One of the challenges I hear from parents and coaches frequently is how to keep their kids motivated. This task has become even harder now that so many athletes are playing fastpitch virtually year around.
At the younger ages of 8-12 athletes most often play because they like the sport and don't really need much motivation beyond that. They also enjoy the social aspect of the game and that can be a main motivator as well. In my travel organization we often call kids at this age "little robots" because they will virtually do whatever mom, dad or their coaches tell them to do!
Once the child gets to 13-14 she plays because she's played the game for years and mom or dad drive them to practices, lessons and games. They are still in the "robot" stage, but not for long. Sure the child usually wants to play but often the social component now shifts to friends and activities outside the game. This is normally when the first signs of grumbling and not wanting to get out of bed for those early Sunday games.
At the high school age often burnout can set in unless the athlete truly has her goals clearly in sight and her motivations in high gear. At this age the social sacrifice being made is tremendous and the obsession and pressures of achieving a college scholarship can accelerate burnout.
Here is one of the main challenges with lack of motivation: depending on her personality type your daughter may not tell you she is tired of playing (as my daughter didn't tell me for over a year) for fear of disappointing you. Since you probably aren't a mind reader I have some help for you!
Here are five tips to keep her motivated and fired up for those 8 am Sunday games!
1. The Conversation - Sit down with your athlete at least every six months to reassess her commitment for the game and all that goes with it. Don't "tell her" rather "listen to her," and be open to her feelings about where she is at and what she wants to do. At the heart of all motivation issues is your athlete, at some point, has to start playing for herself instead of for you. The sooner she makes that shift the better.
2. Internal Motivations - Ideally your athlete has internal or "intrinsic" motivation; meaning she is "self-motivated." Her goals are clearly defined and she is fired up every day to achieve those goals. Whether it is to make her varsity team as a freshman, play for a better travel team, make the All Star team or get an athletic scholarship to play ball in college. When these motivators are clear and present your athlete should maintain her fire in the belly; although there will be times when you will have to remind her! Keeping visual reminder of her goals is a great tool to help her as well, like pictures of college softball players, or of her dream university!
3. External Motivations - If the internal fire isn't burning as brightly as you would like try external or "extrinsic" motivators. This is the classic "carrot and the stick" method. Create tangible incentives or disincentives for her; meaning create a reward for playing or working harder or a penalty for not. I've heard of parents offering iPhones, or cash for achieving athletic goals (or something as simple as ice cream after the game for swinging the bat for the younger kids!). A penalty might be no sleepover, taking away phone privileges (ouch!), cutting out private lessons, etc.
The best motivators ultimately are perceived as either bringing pleasure or pain. As humans we naturally seek to avoid pain at all cost. So I'm either motivated to "do" something because it brings me something I really want or it brings too much pain by not doing it (physically or emotionally). Or I'm motivated to "not" do something because I perceive it will cost me in time, pain, embarrassment, etc; or it will bring me pleasure (more time with friends, sleeping in, etc). It's simply a risk versus reward assessment.
4. Explain "The Why" Behind It - Part of the conversation you need to have with your athlete to keep her motivation going and, more importantly, make it as personal to her as possible is to talk about "the why" behind it all. Meaning why does she play the game; why are her goals important to her; why everything she does (or needs to do) will prepare her to achieve her goals; why would it matter to her two years from now (pick your time frame) if she doesn't achieve her goals? The more you can get her to buy into the "why" the more invested and engaged she will become. This is her life, so the deeper she understands the implications of her actions towards the ultimate achievement or failure in reaching her goals the more she will embrace "the journey" it takes to get there.
5. The Takeaway - As parents our job is always to "frame" the situation and explain how her decisions will impact her future. Often I hear of an athlete being burned out after a long, hot summer season and wanting to quit the game. I always counsel the parent to sit down with the child, determine what she likes or loves about playing the game (leave the negative stuff out of the conversation) and whether she is truly prepared to walk away for that. Often what comes up is how much she will miss playing with her friends, the thrill of competition, the feeling of a big hit, big strikeout (as a pitcher), or big win (Personally I miss the smell of freshly cut grass). If you can get your athlete to see what she might be missing by leaving the game it will likely motivate her to work harder.
The other ultimate takeaway and external motivator is no college. With the cost of college spiraling up by 10% each year securing an athletic scholarship may legitimately be the only way your athlete is going to college. Don't be afraid to use that card (not at 12, but certainly by 15). A little dose of truth and reality can do wonders to ignite motivation!
6. Detachment - Ultimately, as I had to do with my daughter, you must let your athlete do what she wants to do; you must let go and detach yourself from the way "you" think it should go. Now this is not to say you don't spell out her options and help her to make a rational, well thought out decision. But, by all means, include her in the conversation. After all, it's her life!
I have found, though, if you employ "big picture" thinking, keep things positive and connect the dots for her she will be motivated to work harder. Often, emotionally, a younger female athlete doesn't believe enough in herself and, thus, does not think she is capable of reaching her goals so what's the point of trying. Continue encouraging her, without criticism.
Remember, we ask a lot of our young athletes these days, especially for a teen. Part of her maturation is being able to make her own decisions, so let her. In my daughter's case she finally found the courage to tell me she no longer wanted to play the game when she was 15. She wanted to focus on her academics. It was hard for me, but I supported her. The end game for her...getting into a great private east coast university with ample academic aid. It's all good!
Thanks for reading! --John Michael Kelly