This is dedicated to all the coaches and teachers and others out there who want to motivate the kids they are working with. As an observer and thinker about this, and as a mom of three active kids, I’ve witnessed kids with many different personalities in many different situations with many kinds of coaches and teachers and parents.
The bumps in the road with kids range from relatively small to very big, but a lot of the dynamics are the same along the spectrum. Don’t we want to understand what’s going on, so that we can minimize our problems? Whether it’s a better relationship with your son or daughter, or avoiding teen suicides, eating disorders, cutting, or other destructive behaviors, it’s worth digging into the dynamics of how we interact with our kids.
What’s the Goal?
So, we might assume that we all would agree that the priority when working with kids is to motivate them to do their best. This seems reasonable, but I am not really sure that this is always the case.
Like anything, lots of people in the world are running on automatic, without really thinking through or being aware of what their true priorities are. So stepping back and thinking about it might be a worthwhile exercise. When you work with kids, what is your primary goal?
From what I have seen, the prevailing model for dealing with kids, that we have used for years, is what I call the Crime and Punishment model. Many adults really just want kids to do what they are told, to behave, to obey. I am the parent, what I say, goes. Step out of line, you have committed a crime, you should expect a punishment.
This way of thinking might sound like this: “I have the education and experience, I know what is best, and they should respect that. I have been successful in my field, and I know more than anyone else here, they should do what I say.” My response would be, that might all be true, but if a kid is not motivated to go along with the plan, there might be some issues. And, likewise, if a kid is really motivated, they are going to strive to achieve, despite what the coach or teacher or parent does.
So I am not interested in evaluating or making a distinction about whether the adult in charge is competent or not. Let’s assume he or she is experienced and knowledgeable. The actual goals of what you want the kids to do are probably the same…..it’s more a matter of how you get there.
What I am interested in talking about is the HOW in how do you motivate?
Motivated kids make your job easier. If they are motivated, you don’t have to push, and that’s half the battle, right? Why are some kids motivated while others don’t seem to care?
The first thing to say is, one size does not fit all. Sure, that seems obvious, but when working with kids, one has to consider the various personalities and situations of the kids you are working with. Do you adjust your style accordingly, or do you just use your style no matter what? As a parent, you may have had the experience that what worked with your first, does not with your second. If your style is not effective with a child, do you adjust, or do you just impose that style harder?
So let’s talk about motivating kids. It’s only one aspect of working with them, but it’s an important one that determines how effective you can be. You can have more knowledge about your subject area or sport than any other person alive, and you can be great at explaining and demonstrating that knowledge, but if the kids aren’t motivated to listen and engage, then you will only get so far.
I have seen the exact same kid thrive and excel under one coach, and totally bomb under another coach. I have seen the exact same kid excel in a subject at school with one teacher, then I have been told by the next year’s teacher that this child doesn’t know what he’s doing. The kid didn’t change – so something else was going on. It’s not just motivation, but that’s usually a part of it.
I like to analyze and figure things out. It’s what I do. And as a parent, I want my kids, and all kids, to learn and grow and excel. So I have watched and thought a great deal about this.
Motivation is a key component. And not every individual is motivated in the same way or for the same reasons. I see two primary questions that help break it down to figure out what is going on.
Is this kid motivated internally or externally?
We all know people who are self-motivated. It comes from inside. Once they have set their mind on something, nothing will stop them. This is the kind of kid we all love, because the motivation is already there. They make it easy.
But where that internal drive comes from isn’t always the same. Someone might have a drive to succeed because they just love doing their best at anything they try. They may love the satisfaction of reaching a goal. They may do what they do because they enjoy the sport or activity and it brings them joy, or a rush, or gets them into the zone.
Others may be motivated because they have internalized an external motivation. The parents were both athletes and so of course I will follow in their footsteps, I am expected to be and I expect myself to be a star. Failure is not an option.
Some may be in it for the glory and the bragging rights. If I am the best, I will get the medal, or the trophy, or the all-State status. Others will know I am the best. The championship or the title will be the motivation.
At the other end of the spectrum is the purely external motivation of parents or peers or coaches. The kid is required by his/her school to play a sport, and the rest of the team is all about winning, and the kid doesn’t want to let the team down, so the external motivation is responded to.
The parents push their kid hard, have invested a lot of money in lessons and instruments or equipment, say, and have also invested themselves in their child’s success. The kid does not want to disappoint their parents’ expectations. Failure is not an option.
Every single situation is unique, and you can’t assume what a child’s motivation is, just based on the circumstances. One kid who plays a sport might be totally self-motivated and love his sport. Another on the same track, might be doing it because his three older brothers did it.
One kid might be a superstar at school, where the learning comes naturally and is enjoyed, while another might be responding to tremendous pressure from teachers and parents to do it all. They could both get straight As with different motivations.
The second question is:
Are the motivation techniques I am using positive or negative?
Positive techniques are based on love. They include encouragement, a focus on improvement, and they build a kid up. Positive techniques support growth and taking risks and they let a kid know that the sky is the limit. When a person embraces this kind of motivation, it becomes the best kind of self-motivation.
Negative techniques are based on fear. Fear of punishment, fear of being ashamed, guilt for not measuring up, fear of consequences, fear of anger and emotional outbursts. Coaches yelling at their teams.
(One parent recently told me of a coach who told young girls that if they performed like that again, they would be a disgrace to their families. Really?)
I am sorry to say, but many, many of the techniques I see used in schools to get kids to fall in line and behave, are fear-based. I suspect that those who use these techniques prioritize behavior and doing what you are told (control). What they may not realize, though, is how damaging this is.
You see, deep down, we all know that we deserve love and respect. We are all “good enough.” At the surface, some of us are sure of this, many of us doubt this, and some have been convinced that this is not so.
Bottom line, any time fear is used to motivate, this is insulting to one’s Soul. It’s called manipulation.
So back to the secure, self-motivated kid who has messed up or missed the goal or made a mistake. If you slam him or her, and try to make them feel “less than” in order to “shape them up”, this will KILL their motivation. ESPECIALLY to a kid who has been raised to support internal motivation, who tries to do his/her best, but who knows they are a human who makes mistakes…..they do not need to be beat up. They already know that there is improvement to be made.
And the insecure, vulnerable kid? You can really do some damage. They already feel unworthy, and you are just kicking them when they are down. You think they will continue to try?
I am not saying that you won’t get what you want with a fear-based approach. Fear works, and in the short term, you may get those kids to perform. They may be strong enough and self-motivated enough to ignore your methods. Others may be unwilling to let their parents or their teammates down. They just might be scared enough of you to do what they are told.
But you will never empower kids by using fear. You might get what you want and win the battle, but you lose the war. You will not develop a relationship with these kids. Do you think any kid who has any kind of issue or trouble will ever come to you for help? Forget it. So without help and guidance, their troubles will get worse.
At this point, you may be saying, well their parents should take care of them. True, if the goal is to control kids and make them do what they are told and behave. But is that what we are trying to teach our kids? Or do we want kids who learn to navigate life, by making mistakes and practicing how to do better next time? Don’t we want to encourage kids to take responsibility for their own activities and decisions?
As parents, coaches and teachers, it is our responsibility to make kids feel SAFE coming to us with their problems. That is, IF our goal is to empower kids and help them learn and grow.
What has amazed me the most is how entrenched our culture is in Crime and Punishment. We aren’t even aware of this. Even kids with really open and caring parents are afraid to share their difficulties. Most kids wouldn’t dare discuss issues with their parents or other adults.
And teachers and coaches? You better believe that if you follow the Crime and Punishment model (which, by the way, often includes No Tolerance policies) there is no way kids think they can work things out with you. Instead, they will weasel their way through the best they can. Some will just quit. And you definitely WON’T be getting their best. Isn’t this obvious?
I have observed the kids who have been crushed by this system. It’s awful.
And the thing is, it’s unnecessary.
It’s not about assigning blame or figuring out who is wrong. That’s just pointless. We all make mistakes sometimes, we all wish we had done some things differently. We have good intentions, we are doing the best we can, and sometimes we are doing things the way we think we should…..and it turns out that’s not the best way.
It’s life and it’s how it works and nobody is perfect.
But everybody knows our schools and our kids are in crisis. Instead of searching for someone to blame, wouldn’t it be more helpful to understand?
One little blog post can’t cover this topic. But to me, if everybody took some time to think through these issues, we could make dramatic improvement in our interactions with our kids. And in turn, we would be making the world a kinder place with more Love and less Fear.