Week #19: Push Me Off the Fence

Jan 16, 2004
Week #19: Push Me Off the Fence

This week I have a question (several, actually)�and a predicament. The question is: Can you coach motivation? And if it� something that you have to teach an athlete (one that doesn�t have his or her own internal source of motivation), how far can that athlete go if he depends on external sources for his motivation? Is my job solely to train my swimmers�or to train AND motivate them? As a coach, I�m responsible when they fail to meet their potential. But if the reason they�re not performing to potential is lack of internal motivation, is it my job to constantly provide external motivation? As a coach, when should you cut people loose to either succeed or fail on their own?

Every coach in every sport faces these questions. My predicament, in particular, is that there are some athletes on our team who have not found their own inner motivation. I�m not talking about the majority. Eighty percent of my swimmers are highly motivated young adults who are self-committed to excellence. They are the first ones in the water and are always ready to work from the start of practice to the end of warmdown. They aren�t necessarily the most talented athletes, but they have the determination to make the most of the opportunities they are given. I enjoy coaching these athletes. What coach wouldn�t? Their hard work frees me to truly coach and instruct them. I don�t have to spend effort getting them to do what will make them better. Their hard work and attention to detail are a way of life � and part of their character � and it extends way beyond the pool. These kids are living the student-athlete model. They excel in their studies, and I know they will excel in whatever they choose to do in life.

Fifteen percent of the team falls into a �tweener� group -- talented, hard workers who sometimes lack consistency in their efforts and therefore haven�t reached what they are capable of. They can be typified by one word: excuses. Everyone who is human uses excuses. It just seems like sometimes the athletes in this group find more excuses than the average human being. A lot of the excuses stem from fear of failure. These are in no way bad or lazy kids. It� just that when faced with obstacles, they tend to find an excuse. When they have a challenge in the pool, they won�t always try as hard as they can. I can tell from on deck that they are holding back. I think they stop themselves from giving all they can because if they do try, and fail, they will feel that they aren�t good enough. They have to realize that the only true measure of success comes from the satisfaction of knowing you did everything you could with the talent and opportunities you are given. The only thing stopping this group from achieving success is giving it their all � all of the time.

Five percent of the team can be characterized by apathy and disinterest in their own success. These are the kids who miss morning practices, who are the last ones in the water, who hang in the middle of the pack, and who (my most loathsome activity) give effort only when the coaches are watching or when they are specifically instructed to do so. These are oftentimes kids whose talent level surpasses that of most other people on the team. My primary role for this group is not so much to teach but to motivate. And this is motivate at the most basic level � arguing with them about why they should warm�up or trying to get their attention after I�ve given a set to try and explain HOW they should do the set or WHY they should do it in a certain way, rather than just SWIM it. This group constantly questions why they need to do the little things that will make them successful. It� as if they distrust my efforts at trying to make them faster swimmers. I sometimes feel they don�t have confidence in me as a coach, so I have to spend time building or repairing the swimmer/coach relationship. There is certainly a time and a place for questioning coaches by athletes, but the middle of practice is not the best time or place to do it. I learn a lot from my athletes when they give constructive feedback after practice or before. In the middle of practice I need to spend my time and energy concentrating on improving aspects of their swimming.

The 15% and 5% groups are the groups I am the most concerned with. The 80% are going to be successful because they are successful people. I am not concerned for them because I don�t have to be. The 15% and 5% concern me because I know how close they are to being successful. It is one of my ambitions as a coach to see these kids succeed. They are also a crucial part of the success of the team. Getting the most out of everyone on the team can only help the team. I don�t think that you can have success as a team if you don�t have everyone reaching their potential.

This week the team had the opportunity of a lifetime -- a chance to swim with and be coached by a member of the US Olympic Team. I�m talking about Glenn Mills, of course, a man who has progressed through every level of the sport to the pinnacle. He� no slouch as a coach, either. When he steps on deck, Glenn is an unbelievable force who commands instant respect and attention from every athlete and coach. He does this with a rare combination of knowledge, humor, and teaching prowess. (I have to write nice things about him or he won�t post my articles.) Glenn came to our school to give our athletes a two-day clinic on all aspects of swimming, competing, and story telling. We divided our team into men and women and further divided into Breast/Fly, Back/IM, and Freestyle. We handed the reins to Glenn because he could provide the external motivation that a lot of people were looking for. In addition I got a two-day reprieve from writing workouts.

Glenn� effect on our team was incredible. The highly motivated 80% took away several insights into their swimming that will help them further their potential. The 15% and the 5% got a chance to work with someone who has vast stores of inner motivation, and who has the ability to convey that motivation to others. Glenn provided them with enough external motivation to ignite their own inner motivation. For the past two days I have seen these athletes be more engaged than in the previous four months. Each of these swimmers took away at least one skill and at least one focus point for their swimming. Pursuing mastery of that one skill or focus will be enough to engage them for the rest of the season. Achieving that one thing will give them the success they are looking for.

We are closing in on the end of the season -- the fun part of the season. I enjoy this time as a coach because I get to focus less on pushing and more on going fast. I was talking with one of the other assistants about where we were in our season. He put it succinctly, �The hay is in the barn. Now it is time to clean up and go to dinner.� We have our first post-Florida and post-Glenn meet this weekend. Stay tuned for the results in next week� entry.

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