Today’s “professional model” of competitive youth sports has tremendous advantages over the former recreational sport model that most of us parents grew up with. In regards to development, our young athletes are learning more, faster and younger than ever before. My 10-year old daughter already knows more about soccer than I did when I was 25!! This model is excellent for identifying the best talent and helping to build the competitiveness of our clubs, colleges, national and professional teams. This model also helps to drive coaching education with licensing by national governing bodies, giving our kids better coaching and ideally a better sport experience. All great news for our elite youth athletes.

There is, however, a downside to this training model: Deficient self-motivation. Here’s why.

  1. Highly organized sports from a young age – Prior to this hyper-competitive era that we now live in athletes could be seasonal and participate in a number of sports. They could choose not play one year, change their mind and play the next. Athletes often played multiple sports, usually one per season. This approach allowed for athletes to pause and take some time to recover mentally and physically, reducing the chance of injury and burnout. Unlike today’s sport world, in the past they could step away from the team (club, organization) and decide what they really wanted to do. If they were in, they were IN. In other words, they were much more likely to be self-motivated.
  1. Authoritative coaching styles – Authoritative coaches (think coach who’s coaching philosophy reads, “My way or the highway!”) have been around since the beginning of time. There are some athletes that thrive under the tutelage of a hard-nosed coach and there are many that don’t, especially in today’s youth sport world. So why do authoritative coaches kill self-motivation? Simple answer. Because their motivator is fear. Fear of the being yelled at. The fear of being singled out. The fear of making a mistake. It’s true, fear IS the best motivator (this generally helps us survive as humans). The problem with it is that once the fear is removed, there is often a complete lack of motivation. In other words, motivation becomes dependent on the presence of fear. This is one explanation for why former athletes who once thrived in a strict, highly disciplined, authoritative program could not transfer what they learned from sport to life in general. This also explains athletes who are highly motivated during practice but not outside of it. The true test of motivation is if an athlete can work hard on their own.
  1. No free time – I am surprised you have time to read this article!! Anyone who is a youth athlete or a parent of youth athlete lacks free time. That was not the case 25 years ago. There was down time. There was time to reflect on last weekends game and time to dream about next weekends game. So what does that have to do with motivation? My 17 years as a Mental Skills Coach has taught me first hand that when an athlete knows their “why” (“Why do I play?” “Why am I out here…again?” “Why am I not home hanging out with my friends?”) motivation is stronger and more resilient. Finding your “why” requires reflective thinking, self-awareness and adversity challenges. Ironically, in today’s culture the best opportunity some athletes get for free time is when they are injured. Free time can be any time away from the ball field with friends, hiking, biking going to the beach…anything that allows for time to ponder possibilities and figure out your “why.”

Why does being self-motivated matter?

  1. It’s up to you to get it done – At the end of the day (practice or season) it’s your sport experience. You will put in the sweat and you will reap the benefits of satisfaction and hopefully a win to go along with it. Blaming others for failures will get you nowhere. Being proactive and responsible will.
  1. Your profession (probably not sports) will require it – Sports are a great training ground for life. Working in a system with others, learning to be disciplined work through conflict and adversity…even learning how to win are skills you will need for the rest of your life. Chances are you will not be a professional athlete (don’t let me stop you!!) but if there’s any chance of it, being self-motivated will be KEY for making that happen.
  1. If you do the work, you get the credit – I’ve talked to A LOT of athletes over the years. Not one person has ever told me that they regretted working really hard towards a goal. I know it’s cliché to say, but many athletes have told me the journey towards a goal matters…it often matters more than the goal itself.

Contact Erika Westoff Performance with specific questions on self-motivation or to learn more about mental training.