Failure to Motivate – What Coaches Mean to Say

I get examples all the time of coaches saying things that just make me shake my head. Sometimes it’s a parent making statements. What are they thinking?

  • One coach says to one athlete after a poor race, “I didn’t expect much more from you anyway.”
  • An athlete states that today he is ready to set the school record and the coach’s response in total seriousness is, “When pigs fly.”
  • After sitting a player late in the game, the player asks why he’s being benched and the coach responds, “Because you’re a choker.”
  • Before the last race of the day in which key points are needed to win the meet a coach tells his runner, “Don’t worry, we know you can’t stay with them.”
  • After a Personal Record run in the 2-mile one runner’s coach says, “It’s not good enough. You’re not even trying.”

After a big game loss to a rival the coach screams on the sidelines and makes his team do drills and calisthenics for punishment after the game.

There are at least three primary failures at play. First is that the coach has not accepted that though indeed disappointment and failures are a part of athletics it is not THEIR athletics… it is the athlete’s! The coach has to let go of their ego. This is not about them. It is about the athlete. It is one thing to be disappointed (we’re all human) but to take on poor performances or losses so personally and then act out because of your disappointment? You’re too worried about “your” record. Get your athletes to master skills and peak conditioning. You won’t control all the outcomes. Now, as a coach, act it!

Second, coaches have failed at the most fundamental level to accept the role and responsibilities of being a true “coach”. They reduce themselves to child-like behaviors. They play athletes against each other. They use neanderthal tactics such as bullying, harassing, putting down, embarrassing or belittling of their athletes in an effort to get them to perform. A coach is the leader of the team, and supposed role model.

Third, somewhere along the way too many coaches have bought into the negative motivational approaches. For example: tell someone they can’t do it so that they are fired up and will prove them wrong or punishment for poor performances is just what is needed because athletes don’t feel bad enough already in their performance. Neanderthal motivational techniques have been shown to be far more hurtful than helpful. Depending on what you read there is less than 10% of the population who are driven at all by being told they can’t achieve something. It is applying this haphazardly to all your athletes that is so destructive. You should know who will rise to that kind of “motivation” an who will not. Otherwise don’t say it because you just demotivated 90% of the athletes.

Athletes feel bad about bad performances what is this child-like behavior in some coaches that makes them want to rub it in? This is just like a schoolyard bully. Grow up! More punishing exercises will not make them perform better. By making them feel worse you’ll make them perform better in the future? What? How about – just maybe – learn to coach better? Your job… your responsibility is to help athletes cope with failure (it’s a part of life). Your responsibility is to promote growth, mastery in sports and be a leader and mentor for your athletes.

What are they thinking? I know that for most coaches their hearts are in the right place. And almost all actually think they are being effective with their athletes. Unfortunately too often they are just doing what they experienced when they were an athlete or when they were in PE class years ago. What are they thinking? It’s time to get with the times. Learn how to motivate and communicate more effectively with athletes.

The good news is that there are more good coaches than misguided coaches out there. To watch them in action is a pleasure. I’m glad I’ve personally had more good ones than bad ones.

Need help with your team? Morale? Coming together? Persisting when down? Folding late in games? Losing emotional control at referees/officials? Drop me a line.


Next up: What if I’m an athlete with an unsupportive coach?


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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