Mailbag: How important is motivation?

Mailbag: How important is motivation?

October 22, 2010

Hey, Man. Are the “motivational powers” of coaches overrated? How significant is this aspect of coaching compared to game-planning, recruiting and whatever else it is that you guys do?


I can’t speak for everyone, but I certainly think the idea of motivation is overrated.  In my experience, motivation comes from within.  True competitors don’t need an inspirational sermon or pregame speech to get hyped for the beginning of a game.  Kids are either ready or they’re not.  Besides, by the time a team runs out of the tunnel, comes out of the locker room, listens to the national anthem, waits for the coin toss, etc., all that adrenaline from the pregame speech seems to wear off.

The more important aspect of motivation comes on a daily basis when it comes time for practice.  Even some of the better game-time competitors need to be inspired to practice hard, condition hard, use the correct footwork, etc.  Coaches play a lot of mind games during the week, not only to get kids prepared for the game, but to prime them for competition.

Personally, I don’t like to lie to kids.  If a kid is doing something wrong, I’ll tell him.  If he’s not good enough to get on the field, he needs to know that.  It’s not that he doesn’t have a chance to get on the field, but my job is to help win football games, and there’s no way to keep everyone happy.  For example, I had a kid yesterday ask me if he could get some time during defensive practice.  I told him no.  He asked why, and I said, “It’s not in the game plan.  You haven’t shown us that you can work hard consistently in practice, and that carries over to games.  You take plays off.”  During scout team a little later, I tried to give him a breather by sending in another player.  He didn’t want to come out.  When I asked why, he said, “I need the reps.  You say that I don’t go hard in practice, so I’m not going to take plays off.”  I don’t know that yesterday’s practice will turn him into a star or even a starter, but if nothing else, he played harder and gave our offensive players a better look.

There’s also a lot to be said for positive reinforcement.  I’ve worked with coaches before whose lone tactic is to scream at players who screw up.  They want to terrify those kids into thinking that mistakes are unacceptable.  But the problem with that is that not all kids respond to being screamed at to submission.  I’ve seen kids shut down mentally from being yelled at too much.  I’ve also seen kids lose their aggressive nature because they’re afraid of making mistakes.  As a coach it’s important to know the difference between the kids who respond to yelling and the kids who respond to encouragement.

I do think that “bulletin board material” is helpful for motivating players.  Kids (and adults) really like to prove people wrong, so quotes in newspapers, rumors kids hear through the grapevine, actions from previous years’ games, etc. are all effective for keeping kids focused.  In the fourth quarter of a football game, kids still latch onto the idea of beating the player across from them because of something that was said or done previously.  When an opponent or the public in general shortchanges your team, players, or program, that can be a very unifying event.

To summarize up to this point, I think the idea of motivation in the form of pregame speeches and hokey stuff like that is overrated.  If your team is full of kids who aren’t intrinsically motivated to beat an opponent, then no amount of hype is going to overcome that emptiness in their competitive soul.  The key is to keep kids confident and excited throughout the week, so that they’re ready to perform on Friday night or Saturday afternoon.

As for how motivation compares to other aspects of coaching, I think they’re all pretty equal parts of the pie.  Game planning is extremely important, but the best game plan can’t be executed if the players aren’t confident in themselves.  Scouting is extremely important, because we need to know what plays have been shown from which personnel groupings and formations.  Discipline is important because teams can’t be successful if kids don’t realize that their decisions and actions affect every one of their teammates. 

I can’t speak for recruiting much because I’m a high school coach, but I do believe that’s one of the most important aspects of college recruiting.  The old saying goes, “It’s Jimmys and Joes, not X’s and O’s.”  And there’s another relevant saying: “You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit.”  Coaches don’t simply need great players to be successful (ask Boise State), but they need solid players who will be disciplined, stay within the system, and work hard to achieve a common goal.  As a high school coach, recruiting is a non-factor.  For college coaches, it is perhaps the most important aspect of the job.



  1. Comments: 21381
    Oct 22, 2010 at 4:09 PM

    I don't think that motivation is overrated at all. Maybe the value of fiery speeches is. But great leaders can find ways of motivating a wide variety of people. Some people are self-motivated but others require a little more.

  2. Comments: 21381
    Oct 22, 2010 at 9:14 PM

    look at kstates basketball team overachieve and tell me why they overachieved. if u come to a conclusion other than fantastic coaching/motivation ill b surprised.

    also look at texas's offense/defense. defense plays much better than the offense. defense has muschamp(imo the best d coor in the nation) headbutting players. offense has greg davis sitting in a booth.

    motivation helps to an extent. the whole "u should b pumped for every game if not then u arent a true athlete" is bullshit to be honest. its a lot harder to get up for directional city college than it is to get up for playing vs ohio state in front of ur home crowd.


  3. Comments: 21381
    Oct 24, 2010 at 11:03 PM

    @ horn

    I'm not trying to diminish motivation as a key skill for coaches. I'm saying the common idea of motivation (halftime speeches, etc.) is overrated. I think it's much more important, as I said, to keep each player motivated by making him feel excited, confident, and key to the team's success.

  4. Comments: 21381
    Oct 26, 2010 at 4:28 AM

    OT: ive heard will cambell(spelling?) is goin to oline. true/false?


  5. Comments: 21381
    Oct 26, 2010 at 11:53 AM

    @ horn

    It's not a 100% sure thing yet, but the coaches moved Campbell to offensive guard for a couple days last week and Rodriguez said they would continue the trial early this week. In addition to that move, the coaches are trying out offensive guard Quinton Washington at defensive tackle.

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