Push Forward

September 5, 2017

To connect with today’s athletes and keep them progressing, strength coaches should provide direction, motivation, and an environment in which they can succeed.

This article first appeared in the September 2017 issue of Training & Conditioning.

By Ron McKeefery

Ron McKeefery, MA, CSCS*D, MSCC, is Vice President of Performance and Education for PLAE. Previously, he served as a strength and conditioning coach at the professional and collegiate levels, most recently as the Director of Strength and Conditioning at Eastern Michigan University. Named the 2008 Under Armour Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year and 2016 NSCA Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year, he is the founder of the popular Iron Game Chalk Talk podcast and the author of CEO Strength Coach. McKeefery can be reached at: ronmckeefery@gmail.com or on Twitter and Instagram @RMcKeefery.

We have all heard those strength coaches who reminisce about the “good old days,” when sports were much harder and athletes cared more and were more disciplined. That mindset has never resonated with me. Having coached for multiple decades, I believe athletes are still motivated by the same things. They still want to win, still love their teammates, and still want to make themselves and their families proud.

What has changed is the amount of external information, people, and technology competing for players’ time and attention. As a result, strength coaches have had to work harder to get them to buy in.

It would be easy to blame athletes for this difficulty. However, it really comes down to the fact that, often, we are not prepared for the challenge. Most strength coaches did not take management or psychology classes in college. Instead, we focused on exercise physiology, kinesiology, and anatomy. While these courses were necessary to help us understand the science of the body, they didn’t provide much guidance regarding the science of human behavior. So now, we have to play catch-up.

In that regard, this article provides a game plan for connecting with today’s athletes and capturing their time and attention. The framework I use comes from the book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath. In it, the authors present the example of a man riding an elephant down a path to demonstrate the components of change. The man symbolizes the rational side, the elephant the motivational side, and the path the situational world. They state that to bring about change, you must first direct the rider, then motivate the elephant, and, finally, shape the path.

DIRECT THE RIDER

In a perfect world, getting a certain result from athletes would be easy—we’d tell them to do something, and they’d do it. But we don’t live in a perfect world. If the rider (rational side) on top of the elephant (motivational side) tells it to go right, and the elephant wants to go left, it’s going left.

Translating this to working with athletes, we can tell them to be on time for training, go to bed early, and eat the right things. Yet, if we do not guide them on how to put those directives into action, they can end up confused and unproductive. As a result, they might opt for sleeping in, partying all night, and eating pizza instead.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you stop trying to get the results you want. Rather, you simply have to reinforce what athletes should do and how they should do it. Here are three ways to provide this direction:

Focus on the positive: When we want an athlete to change, we often tell them what not to do. This positive-negative asymmetry can cause them to lose focus and ignore the instructions completely.

A better option is to lead the athlete to the desired solution or outcome. Instead of telling them, “Don’t do this,” demonstrate the proper way of doing something or point out someone else doing it correctly.

Keep it simple: Strength coaches are notorious for killing ourselves to come up with complex solutions to our teams’ problems. But this only confuses the athletes. Simplifying the solution gives them a better understanding of what they should do and how.

For example, early in my career, I had an issue with football players being late for training or missing sessions. To combat this, I created 10 different lifting groups that met throughout the day. But despite me working 10 straight hours and eating my lunch on the weightroom floor so I could supervise them all, I still had athletes arriving late or skipping their groups.

I realized that my error was giving the players too many options. As a result, athletes were scattered all over the place at any given time—some would be in class, some would be eating cereal in their underwear, some would be asleep in bed, and some would be lifting. Compared to getting your butt kicked in the weightroom, the other three options sounded much more appealing.

It wasn’t until I created two lifting groups—offense/defense or power/skill—and had one group meet while the other lifted that our tardiness and absence issues vanished. Having all of the players in the building at the same time eliminated athletes’ excuses for missing training and made it cool to be where the team was.

Point to a destination: Goal setting is not a new tactic in strength and conditioning circles, but I’ve noticed the approach has shifted from dream building to dream killing. I have witnessed many goal-setting meetings where a strength and conditioning coach asked a player for their current numbers and then proceeded to set an arbitrary benchmark for that training period—often cautioning the athlete not to think too big as they set their goals. What is missed here is a great opportunity to “define good goals” and cater to the athlete’s rational side.

For example, a great chunk of my experience has been working with football players who aspired to the NFL. I have coached hundreds of draft picks, so it’s easy for me to tell whether an athlete has the potential to make it. But if I tell a prospect flat out that he doesn’t have a chance, he’ll tune out everything else I say. Instead, I use the previous year’s NFL combine results as the definition of a “good goal” for the athlete to aspire to. This gives him an idea of what needs to be done to reach his objective and how hard he will need to work to get there. It also shows that I can help him achieve his dream.

MOTIVATE THE ELEPHANT

Before you can engage athletes, you have to determine what drives them. To do this, find their “why,” as Simon Sinek wrote in his book Start With Why. Problem is, no one really explains how to do this.

I begin by modeling vulnerability. In a highly competitive, ego-driven business like athletics, being vulnerable is often viewed as a weakness. In truth, it’s a strength. I try to model this behavior by meeting with players at the start of each training period. We call the first 15 minutes their “why meeting.” During this time, I open up by telling players my why, and then I ask for theirs. By showing vulnerability first, I set the tone for the discussion and allow players to get to know me. When they start to see me as more than just their coach, I can begin the process of obtaining their permission to lead them.

Even if you’re open and honest with athletes, you still might have to dig to get at their why. It is difficult to get athletes to truly define why they play the game, and, often, it has nothing to do with the sport itself. To discover their deeper motivation, I usually ask three questions:

• If you could no longer play your sport, what would you do? You would be amazed how many players have never thought about their mortality as athletes. It can be hard to get an answer, as most athletes will simply shrug their shoulders, say they don’t know, and expect you to move on. Don’t. Ask about their hobbies or past jobs and if they enjoyed any of them. And when all else fails, use silence. Sit there and stare at them until they give you an answer.

Once they do, you’ll probably be surprised at what they say. I had one player tell me he would sail around the world. Another said he wanted to be an ESPN broadcaster, and I’ve heard many other ideas. Knowing what athletes want to do after their playing days are over connects you to them on a deeper level and forms a basis on which you can motivate them.

• What is the most difficult thing you have been through in your life? It is very easy to rush to judgment about an athlete’s attitude or character based on a single interaction. Asking this question keeps that reflex in check and provides some background on your players.

That being said, if you ask this question, be prepared for some potentially shocking answers. I had one player tell me that he watched his father shoot his mother and then commit suicide right in front of him. Before knowing this, my younger coaching self might have called him “soft” or tried to intimidate him with fear if he was dogging on a sprint. But after learning about his past and what he had to overcome just to stand in front of me, I knew he wouldn’t respond to fear-based tactics. It provided me the appropriate empathy I needed to develop and motivate him.

• Who is the most influential person in your life? I want to know who has the athlete’s ear, who they respect the most, and why. I then get the athlete’s permission to contact their “influencer,” and I reach out to them. In this initial communication, I also ask the influencer if I can continue to contact them throughout the athlete’s career. My ultimate goal is to get them to sign off on me. Not only is this extremely powerful in the athlete’s eyes, but it gives me someone to rely on if I ever need to refocus the athlete.

Of course, calling everyone’s influential person takes time. But that’s okay, because you spell love t-i-m-e. To make it fit into my schedule, I call one or two influencers every night on my way home from work. You might think this would be a drain, but it actually reenergizes me.

Once I determine each athlete’s why, I enlist motivational tools to make necessary changes to their behavior. There are two methods for doing this: Analyze-Think-Change and See-Feel-Change.

When presented with a request to alter a habit, athletes rarely analyze it, think about it, and change their behavior accordingly. One of the reasons for this is positive illusion bias—meaning, athletes always view themselves more favorably than their peers.

For example, say an athlete who is usually on time shows up late for a workout, and you come down hard on him. In his head, he will try to justify why you gave him the same reprimand that you delivered to another player who has a serial tardiness issue. He will think, “I have only been late twice, but Johnny has been late five times, and he has the same accountability.” It won’t add up, and the player won’t change his behavior.

On the other hand, See-Feel-Change plays on our emotions, both negative and positive. This is especially powerful when trying to motivate athletes.

Emotions like fear and anger tend to elicit faster responses but aren’t great for long-term solutions. I only use fear and anger to change behavior when I need to drive home a point. Additionally, when dishing out this type of reinforcement, I keep it unemotional. When both the coach and the athletes have negatively charged emotions, it can often lead to very bad outcomes.

One example of when I use fear- and anger-based tactics is at the beginning of each training period. I remind players of the consequences they will face for common indiscretions, and I get their pledge that they understand the expectations and are committed to the program. If they fail to meet those standards, I simply remind them of their pledge and what the accountability measures are. The fear should be of the consequences, not of you.

More often than not, however, I use positive emotions, such as curiosity and joy, to change athletes’ mindsets and actions. I would much rather have players come to the weightroom engaged and excited than fearful and angry. (See “Bring Out the Best” below for my strategies on including positive emotions in my strength and conditioning program.)

SHAPE THE PATH

Through directing and motivating athletes, you can start to connect with them and make positive behavior changes. Then, you must shape the path to further reinforce these habits.

This starts by surrounding your athletes with the right people. I have had basic weightrooms that were 2,000 square feet and others that were 25,000 square feet with all the bells and whistles, but the success of my program always came down to the people involved. Everyone within the organization must be on the same page and maintain the same level of accountability to the mission.

You can first ensure this during the hiring process. I used to want to surround myself with coaches who were just like me because I thought I was a pretty good coach. But not all athletes responded to me, and I really needed the right balance of personalities on my staff. Assess your strengths and weaknesses, and hire for your weaknesses. I use the Gary Smalley personality test when hiring to ensure my staff includes different types of people, but you can use the Myers-Briggs test or any of the numerous other options available.

Competition is another great way to shape the path. I always run a contest for my football teams during the winter offseason. Players draft teams and compete daily and weekly. Points are awarded to each athlete based on his workouts, program goals, daily results, and weekly awards, and points are deducted for lack of effort, accountability issues, or an inability to follow program goals. The coaches hold the athletes accountable, but because players get so invested in the competition, they learn to hold their teammates accountable, too. This helps reinforce the positive behaviors we are trying to instill.

As for the awards, they don’t have to be anything extravagant. You’d be amazed at the power of a T-shirt. Other prizes can include seat placement on planes or buses or eating order at team meals.

By directing and motivating athletes and shaping their path, we can better connect with and engage them. Doing this provides safety rails for them to stay within, and by gradually widening the rails, we can reinforce positive habits. Conscious deliberation is necessary to capture the attention of today’s athletes. It may take days, months, or even years, but with consistency, you can get there.

Sidebar:

BRING OUT THE BEST

Incorporating curiosity and joy into a strength and conditioning program can motivate athletes and help change their behaviors. Here are five specific tactics I use for this:

Create life experiences: Be it climbing mountains, whitewater rafting, running sand dunes, or jumping into a frozen lake, I look for local activities that are life experiences. When you do things outside of the weightroom, you provide something in the athletes’ lives that no one else has, and they become indebted to you for it.

Create competitive opportunities: Play a pickup game of Wiffle ball, broomball, paintball, or dodgeball. It doesn’t have to be extravagant or cost any money—just get your athletes competing in something other than their sport. This helps them get back to the root of why they love athletics.

Have one-on-ones: Coaching has become very transactional—you play for me, so come lift weights. But you have to find a way to be involved in the other parts of athletes’ lives. Look for ways to interact with and support them outside the weightroom. Attend a class presentation or an all-star game, or connect them with something they are passionate about. Once, I had a player who was interested in NASCAR, so we drove to North Carolina to visit a friend of mine who was in that industry.

Hold special workouts: When training teams, I deload them every fourth week. But rather than deload in the weightroom, we do a special workout that is a butt-kicker or a team builder. For example, we train at odd times, dress up on holidays, or travel to a different setting to spice things up and keep sessions new and fresh.

Include family: Family is why I do what I do, but in this profession, we often spend more time with our athletes than we do with our own families. To combat this, bring your family to work. My kids know the athletes I work with and vice versa. When you bring these two worlds together, the athletes become curious about how your family is doing. They want to know how my son did in his wrestling match or how many mountains my wife has climbed. And when my family has small victories, it brings the athletes joy because they feel part of it—just like I feel joy when I hear about their successes. After all, if you can’t make your athletes a part of your family, why spend so much time with them?

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