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How Do I Motivate My Players?

By Hal Tearse, 12/20/12, 9:00AM CST


Three driving forces that can stimulate and inspire kids on and off the ice

Coaches and parents often wonder about what motivates their children/players. Usually it is expressed as dismay at the lack of motivation. Coaches often ask, “How do I motivate my players?”

The answers are not simple and not what we would expect.

It is conventional wisdom that athletes are motivated by winning and success. Maybe this is true, but many teams and players have experienced considerable success on the ice and yet the players actually lack serious motivation for improvement and future success. I know many players who were on dominant youth teams that won every night, yet they failed to compete successfully at higher levels when winning was less assured and the competitive environment much tougher.

Similarly, in the workplace, the consensus is that money motivates people. The current debate regarding bonus money paid to traders and executives at large financial institutions on Wall Street is based on the supposed need to motivate people to perform. The argument implies that without these outlandish bonuses, top-quality executives will not wish to do the jobs. Actually, extensive research tells a very different story.

Varied research shows that offering financial rewards for exceptional performance was not the answer. Money/winning were not the primary factors influencing behaviors. The studies have proven that the three driving forces behind motivation are:

1. Autonomy

2. Mastery

3. Purpose

These are interesting ideas and ones we could apply to hockey.


The idea of autonomy in hockey could be interpreted as having the freedom to play without constant negative feedback and to participate in an environment that allowed for the expression of individual talent and skills. Although hockey is a team game, there is considerable room for coaches to allow players some autonomy. For instance, with Peewee/U-12 and Bantam/U-14 and above, coaches might want to let players work their own versions of power-play formations or penalty-kill configurations. Having it put into practice plans is another example. The “Millennial” generation wants very much to be involved in decisions regarding their practices and training regimes.


Mastery is the idea of continuous improvement to master the skills required to play well. There is an extensive body of literature documenting the processes required to master skills of any sort. The process takes 10 years, at minimum, and consists of primarily purposeful practice for thousands of hours. Well-designed practices with skill improvement at the heart of each session, immediate positive feedback and fun will go a long ways towards motivating players.


Purpose would suggest that there needs to be a reason for participation beyond the supposed desire to win the games. Purpose implies something greater than the individual. This is a sense of needing to belong to something special with a purpose that is larger than each individual participant. This does not need to be a radical idea or program. Simply creating a team environment that is unique to that group will help this process.

Coaches and parents should spend some time thinking about these three aspects of motivation. How do your children or players on the team fit this model? Highly motivated players seem to have these qualities. Coaches and parents can take steps to nurture their players to higher levels of motivation in the right manner. External motivation, consisting of punishments or threatening scenarios like “If you do not start playing harder, I will (fill in the rest),” have a short-term effect but longer term do not change behaviors.

Be careful how you attempt to motivate your teams. Coaches need to assess each player on their team to determine motivation levels and develop strategies to help players who want more out of the game. It is important to recognize that some players are perfectly happy as they are and do not want more from the game. The structure of our programs in Minnesota, with only one type of program, competitive hockey, finds the recreational players, competitive players and the elite-level players all grouped together. This is challenging for youth coaches as they have to deal with all three types on the same team. It is also challenging for all three types of players who have differing levels of motivation.

By understanding the different levels of motivation, coaches and parents are better able to support and encourage their players/children.

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