Motivating Youth Athletes – You Need More than One Tool in Your Toolbox

Photo by Anete Lusina on

I recently had an incident where I was a little too hard on one of my players. It turns out this is his first year playing baseball. He’s played other sports and is clearly athletic. He’s also very coachable. At practice, however, I got on him for not running out a ball he hit. Technically, I was right to correct the behavior – we expect our players to run hard to first every time. However, the manner in which I corrected him wasn’t appropriate for the player. This revealed to me an insight about coaching youth sports: coaches should know their players and motivate them accordingly.

“Motivation is the essence of coaching”

Rick Wolff, Coaching Kids for Dummies

It is the coach’s responsibility to get to know their players and understand what motivates them. Children are not all motivated the same way. If the coach only has one motivational tool in their toolbox, e.g. the carrot and stick approach of rewarding good behavior and punishing bad, they will struggle to reach all of their players. Some will respond to that type of motivation, but others will not.

Motivating young athletes can be challenging. As Drs. Laura Smith and Charles Elliott say in Child Psychology and Development for Dummies:

“What’s rewarding for one child may not be to another”

In this particular instance, I should have realized that this athlete was playing baseball for the first time and there are some things that he doesn’t already know. It’s my job to teach him – and to do so in the best way to make sure that he picks it up. I should expect other players with more experience to know about running the ball out no matter how hard its hit or whether they think it might be foul (the players run, let the umpire worry about determining fair or foul). But, for a first-time player, this isn’t second nature yet. My sarcastic reaction likely came across as intimidating and hurtful to the athlete (more on sarcasm in an upcoming post). This athlete needed me to explain and teach the right thing to do and reinforce that behavior by giving him another chance.

NOTE: This highlights a point I want to make for coaches. Just because you are coaching a team of 10 and 11-year olds, don’t assume that they have been playing the sport for several years. As in the example above, you could have an athlete playing the sport for the first time. I’ve had this happen coaching teams of 13-year olds. Again, don’t assume every player on your team has experience in the sport just because of their age. The risk you run is coaching past that player and not reaching them. This is one of the reasons I start every season with the fundamentals. New players need them and the more experienced players can always benefit from a refresher on the fundamentals.

The key to motivating each athlete in the best way for them is to have a relationship with them. At the beginning of the season, however, when I haven’t established a relationship, I default to being overly positive – even when correcting the athlete. The idea is to applaud the effort. Tell the player you appreciate how they tried the skill or technique, but that you would like them to try it another way. Then, I teach the proper way, demonstrate it, and give the athlete an opportunity to try – hopefully in a one-on-one or small group setting where, if they continue to struggle, it is not in front of the whole team.

I like what Rick Wolff says in Coaching Kids for Dummies,”Talk to your team as though they’re young men or women”. I often refer to them exactly that way. I’ll start a practice with “Alright young men, it’s a great day for baseball”. I find that the athletes appreciate being addressed and treated with the respect that comes with being older. In fact, I have found that, if you treat them as mature young people – even maybe more mature than some of them actually are – the children respond in a mature way.

As the season progresses, your relationship with the players will grow such that you will better understand how each child responds to different types of direction. Recall, as a coach, it’s your responsibility to adjust your style to the players, not the other way around. Some will respond to you because they have a general respect for authority and they’ll take direction from you because you said so. Others will need something different. You might have to show the player why doing the skill differently is better; in other words convince them that you know better. When a player misbehaves or otherwise isn’t taking direction well, you should pull the player aside and deal with them directly. In doing so, over the course of the season, you will begin to understand the best way to reach that player.

I’ll end with a description of one of the best examples of employing different motivation techniques I’ve experienced in my sports career. My high school football coach was an excellent leader in all aspects. In terms of motivation, though, he demonstrated to me how a coach can recognize what motivates their players and not apply the same technique across the board. He knew that, for some players, yelling at them was enough for the player to never want to make the same mistake again. He also knew that that type of behavior wouldn’t do it for me. Whether because I was an Air Force brat or already in Air Force Junior ROTC, he knew that I pretty much ignore that type of behavior. In any event, he knew that I respected those put in authority; I didn’t want to let them down. So, he recognized that just giving me the indication that I had disappointed him was enough to motivate me to improve.

An example of this was one game when I made a mistake and saw my back-up running on the field – which is the message for me to get off the field. Once on the sideline, I looked over at my coach. He was standing with his arms crossed looking at the game. He glanced my way and we made eye contact. He raised his hand and motioned with his finger for me to come to him. I slinked over to him, shoulders bent. When I got there, he never took his eyes off the field and said, “Where were you supposed to be on that play?” “The flat”, I told him. Again, not looking at me he said, “Why weren’t you there?” Sheepishly, I replied, “I don’t know”. “Don’t let it happen again”. I said, “Yes, sir” and walked away. I was out the rest of that series, but when it was time for our defense to go back on the field, I saw that my backup wasn’t going in…so, I’m back in. And I never let myself miss an assignment again and ended the season having graded out the highest defensive back on the team.

Recognizing what motivates each athlete, as my high school coach was able to do, is a difficult thing for any coach, nevermind for the last-minute volunteer coach. I get that. Particularly for those who think they will be coaching more than one season, though, this is very important. In addition to the recommendations above, coaches should seek out other experienced coaches and teachers for advice and tips how to motivate the young athletes under their charge.

Published by Chad Millette

I am a father, a husband, a retired Air Force officer, and a dedicated youth recreational sports advocate.

One thought on “Motivating Youth Athletes – You Need More than One Tool in Your Toolbox

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: