Some months ago I was talking with a young athlete, and I asked him how things were going for him. His response was, “I DONT KNOW.” To most people this response would be a dead end and the conversation would have moved on to something else.
Not this time!
I continued to explore with him what “not knowing” meant. My next question was, “Does 'I don’t know' mean you don’t know how to describe how it is going?" With immediate tears, he said, “YES.”
This experience opened my eyes to the reality that many young athletes are living with deep disappointment, discouragement, and despair without the words to describe their reality. This has emerged as a trend as I have worked individually with young athletes. Much of their experience leaves them confused, frustrated, and without direction.
Recently, I spoke to a young athlete that expressed to me his deep desire to succeed, but with frustration and anger he said, “I have no idea what I can do to get better.” This is an epidemic in the youth sports culture. Many young athletes that have the MOTIVATION TO IMPROVE have little, to no clarity about how to invest their energy. In fact, when a young man/women have the actual courage to approach a coach and ask what they need to get better, they often hear, “Just work harder.” I do not think there is any intent here to frustrate or anger these young athletes. I believe we have a great number of coaches that are unskilled in communication. This inability to communicate with clarity is what leaves these athletes at a loss of what to do. The accumulation of this over time leads to a great deal of frustration, confusion, and at its height, ANGER. The result is motivation is decreased, enjoyment is dissolved, and engagement is replaced with distraction and dissatisfaction.
We all want to feel like the effort we invest is leading to progress. PROGRESS IS POWERFUL!!
Recently, a young athlete reached out to me for coaching concerning his desire to control his emotions and have better focus. During my initial interview with him, he expressed tremendous discouragement and frustration because he was “trying” without PROGRESSING. During our first coaching call, I gave him some clear and specific strategies to invest in his “trying." After just a couple of weeks, he reported feeling significantly better. When I asked why he felt better, his response was, “I am improving!”
IMPROVEMENT IS POWERFUL! Progressing leaves young athletes with an internal center of power that their efforts are getting them somewhere. They are not spinning their wheels and shooting into the dark about what they need or can do to improve. This is huge! In my opinion, the feeling and feedback that one is progressing may be the single greatest source of ongoing motivation for young athletes.
The next motivational variable is having a clarified role that brings with it a way to mark contribution. When a coach has observed and evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of an individual, communicated that to the athlete, and followed that with continued feedback as to the ongoing level of progression concerning the skills needed to contribute effectively within that role, motivation and perseverance are at their highest. Doing this well requires the capacity to look beneath the obvious. A contribution is often only associated with that which is most glamorous and easily observed. However, success in any team sport is dependent on different roles performing at high levels that combine for high-level team performance. When players are not clear about their role and opportunity to mark contribution, WINNING is of little value or consolation.
One player exhibited this with this example:
Following a weekend tournament that her team had just won a coveted championship while talking to Jill, I asked her how it felt to win the tournament. Her response was troubling. She said, “I didn’t feel like I did anything to help the team win.” Her head was down, and her body language was discouraged. It would be easy at this point to shame Jill for not being a team player. However, her response speaks to the importance of leading young people to understand that they often have great contributions that go unnoticed. At least, in this case, her discouragement wasn’t about selfishness, it was about the DESIRE TO MARK A CONTRIBUTION TO THE TEAM.
I wonder how often we misread this?
Being a great teammate is about OFFERING WHAT YOU HAVE for the betterment of the whole.
What if the discouragement we see in some players is connected to their lack of clarity as to how to MARK THEIR CONTRIBUTION? When CONTRIBUTION cannot be marked, belonging is eroded. This can lead to discouragement often appearing in body language and actions that get labeled as immature and selfish. Telling athletes to be “team players,” without giving them a clear role, is nothing short of systematic rejection.
Young athletes are craving a clear path towards improvement. With clear roles, qualitative feedback, and a team atmosphere that values and reinforces differing forms of contribution, engagement increases, and discouragement and confusion decreases. This will lead to more young athletes feeling proud of their contributions.
Progress is POWER.