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“How do I help my athletes stay motivated?”

Parents and Coaches, this blog post is for you.

I was asked to speak with a group of coaches last week.  We decided to keep it an open format, but coaches were asked to submit their questions in advance.  As I read the questions submitted, I noticed a theme.  Almost every question was around this topic “how do I keep my athletes motivated during this time”, “my junior athletes are fine, but my high-performance athletes are really struggling.  I am at a loss for what to say”.

I received the questions a few hours before I spoke with them.  As I jumped on by erg and listened to a podcast, below is how I chose to respond.

I started the conversation by being honest.  Athletes, especially the high-performance ones are not motivated; because this is not what they signed up for.  They signed up for sport because they are competitive, they love to compete, and they love pushing their limits.  They did not sign up to spend hours in the basement with no competitions.  So it is no wonder they are not motivated.  They are not and never have been motivated for that.

I think it is important that we are honest with them.  I think we avoid being honest because we want to protect them.  We don’t want to admit how much different it is right now, and we know how much it is going to hurt when we admit that.  But I think we need to start there.  We need to accept the reality of the situation and we need to allow the emotions to come out. 

When the Olympics were postponed, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield spoke with the athletes through the Canadian Olympic Committee.  And he said that we are in a new reality.  The old reality no longer exists.  The sooner we accept this, the sooner we will be able to embrace being the best we can right now.

And that is powerful.

In my work, I help athletes have hope and continue to believe.  After sometimes devastating and heartbreaking losses.  I am the master at helping people grab lessons from really tough hardships.  And I firmly believe that we do grow through pain and loss and challenge.  But I found myself struggling as things got cancelled again and again and yet again.  I ran into this quote by Brene Brown “empathy is not racing to turn the light on, it is the brave choice to sit in the dark with people”.  And that really resonated with me.  My job might not be to make it better.  And perhaps I can’t.  Maybe my job is to sit with them, wherever they are.  So they are not alone.  And maybe that is your job too – with your athletes and your children.

This is a great short animation about the difference between empathy and sympathy:

And this is an excellent animation that helps us understand the importance of allowing people to sit with their pain

But in order to do that, we need to accept the current situation.  Maybe we have to grieve this loss.  Maybe we need to let ourselves be honest about how difficult this time has been. 

And once we accept and get to the other side, we can embrace the challenge.

What do we know about Hardiness?  What do we know about people who do well when things get tough? 

  1. We know that they know their why?  Your athletes need to re-visit if they want to do this.  They have to know why.  They have to know what makes their heart sing.  They need to decide if they want to do it and if they do, they need to figure out how.
  2. We know they embrace the opportunity to get better.  They embrace challenge, they are open to how they will learn and grow.  Life has handed us an unbelievable opportunity to grow our emotional resilience and that will make all of us better when sport returns.
  3. They know they need other people, and they are not afraid to reach out for support once they need it.  So let your kids be truly seen.  Let them be honest about how much pain they are in.  Don’t make them act like they are doing better than they are.
  4. Finally, they focus on what they can control.  We can control our reaction to situations, we cannot control the situation themselves.  As Viktor Frankl reminds us in books such as ‘Yes to life in spite of everything’, “between stimulus and response there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom”.

I have read the book “Win in the Dark” by Joshua Medcalf with several of my athletes.  For all those athletes continuing to strive and all those coaches trying to help them, grab this book.  Have conversation and figure out how you want to pave your way during this time.  As Amy Edmundson shares with us in this 4-minute video, leading during crisis is not about having a map, it is about using a compass.  Know what you value and makes decision based on that.  This is new territory.  There is not map or guide for how to thrive right now in sport or life.

Before Spring Break, the principal at my daughter’s school sent an email to all of us reminding us that we are living history right now.  At some point, people will look back and read about how we responded and reacted to this time.  I can’t say that I wanted my children to experience this situation as I watch my daughter in grade 12 apply to schools and my son who is in grade 10 have his hockey season canceled.  But I do know that I cannot change it.  And that for whatever reason, this is part of their story.  At the end of the day, I no longer want them to hope to get through it.  I want them to have the courage to live it.  Every moment of it.  Because this is still a part of their story and their life.

Take good care of yourselves and each other.  When we get through the emotional part, I cannot help but think the motivation will be there.  Things may be canceled again and we may get hurt.  But that is okay.  Because we lived and we tried and we strived.  And that is what makes us human.