How To Motivate In Youth Basketball


I was recently asked to share some ideas about how to motivate players.  I think most coaches try to motivate their team more than the individual players.  I think that is normal, but many individuals don't respond to group motivation and will need to be dealt with separately.  On the part of the coach, the latter is definitely more difficult than the former.  Motivating the individual will require more information about a player.

If we're talking about youth recreation teams, at that age, where fun should be the key motivator, ice cream or pizza (or both) could probably suffice.  However as the players age, and the corresponding pressures to do their best and to win begin to dominate the individual psyches, the answers to motivation are more difficult, more varied and can border on the esoteric.

While I have retired from team coaching, I still work with coaches and players privately and in workshops. Motivational issues are almost always part of the teaching plan.

I don't believe there is any one method for motivating. Players relate to different styles: i.e. Bobby Knight vs. John Wooden vs. Jerry Tarkanian vs. Dean Smith.

Motivating begins with the coach and if players don't like a coach's coaching style there are two choices a player has-- play for someone else or don't play.

Coaching styles are all over the place, but bottom line--coaches must be true to themselves and must be fair and consistent in his/her dealings with their players.

Motivating from one game to the next and one season to the next can require changing tactics. What works for one game may need more, or less, or entirely different tactics in different parts of a single season. And, what works for one group of kids one season may not be best for another group in another season.

No panacea in site, is there?

Perhaps the coach should try some introspection. To bring out the best in ourselves as a human being requires us to dig deeply into both our pshche and our soul for the desire to do the "right thing" and to summon the will to do it.
What do you know about your players? What makes them tick? Do you know how to deal with gender and age differences? We can't coach 8 year-olds like high school players, nor can we duplicate what works for high school boys and make it work for high school girls. One can know a lot about motivating a player by understanding something of the psychological makeup of that player and the individual player's personal background. (Unfortunately, this can be even tougher today with the use of so many coaches that are not part of the school staff, as they don't have the daily exposure and experiences that teachers and students share.)

Success in anything requires a concept, a plan, a setting of intentions, goal setting, focus and direction, hard work and a willingness to work hard to achieve the dream. This is for the coach to arrive at and then sell it to the players. Do you share the same dream with your players?

I always told my players at the beginning of each season, that whatever the outcome, they will be in great condition, they will play and act with discipline, they will execute good fundamental play, and they will play sound, aggressive defense. This set the tone for my expectations and let the players know where I was coming from.

When teaching any individual or team skill, teaching-coaches must recognize even the smallest skill weakness of a player and be able to break down the skill for the player to better understand and execute. Everything about successful teaching is about paying attention to the details. It's the little things which are part of discipline for both the coach and player. If a coach can't teach (details) how will she/he instill confidence for the players to trust in the coach? And, without the players' confidence, how can a coach even begin to motivate?

All players are not created equal and will come to the game with unequal skills and different learning curves. A coach can make a big mistake thinking that all players are capable of grasping the same lesson at the same pace as every other player. It doesn't happen in the classroom, so why be deluded into thinking the playing floor is somehow different. (This will be especially true in coaching young adults.)

The teaching-coach must first build discipline for himself/herself. The players will judge the character of the leadership early on. We build respect by earning it, through being firm but fair, from not playing favorites and by recognizing the humanity in each player as an individual. We must be organized, good teachers, and truly care about each player in our charge.

How we teach is how our team will play. Sound fundamentals are key at every level. Each level of play will have it's own unique need for the teaching of fundamentals. One cannot start out teaching 5-on-5. Individual skills, 1-on-1, 2-on-2, etc., must be taught first. We cannot teach any offense successfully if our players cannot master and execute basic offensive skills. So, how we teach directly affects our ability to motivate.

Molding a cohesive unit of our players is perhaps a coach's toughest task. If the players don't play as a team, how can we motivate the team?  "We" before "me" needs to be part of the successful coach's philosophy and must be taught to the players. Success will elude the team that leaves out the "we".

The power of "we" can be witnessed when a team brings 'mindfulness' to their game--that is, being totally aware--seeing and registering everything happening around them. When each player pays attention during a game to what is actually happening and being created by their teammates and opponents, the team plays better because they are attuned to one another. They are able to get through the peaks and valleys of a game with less stress and frustration--playing better and winning more--when mindful of the "we". Coaches--this needs to be taught!

Having a great group of players doesn't mean that 'mindfulness' will automatically take place. It's planned. It's taught. It's drilled. It requires the coaching ethic, "failing to prepare is preparing to fail", and the great mantra, "the will to win is not nearly as important as the will to prepare to win".

Coach John Wooden always pointed out that, "we don't have control over how good or how well prepared our opponents are, but that we do control how well we prepare."  Practices are where games are won.

Teaching-coaches will tell, show, demonstrate and drill, and be more certain their players are getting the skill involved. We teach first. Then we train through drills. After we've taught and trained, then we can begin to coach. And, then we have built the basis from which to motivate!

But still, motivating is unique to each coach, unique for the group being coached and unique for the individuals within each group.  Coaching is emotional, intellectual, spiritual and experiential.  Motivating is part of this, and some coaches will just be better at motivating than others, in the same way that some coaches teach skills better than others.