Ripples of Motivation

Were you a good kid or a brat who was more likely to get beat up in the hall? Were the only acceptable careers (in the eyes of your parents) doctor, lawyer, business owner? That was the dilemma my first real coach told me he faced when we sat down to talk about how he became a basketball coach 40-some years ago.

He wasn’t quite twice my age when we met, meaning he was somewhere in his mid-twenties. Old, I guess, relative to a 12-year-old, but young compared to other teachers I’d had who seemed to think Eisenhower was still in charge.

Math was the only subject that held any interest for my coach when he was in school. He thought about accounting but found it ironic that his college professor didn’t have an accounting practice and didn’t really even like the subject. He almost left college. It was a disappointing experience at the start, and there was some difficulty over a gambling thing he got involved in... Right there some luck intervened when a guidance counselor had a conversation with him about his choices. On the one hand there was figuring out how to use college to find a positive track to the future, and on the other hand there was a job loading trucks for the family business. It was my good fortune that he chose to figure things out instead of continuing to roll the dice.

Like he said, he was good at math, but he also loved to play – basketball, in particular. Realizing that a reasonably gifted five-foot, ten-inch guy wasn’t likely to be making a living by playing pro basketball my coach and his counselor came up with a plan to get into coaching. The question was how? Without knowing too much, the way forward seemed to be to become a teacher so he could get experience coaching, and if it really worked out, then he would be able to coach full-time. Hired as an assistant coach at a high school in Ohio he got a break when the head coach had a professional conflict and had to step down before the season began. The principal asked if he was ready and, ready or not, he said yup. So, there he was at 22 working as a head coach. Early on he learned a valuable lesson about team dynamics from his first group of players. When something didn’t go as planned on the court his first instinct was to tear into a player. This was the model he had when he was growing up. Although he can still be, let’s say, blunt, he learned pretty quickly that he would have to have additional methods to reach his players and be a good coach. When a couple of his first team’s leaders let him know that there were players who he could be hard on and players who needed their coaches support in order to succeed he found a key tool that he would explore and use ever since. Personally, I have never responded well to someone being harsh to me. That said, the edge that he had came through in direct clear communication to let a player, often me, know what I did wrong, but he also never held it against a player who he could see was making his best effort. The combination of toughness and sincerity was what made me want to play for him. That he could discern the difference made him someone that I have kept close for most of my life.

The classroom, he explained to me, is a little different from the court. It is not wise to take it for granted that someone wants to be in the gym or in a class, but the probability that you start with buy-in at the gym is definitely higher. Engaging students who may not want to be in the classroom and/or students that have very high expectations regarding the return on their investment in their education isn’t easy. For the students who do not want to engage, the teacher’s challenge is to make the subject relevant. For the students who have high expectations the challenge is in how they become engaged. Those students need a voice in the process and feel like they are making a difference in their learning process. The hope is that seeing and being part of this process, that motivation to do well will transfer to the students who don’t want to be there too. We didn’t discuss it in our conversation, but I recall that he asked us players to evaluate him and how he did as a coach at the end of the season. We had some good teams and players who were willing to work. At the time I assumed it was that the players pushed each other but looking back I realize that our coach created the environment with us.

As he reminded me in our chat, he never gave rah-rah pregame talks. He said that he tried to uncover and access what motivated his players and students and use that to push and pull us toward our individual and collective team goals. Later on, when I was getting through a certificate program in development and fundraising we discussed intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. I already knew about them, but the instructor gave us a visual representation that has stuck with me ever since. It was a picture of the concentric rings created when a pebble hits the water. I think about that when I meet a donor or coach a driver. I want my impact to be the kind that generates the ripples which I hope will come from the donor or student. I want them to feel their own motivation from inside, not from me telling them what to do or how to do it.