I hope no one reads the title of this piece and think I’m intending to profess the secret methods in creating that motivation, but quite the contrary. I feel this is one of the weakest parts of my program. I think at times I am too analytical and can’t properly read my athletes and their emotions. I think that with the evidence of hard work laid before them, the only conclusion can be that hard work begets strong results. Seems rather simple to me.
However dealing with athletes is not that simple. Each athlete comes with different reasons for doing the sport, different upbringings, different expectations, different personalities, different everything. Motivating athletes is as individual as the athletes on your team. I am stumped about how to do this, and am really writing this piece simply to let coaches know there is no one way. Motivation is a problem that all coaches have to wrestle with regardless of their success or their experience.
Over the years I’ve had some great athletes that have performed at the top level in the state. For the most part, they came with a desire to become the best of runners. Some had more “skills” than their counterparts, some just had a strong work ethic that surpassed the genetic gifts of those around them. But there were also a few that simply were good at the sport and didn’t need to invest the same way most others need to, and in some cases they didn’t.
But up until recently I seemed to get mostly semi-skilled athletes, that through time spent with the others ahead of them, seemed to learn that their performance was as much about “putting in the miles” as it was about showing up. While they might wish that being good just came to them, they realized they would have to work to truly be good.
It seems over the years the athletes have changed and have a different view of how this whole thing works. Many of them play other sports, which takes time away from their running. Now I don’t begrudge them regarding this. After all it’s important that athletes do the athletics that make them happy. But it seems they see their sports, these activities, in 12 week blocks. They are willing to focus on being good during those 12 weeks, but have a hard time committing to do what it truly takes to become the best they can by taking that next step in their training.
This is something I’ve never really witnessed before. Not sure if it is because I’ve been lucky or maybe with an expanding program, I’m getting a greater variety of athletes. All my athletes before were there because this is what they were good at and cross country was what they wanted to focus on. But before, as the athletes matriculated through my program, the younger ones learned from the older ones what it took to be good. Usually, as their performance became more competitive, they started taking the next steps that would bring them success.
I’ve been going over this in my head for a while now. This year’s team on both the men’s and women’s side are some of the most talented I’ve had in a long time. Their ability is on par with teams I’ve coached that have won State Championships. They have what it takes to get their names up among the others that have received All-State recognition. Will they take up the mantle of those who came before them? I certainly hope so. I know I am going to let them know what I think they are capable of, let them know I am here to support them, and help them make the smart choices that will lead to great performances. But will they take those steps? Will they learn how to be the best they can? I do hope so.
I tell my kids that I cannot be more invested in their performance than they are. If they are in 100% I will be right there beside them, helping them learn what it takes. Legendary coach Bill Bowerman said, “I still bother with athletes I call hamburgers. They’re never going to run any record times. But they can fulfill their own potential.” It seems that over the years these are the kids that come to the program looking for something to hang their hat on, so they choose this sport. Once they make that choice, to have the sport define them, they tend to give themselves over to the program without reservation. The athletes not defined solely by the sport of distance running seem to have a harder time giving themselves to the sport, and thereby finding the meaning in doing what it takes to be great more of a challenge.
Most of my team is juniors and sophomores, so there is still time. They will learn a little more about the sport this season as I will learn a little more about them; what makes them tick, and who they are as a runner. Some will find out more than others about what they are made of, and about how hard they can push themselves. Some will find un-imagined success while others will be left learning, and possibly yearning for that success.
With any luck, we’ll find it together.