America has a passion for sports. In interview after interview, you hear players and coaches talk about motivation. Some coaches just seem to have a natural ability to get the most out of players. How many times have you heard “my students just have no motivation” from an instructor? Just like a coach, an instructor has to understand how to get the most out of students. Motivation is a critical skill for an instructor to master. Here are four basic keys to motivation training and sports have in common.
1. Build common ground.
Think about coaches. They work in environments where what has been done in the past is regarded as in the past. The coach’s past championships are irrelevant to the team at hand. Unfortunately, in training we tend to take the opposite approach. Training centers often view what’s been done by an instructor in the past (degrees, publications, presentations) as sufficient to build credibility with the students. In fact, students want and need someone that shares common ground with them. When a student sees an instructor with common ground, and that instructor is passionate about the subject matter – it’s far easier to create a passion in the student.
No matter what your background is, understanding the audience is the key to finding common ground and subsequently, motivation. Although you must retain the authority and control associated with being an educator, simply using inclusive language such as “we” and “us” makes a difference. The common ground doesn’t have to be relevant to the subject matter; it can be a shared experience, a symbol, or organizational tradition.
Common ground can also be found by establishing shared experiences or traditions. Coaches are among the most creative in the business when it comes to this. For example, Virginia Tech’s football team has, as a symbol, a beat-up lunch pail. The lunch pail is awarded to the player who works hardest each week – not always the player with the best performance. The lunch pail is not just about individual performance. The team also places bits of grass (turf) from key road wins inside. The pail has carried the defense’s mission statement – signed by every member of the defensive unit. It is a symbol of the team’s blue collar attitude toward hard work and discipline.
In the educational environment, one medical program refrains from awarding “white coats” to newly certified professionals until every member of the graduating class passes their certification exam. Creative use of symbols and traditions are excellent motivational tools.
2. Ensure knowledge is used.
Trainers should ensure a student’s knowledge, skills and abilities are put to use at every opportunity. You cannot spend two hours teaching safety, only to have a subsequent instructor allow unsafe practices during a skills session. The overall instructional team should use opportunities to reinforce others’ efforts to achieve a common, realistic goal. To use the coaching example, every coach and assistant uses the same playbook and language. Coaches constantly move up and down the slopes of the same knowledge pyramid you use in training:
- Knowledge: Providing the basic information on the sport, rules, and techniques.
- Elements of Skills: Using drills to develop agility, strength, quickness and teaching components of skills such as stance, shooting technique, positioning.
- Skills: Combining elements into specific task-relevant skills, such as blocking a shot or tackling a player.
- Skill Application: Learning the situations and variations on when and how to apply the skills in a controlled environment.
- Teamwork: Working with other individuals performing skills simultaneously to achieve a common goal.
- Problem Solving: Combining everything learned to apply skills and teamwork in an uncontrolled environment.
When an individual has issues at one level, you have to be willing to go back down to the level at which the mistakes occur, then bring the student back up to speed. This requires consistency between educators and curricula. A big part of motivation is helping the student understand how the individual bits and pieces actually get used and matter in the larger outcome.
3. Recognize individuals, build a team.
Every team has star players, a supporting cast, and substitutes. Part of a coaching staff’s responsibility is figuring out how each individual fits into the overall team while minimizing the performance gap. Performance gap is different from skills gap. A skills gap relates to a specific individuals’ performance against expectations. The performance gap relates to a group of individuals performing the same skill. The performance gap can be defined as the difference in skill performance between the most proficient and least proficient individuals. Motivation is a key part of getting lesser achievers up to speed, while not allowing higher achievers to get bored. The overall goal is to close the performance gap (i.e., so your 3rd string backup performs in a manner as close to your starter as possible).
So how can you recognize individuals? Let your stars take mentoring roles with the mid-range students (under a watchful eye, of course). Doing so allows trainers to build performance in students having deeper challenges, and remember – success at a task provides motivation. Provide frequent feedback. Use small but constant statements to help individuals feel successful (ego rewards). Not every student will be a stellar achiever, and there will always be corrective feedback (everyone can improve!). Allow students to enjoy success at whatever level they achieve.
Another component of motivation at the team level is flexibility. Allow students to explore aspects of skills or tasks where strict compliance isn’t necessary. Recognize any efforts that result in an improved process. A student seeing his or her suggestion being implemented, or added to the curriculum, is a huge motivator not only for the single student, but the entire team.
4. Maximize Impact.
Motivation extends beyond a single moment. What’s taught at the knowledge level (in the classroom) works out best when students have the ability to go apply it. Your job is to give them tools so that they can acquire the skill, not put up road blocks to success. All too frequently, trainers try to accomplish too much in one session, don’t have appropriate resources, or fail to provide opportunities to apply knowledge. Often it’s not about helping a student remember – it’s about creating a learning opportunity they won’t forget!
When motivating students, help them understand that they can – and will – have a real impact. During your training session, show video or have previous students discuss how previous training has had an impact on specific situations. Again, success provides reassurance and motivation. When a former student has success in applying the tools learned in your class, recognize the effort.
Motivation – An Instructor Responsibility
Instructors are taught early on about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. In essence, Maslow proposed that human motivation is based on people seeking fulfillment and change through personal growth. It’s the basic responsibility of an instructor to show a student how specific material meets his or her need to grow as a person. How you meet that responsibility plays a huge role in how motivated the student becomes. Many instructors have trouble bridging Maslow’s work to real instructional practice. The next time you get stuck, consider how your favorite coach provides motivation to his athletes. Build a connection with your students, and your passion for the subject can be a powerful tool.