Sports and athletics are a great way to stay healthy, disciplined, and focused. Athletes, like anyone else, can experience periods of low motivation, and as a coach or mentor, it is your responsibility to help them get back on track. According to a report by the Aspen Institute, around 70% of kids in the United States quit organized sports by the age of 13. Another survey by the National Sporting Goods Association found that the dropout rate for kids in sports is highest between the ages of 11 and 13. The main reasons cited by kids for quitting sports include lack of enjoyment, too much pressure, and poor coaching.
Today, we'll discuss some tips on how to motivate an unmotivated athlete. No one can prevent someone else from quitting something. However, it's important to dig a level deeper, as a lot of kids are quitting, not because they hate the sport, but because of reasons that could be remedied.
Steps to Keep Young Athletes Engaged
1. Understand the Reason for the Lack of Motivation
Before you can effectively motivate someone, you must first understand why they are lacking in motivation. The reasons can be varied, ranging from personal problems to a loss of interest in the sport. Once you identify the underlying reason for the lack of motivation, you can then work on a plan to address it.
I once coached an athlete that had an extremely challenging home situation. His "nonchalantness" at practice had nothing to do with the practice itself; he was just extremely distracted by other challenges in his life. The Aspen Institute report also found that kids from lower-income families are more likely to quit sports than kids from higher-income families, due to factors such as cost and lack of access to transportation.
2. Set Goals and Expectations
Setting clear goals and expectations for the athlete is an excellent way to motivate them. When an athlete has a specific goal to work towards, they are more likely to remain motivated. You can set long-term and short-term goals that are realistic and achievable. Be sure to communicate the goals and expectations clearly and regularly remind the athlete of the progress they are making.
3. Encourage Positive Self-Talk
Athletes who engage in positive self-talk are more likely to be motivated and perform better. Encourage your athlete to focus on positive affirmations and to visualize themselves achieving their goals. This will help to build their confidence and self-belief, which are essential for maintaining motivation. Great coaches (and parents) lift young athletes up.
A lot of the books on this site talk about the mental side of sports performance. If you want some recommendations specific to Sports Psychology, check out some of our favorites here.
4. Celebrate Successes
Celebrate small wins with your athlete. When an athlete achieves a goal, it is important to acknowledge and celebrate their success. This will reinforce their motivation and encourage them to keep pushing towards their next goal.
Understand that this is going to look a bit different depending on ability levels. For really talented and motivated kids, you may need to set the bar high. For others, it may be a more consistent goal at daily practice.
One thing that I've found really useful is making this process tangible. When kids are young, a parent may use a rewards chart. When adults are looking to lose weight, we track our food and exercise. Some teens may scoff at the use of a "chart," but this is a great way to share goals with your kids. One big piece of advice is that celebrating success doesn't have to refer to outcomes; it can be just as effective to track a practice goal (the athlete made 300 shots today or ran 10 sprints, etc.). While wins/losses matter, a great way to build confidence is to celebrate doing the things that it takes to win and finding joy in that. As a former athlete, some of my greatest "wins" weren't always on the court or field; they were reflecting on the journey and being proud that I put in the work.
5. Provide Feedback and Support
Providing regular feedback and support can help to keep an athlete motivated. Positive feedback is important, but constructive criticism is also necessary for growth and improvement. Be sure to provide both types of feedback and offer support when the athlete is struggling.
Before you offer anything constructive, get to know your athlete personally. All of us, as human beings, rarely take advice from people that we don't trust. If an athlete refuses to listen to you, it's rarely the feedback and more likely the lack of relationship.
One piece of advice here: if you're coaching youth sports, take an honest look in the mirror and evaluate your knowledge on the subject. In my experience, often coaches meant well but as athletes got to be in their teen years, some of these parent-coaches lacked the expertise to legitimately offer the best advice. A simple question is: "Do I really know what I'm talking about?"
If you don't, it's ok to admit that. Coaching for a lot of us is like a bridge from point A to point B. Once athletes get older or more skilled, you've gotten them to point B. You've done your job. Now, it's time to let someone else coach them.
6. Make Training Fun
Training can become monotonous, and this can lead to a loss of motivation. To keep your athlete motivated, try to make training sessions fun and enjoyable. You can do this by incorporating games, challenges, and team-building exercises into the training program.
According to a study published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, girls are more likely than boys to quit sports during adolescence, with the largest dropouts occurring between the ages of 10 and 13.
I've coached both boys and girls teams. What was considered "fun" for one team wasn't fun at all for the other. Just as strategy is important out on the court and field, have a "happiness strategy" that is geared towards the personalities and ages of your players.
7. Lead by Example
As a coach or mentor, you must lead by example. Set a good example for your athlete by demonstrating a strong work ethic, positive attitude, and discipline. Your athlete is more likely to be motivated if they see that you are also motivated and committed.
I once coached with a head coach that made anyone in the basketball program run if they swore. This was in practice, games, warm ups; it didn't matter. While this was a small thing, it was a reflection of the broader values of the program. As he said, "how we do one thing is a reflection of how we do everything."
Motivating an unmotivated athlete requires patience, understanding, and a willingness to work with the athlete to address their underlying issues. By setting goals and expectations, providing regular feedback and support, celebrating successes, and making training fun, you can help to keep your athlete motivated and performing at their best. Remember, leading by example is essential, and your attitude and work ethic will have a significant impact on the athlete's motivation.
Author John O'Sullivan has written some great books on youth sports for parents and coaches. This one in particular is a great guide for parents as they think about their growing kids' athletic ambitions.
John Willkom is the author of Amazon best-selling basketball books: Walk-On Warrior and No Fear In The Arena. John is an avid reader, sports fan, and father to two incredible little girls.
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