It has been said that true motivation is when an athlete follows through on their goals long after the emotion that set those goals has left their mind and body. It is so easy to get psyched up to work hard and get ‘amped’ to play, practice and pursue a goal during the emotional highs of day one of pre-season. But how long does this emotion last? How well will this motivation sustain the athlete during the emotional highs and lows of the season? True motivation and commitment runs deep. In high school we try to coach it, in college we try to recruit for it, and in the pros we try and draft it. It is rare and valuable, and compared to other components of mental toughness such as poise, focus and confidence, I believe it is the rarest and most difficult of mental traits to grow and develop. It is for this very reason that so few athletes have a plan to improve many facets of their game outside of mandatory team practice.
In over 10 years of working with high school, collegiate and professional athletes, I have also found that something unique happens to the motivation and commitment of so many athletes when they make the transition from high school to college. I am careful here to say ‘so many’ and ‘not all’ athletes. This is because I am fortunate enough to see and work with so many athletes whose passion, motivation and commitment in high school burns just as bright and sometimes even brighter in college. Yet, unfortunately, in college, this is not usually the case. For many athletes, something dies in that transition from high school to college. Perhaps it is the shift in the freedom and largely intrinsic motivations, love and experience of the sport in high school, to a more extrinsic ‘scholarship’ experience and exchange of tuition for services in college. Or perhaps it is the slow painful realization that the professional level they one day wanted to attain no longer appears to be realistic. Whatever the reason behind the shift, so many athletes change their mindset during this transition. The player they used to dream of becoming in high school is replaced by someone who does not work and drill outside of college team practice as he/she used to. Some of these athletes feel the shift occurring, and even blame the transition on the college coach or the college system that seems more like business than pleasure and will not allow them to play free and star the way they once did in high school. Let me speak plainly here; no coach, system or condition can ever change or take the motivation of an athlete without that athlete’s mind at least playing a role in the change and giving permission for the change. Athletes should realize and remember that the beauty and passion that is inherent in sport is alive at every level of sport. We just have to look for it a little harder sometimes. Yes, the conditions may change from one level to the next, and the level of competition may change from one level to the next, but the beauty remains, and it is up to each athlete to find and rediscover that beauty in both those tough practice conditions and in the intense crucible of games and competition. Are the personalities, coaching styles and philosophies of some coaches better than others at creating conditions that seem to maximize motivation from the pre-season to the post-season? Absolutely. Yet, motivation is ultimately the responsibility of the athlete. The Chinese Olympic program has a great maxim for their elite athletes that translates to “the great ones work, even when no one is watching.” Athletes should consistently challenge themselves, particularly throughout the pre-season, to ask “how much work am I getting done when no one else is watching?” What is your plan for improvement outside of mandatory practice? It is so easy to work hard in front of coaches when playing time is on the line, but what about the work that must get done away from the eye of the coach and outside of mandatory practice for you to truly find your potential? It has been said of this generation of athletes that they are the least accountable generation in the history of scholastic and collegiate sport. Sweeping generalizations are never fair to all athletes, but for most athletes, the research shows that this generalization may be applicable to today’s athlete. The 21st century athlete waits for their class schedule, their free uniform and shoes, their mandatory individual practice schedule, their strength and conditioning workout, and for many collegiate division I and II programs, the specialized diet and food that is handed to them and the one on one tutoring services that are given to them to hold their hand through the tougher classes. Am I suggesting that collegiate athletes do not deserve these things? Not at all. In fact, as a former full scholarship collegiate athlete, I believe these services are both deserved and needed to stay competitive at the highest levels of collegiate sport. However, the point I am trying to make is that the 21st century athlete rarely takes the initiative to find answers for themselves, to analyze a situation, create a plan and strategy, and execute that plan. Yes, there IS a DUAL role here that involves both coach and athlete, but ultimately, self-driven accountability has many times the power of coach driven accountability, and the responsibility for the motivational rocket fuel that drives the athlete from pre-season to post-season should rest in the heart and mind of the athlete. As an athlete, challenge yourself with the following questions and resolutions: How can I keep my motivation as high on day 51 of practice as it will be on day 1 of practice? What parts of the game or my sport reflect the true beauty of the game for me, and how effectively can I look for these things in practice and in games? How well will I show my self-driven accountability for my own improvement this pre-season by coming up with a self-improvement plan, sticking to it, and tracking my own improvements….even when no one is watching?