Figuring out what makes young players tick is a challenge. It requires a lot of trial and error in approach as well as a keen eye in order to identify what players respond to. Extrinsic motivation is the common way in which coaches motivate their players as they are easier to affect. Self Determination Theory and Motivational Interviewing can help dive in to Intrinsic Motivation to bring this out in player's.

The Problem

With a variety of demographics, backgrounds, cultures and environments - youth soccer is an incredibly diverse landscape. One of the things that fascinates me is what drives certain players to push on in their development - is it an internal drive, constant push from their parents, the environment in which they're in, other factors or a combination or all of the above?

 
 3-0 down at half time. What motivates a 9 year old to come back out in the second half to mount a comeback?

3-0 down at half time. What motivates a 9 year old to come back out in the second half to mount a comeback?

 

As a coach that primarily works with youth players, this is an ongoing dilemma when selecting players, working with them on a day to day basis and constructing session plans to aid their development. Figuring out what motivates a young player isn't as simple as just asking them. I couldn't give you a true definition of what motivates me and I've tried (on many occasions) to put my finger on it. As a result, coaches, on top of all else they're planning and working on, have to try and figure this out.

Trial, Error, Observation

I talk to a lot of coaches about their player connection and I believe this is incredibly important when trying to figure out a player's motivation. It gives the coach an advantage when they have a better understanding of a player, know's a little more about their background, family, friends, school and life in general. These insight's may help a coach gain a little insight into their players psyche.

 
 In this game, the red team plays a man down against the blue team, with the coach keeping an eye out for how they deal with the challenge.

In this game, the red team plays a man down against the blue team, with the coach keeping an eye out for how they deal with the challenge.

 
  • TRIAL  
    • You might try testing various methods and tasks to see what works for certain players 
      1. Being more demanding of Player A 
      2. Being overly positive and encouraging to Player B  
      3. Placing Player C on a team that's a man down and setting them a challenge (e.g. your captain and down to ten men - find a way to draw/win) 
  • ERROR  
    • After trying different methods, you'll likely find that some a more effective than others based on a range of factors. Make a note of these. Every now and again come back to the trial and error phase to see if these have changed (player's don't stay U8 forever. Players change, mature, grow and have different life experiences that may shift their motivation) 
  • OBSERVATION  
    • Have a keen eye for how players do in certain situations. If a teammate shouts at them, do they shy away or try harder? Does a player decrease their application against perceived easier opponents or 'step up' in bigger games or when your team is behind? A keen eye will help you identify these types of players and motivators and use them to your advantage in later sessions 

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation refers to behavior that is driven by external rewards such as money, fame, grades, and praise
— verywellmind.com

To any player that's ever been offered a dollar from their grandparents for each goal they score, this is a great example of external motivation. External motivation can potentially get a player short term gains (and perhaps it's what drives players to the highest level) but most commonly come with a number of pitfalls and aren't usually attributed to the greatest players. While Cristiano Ronaldo is perhaps closely associated with the money and fame side of things, it is more likely that his drive and intrinsic motivation play a greater role in the place he's achieved in the game today.

 
 Does Ronaldo's drive and motivation come from fame and money or is it a deeper lying intrinsic motivation?

Does Ronaldo's drive and motivation come from fame and money or is it a deeper lying intrinsic motivation?

 

Coaches often resort to finding the extrinsic motivators and using them where they can to push their players. Setting challenges, rewarding players with praise, being the energy and enthusiasm that players need; coaches are often Mr. Motivator. However, if players don't find their own reasons for playing and developing, they can oftentimes become too reliant on the coach - who cannot do it for them forever (though many try).

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation refers to behavior that is driven by internal rewards. In other words, the motivation to engage in a behavior arises from within the individual because it is naturally satisfying to you.
— verywellmind.com

Intrinsic motivation is harder for a coach to gauge and affect as it's incredibly difficult to figure out for a player and even harder to communicate to others. (Could you tell me at 11 years old what drove and motivated you?) While it is a little harder to pinpoint internal rewards for each player, there are a couple of things that can help:

Create The Environment

While this buzz-phrase is used a lot, creating the environment can lead to players having to figure out their own motivation and internal rewards. The self determination theory talks to this subject and boils down to the following:

 
 United Soccer Coaches Director of Coaching Education, Ian Barker, explains it as Care, Competence and Choice.

United Soccer Coaches Director of Coaching Education, Ian Barker, explains it as Care, Competence and Choice.

 

If a player feels that you care, have a level of competence and that they have a choice then they're more likely to find their intrinsic motivation rather than relying on extrinsic factors. 

Ask The Right Questions

I was introduced to the concept of Motivational Interviewing recently on the Tim Ferriss podcast. Daniel Pink, author of Drive, spoke specifically about the idea of motivational interviewing for children.

 
 

For example: 

  • On a scale of 1-10 how motivated are you to beat your juggling record? 
  • "I'm a 4" 
  • Okay, you're a 4, but why aren't you a 1, 2 or a 3? 
  • "Because I'd quite like to be able to show my brother that I can do it and it's annoying when I play soccer tennis and can't get it over the net" 

This goes further and requires the player to articulate the reasons that they might want to do it (show someone else they can do it or help them in other tasks). This "jedi mind trick" switches the script from "I want you to break your juggling record" to help players find their own drive and intrinsic motivation to want to apply themselves within practice.

Key Takeaways

  • Figuring out a young player's motivation is a challenge 
  • It requires trial and error and a keen eye 
  • Coaches can more easily touch on and affect Extrinsic Motivation factors 
  • Self Determination Theory and Motivational Interviewing can help coach's dive deeper into Intrinsic Motivation