In previous blogs I’ve mentioned that I see myself as a teacher-coach. As a teacher, I plant seeds of positivity and growth and, as a coach, I get results. However, what if the athlete you’re working with is having difficulty staying focused, is upset, or just having a bad day. You might find it difficult to keep your athlete motivated. So, what can you do? Well, there is no cookie cutter/one size fits all approach for a situation like this. Here are a few suggestions that I have found helpful over the years.
So, you’re in a situation where the athlete does not feel like participating in the program you’ve designed for the session. No problem! Being flexible is a huge part of coaching. Remember, it’s not about YOU! It’s about adapting to your athlete’s style of learning. One method I’ve found helpful over the years is to start with a familiar game or exercise that you know the athlete loves. For example, the athlete you’re working with loves all kinds of ball games. Perhaps starting with a game of catch via a push throw, overhead throw, or scoop throw can kick-start the session. If this works, be sure to provide specific feedback immediately following the task the athlete just performed: “Excellent push throw, Josh!” Maybe even follow it up with a high five. Additionally, be aware of your vocal tone. If you praise the athlete with low tone and little enthusiasm, it’s likely that the athlete will continue to be disengaged.
Another method I like to use with the athletes I train is providing them with a choice. Before going into detail, I want you to take a second and think back to what it was like to be a kid. From the time you wake up to the time you go to bed you have people telling you what to do: wake up, eat your breakfast, put your shoes on, go to school, sit in your chair, don’t move, eat your lunch, etc. Not that any of these are bad things - most are extremely important - but giving the athlete a choice of what they can do or want to do can be a game changer. In their mind, they’re probably thinking, you mean I get to chose what I want to do!? YES!!! I must emphasize that just because I’m providing the athlete with autonomy, which can be a very powerful motivator, it doesn't mean there is no structure to the session. As a coach, my responsibility to the athlete is to provide both structure and autonomy.
Now, what happens if the first two scenarios do not pan out and the athlete is still not engaging. You can try following your athlete’s lead. For example, your athlete is walking around the room and you’re having difficulty engaging him/her. My suggestion would be to walk with them. And, as you walk, provide them with positive feedback. “Megan, I really like how you're walking around the room.” Now, I want you to think about what you had planned for the session. How can you incorporate aspects of the programmed session to match what the athlete is doing in the moment? Perhaps, spot markers/poly spots were part of the session. As Megan walks around the room, start placing spot markers on the floor and see if she happens to step on any of them. If she does, provide immediate feedback following the activity. “Excellent job stepping on the spot marker!” And again, following up with a physical reinforcer such as a high five can add to the layer of positive feedback. Perhaps this small task can be enough to engage the athlete and get them back on task.
What if all of the above fails. Nothing is working, and you’ve tried everything in your tool belt. Well, the last thing you can try to do is act like a goofball. I must admit I've done this many times so I feel comfortable doing it. Silly can be a last resort to connecting with the athlete. Try to make them laugh or smile the best way you know how. Using the example above (Megan is walking around the room and you’re trying to place spot markers for her to step on), try telling her, “Megan, whatever you do, DO NOT step on the sport markers. Don’t do it! Stop stepping on those spot markers!” I have found that by asking an athlete not to do something can be the final key to getting them to do something.
Here are some takeaways from the lessons above. First and foremost, always make sure you and your athlete are safe. Although the primary goal is to increase motivation, it must be done in a safe manner and environment. My responsibility to my athlete, no matter what kind of day they may be having or I may be having, is to be a "hope dealer." As I mentioned above, what if the athlete had a bad day, is not feeling well, is upset, someone said something that had a negative impact on their day, etc. It’s my job to build them up. I think we can all relate to how one bad event or possibly multiple bad events throughout the day can throw us off our game. But, sometimes one kind act, a simple word of positivity, or a positive gesture (a high five!) can change the way we feel. Rather than letting the athlete focus or dwell on the "Dope Dealer" (upset by events that happened during the day or mean words that were said), they have you (their coach) to be their Hope Dealer :)