Motivation… Revisited

I wanted to share this email to my post on motivation sent to me…

It comes from a very good friend/advisor/mentor and one of my former university coaches, Dr. Tim Elcombe. I have a great respect for his thoughts – although I have to admit that I only understand half of what the guy says to me. The rest is above me. (You’ll see what I mean when you get to his line on semantics! Dang… philosophers.)

Here are a few of his thoughts:

“Sometimes I believe the best thing a coach can do is motivate a player – to assume that all of our elite performers will come ready-made with a sense of deep purpose and passion is a dangerous one. In fact, I would argue that we, as coaches/adults, spend a lot of time beating the meaning/deep purpose out of our athletes, or we suggest that their development as athletes is a “responsibility”. Think of the tall athletic youth that…”must” play basketball… “must” then be tough (although spent their entire development to that point being told to be gentle because bigger than everyone else)… “must” put in the hours in the gym… “must” endure the long bus trips. Then we expect that somehow they will have a passion for performance, for sport. If not, then they are “high maintenance” and “slackers” and we don’t want them around us. Or, athletes come to us with a shallow sense of meaning from sport (money, fame…) because that is what they need to keep going…their motives.

I would argue that we are as likely to find athletes (young and old) struggling with the question of “why” as we would those who come with a “pre-packaged” sense of purpose and passion. Consequently, I think a central role for coaches is not to “give” purpose to our athletes (that is where the problem begins), but to help them find a sense of meaning through sport participation. This probably breaks down the divide between inspiration and motivation…but if we are talking about motives for training, travelling, sacrifice, then we better find our role in helping athletes rather than assumed that is already taken care of. Not through Knute Rockne … but by opening up the possibilities of experience in sport. Absolutely a high maintenance task…but “championships” are irreducibly high maintenance tasks.

…It is problematic to write off kids who seem “unmotivated” or lacking passion. Try to always think about where they are coming from… maybe you are the one (or the first) to help them find a deeper reason or passion for playing. Often it is about undoing the done… but we are all (including our athletes…especially people in their late teens early twenties who do nothing but transform) constantly changing/evolving/adapting. Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned is not to write off anyone – look closely to see what possibilities are there.”

Dr. E on the semantics of motivation vs. inspiration: “As for semantics, words are important in their meaning, but absolutes and absolute divisions are abstract and often artificial. Life is gray and blurry in a good way my friend.”

Thanks, Doc. I always appreciate the insight. More to let percolate in thought.


Here’s an exercise that Mike MacKay shared with me on how he helped quantify motivation for the athletes on his team from many years. He adapted this from something he heard Zig Ziglar do back in the early 1980s.

How many squares are there in this 4 x 4 square?

The first answer you usually receive is 16. Ask the question: “Are you sure there are only 16?”

People will start calling out higher answers as they start to realize there are more squares. Offer to do it like a mathematical proof.

  • 1×1 squares = 16
  • 2×2 squares = 9
  • 3×3 squares = 4
  • 4×4 squares =1
  • Total = 30 (don’t look for anymore)

The question you ask the players is this: “We started out with 16 squares and ended up with 30. Did I put those extra 14 squares into the picture or did I draw them out from what was already there?”

Answer: Draw them out from what already existed.

This, to me, is what motivation is about. We each have 30 squares of potential inside. Many times we only operate at 16 squares. How do we draw out the extra 14 squares? Some of it is intrinsic. It is going to come from inside. This is the most effective. Another way is extrinsic, external sources. It could be a reward, (although research has shown this to be ineffective in the long term), it could be a coach or your teammates. The key is to find a way to get you to operate at 30 squares when it is required.


Do a check during a practice or game to see what number your basketball players are operating at. Also develop interventions with each player and check their effectiveness. What worked to raise them from a 14 to a 30? Also what makes them go from a 30 back to a lower number?

[SB: This is a form of mental training. You don’t need some 12-lettered PhD psycho-analyst to help you improve the mental resiliency of your athletes. Get the athletes to reflect back on what had been previously covered … then facilitate that connection to what is currently taking place – good or bad … make it into a teachable moment by getting them to apply their previous learning to the current scenario.]

One final thought from MacKay…

“Motivation is key to learning. In order to get the number of repetitions necessary to build the positive muscle memory you need to be successful at a sport, you need to be motivated. Motivation can be extrinsic or intrinsic. In the book, “Disrupting Class” by Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson, the author defines extrinsic motivation as that which occurs outside of class. The person does something not because he/she found the task interesting, but because it leads to something else. We often extrinsically motivate youth in sport with a jersey, sweat suits, medals and trips. So often coaches use bribes of trips and gear as the reason for why a player should join a certain team over another. The further the trip is from one’s home or the more ‘stuff’ you receive the better the team must be.

Intrinsic motivation is when the task itself is stimulating and compels the individual to stay with the task. The child who is intrinsically motivated to play basketball has developed the passion and love for the game.”

Some things are better of left said in other people’s words.


If you have similar discovery activities like this, please do share. I would love to learn from your experiences and insights too.