity for learning.
To develop your motivation and maximize your true athletic potential, make the most of the talents you have by stretching the limits of your abilities, both physically and psychologically. Athletics has a unique ability to become a means to both personal growth and enjoyment of the pursuit of your goals, lessons that go beyond sport alone. Try incorporating the profile above into your mental preparation to help you develop the mindset needed to bring success to any venture you choose in life.