| Empowering Athletes Too Cool To Try

Author / Jim Davis

5-7 minute read

We recently spoke with a coach who was experiencing an all-too-common issue with his team. His athletes, though talented, were suffering from low motivation; worse still, there seemed to be a toxic mindset coursing through the team that was undercutting messaging from the staff and effecting the performance of some of the players.

The staff called for shared purpose, strong work ethic, and confidence built through challenge. They praised athletes who showed extra effort. But within the team, those who tried too hard were called out. If the scout team running back fought for extra yards, they’d hear “relax, bro” from their teammates, and be accused of being a “try hard.” 

In a group of adolescents, this mindset can be destructive to the ecosystem of the team. It poisons the well. Social pressure is at its strongest during adolescence, so when it is deemed “uncool” to try hard, a coach cultivating a culture of effort will be facing an uphill climb.

This issue seems to occur more often these days. And if a coach has not dealt with it yet, it’s most likely not a question of if they will, but when.

How To Fix It

The most common approach to addressing this problem is working harder. Occasionally, this works. If a coach pushes a group who does not like to work in ways that are appropriate and effective, the mindset of the team can shift (often, this includes the shedding of players for whom the challenge is too great). 

The coach in this story had an unusually large group of athletes and was convinced that hard work would be good for those willing to work hard, and that those who were not would find their way off the team. To his credit, he handled conversations with those who quit with respect and care. Though that is not always easy – and though a coach’s instinct might be to say, “good riddance” – respect and care is the only way… the athlete might not have been a good fit for his football team, but they’re a kid. Let them go find something that’s a better fit.

Although the attrition method occasionally works, it is not as successful as we would like to think. More often than not, pushing the “anti-try-hard” athletes harder just entrenches their stance. Eventually, they show up to practice in a bad mood. They begin not only chastising the try-hards on the team, but degrading the coaches behind the scenes. Once this begins, the coach’s job becomes even harder.

Like anything that needs to be fixed, it’s important to identify the problem well and select the appropriate tools. In a process that might seem counterintuitive, sometimes picking up a team’s intensity actually requires slowing down.

Are You “Fixing” The Right Problem?

Think of a sport coach like a stagecoach in the old west. You’re the driver. You’ll help your passenger navigate uncertain terrain. You’ll provide support and challenge. You will ultimately take them to a place they could not arrived on their own.

But first, you must pick them up. You’re the (stage) coach, after all. Passengers don’t just show up in your care – you have to meet them where they are.

The most common issue with coaches and the most common pain point for coaches begins with a fundamental misalignment of expectations. They are starting at different places than their passengers. The first step to addressing this concern is to slow down, work to identify where the group is, where they want to go, and what is standing in their way. 

Coaches should know that this desire for adolescents to appear casual while engaging with something challenging is not new. Kurt Cobain’s loose-fitting flannels and ripped jeans were the perfect offset to his gold records. It was as though his talent and creativity were so great that he didn’t even have to try. There’s something appealing about that.

And to truly understand the “try-hard” situation, the coach should recognize that the most common root cause of the mentality is fear of failure. If one never tries hard, never fully commits oneself to a cause, then they can avoid pain. They are subconsciously hedging against the unpredictable nature of sport.

Some degree of pain will accompany a lost game, unachieved goal, or (as we often see in youth and adolescent athletes) unmet standards held by parents and peers. But if one wasn’t trying that hard anyway, then who cares? It hurts less.

As coaches, we know that this approach will not pan out – the losses will still be losses and the wins (should they ever appear) will feel hollow. Little will be learned along the way.

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Does Your Behavior Match Your Goal?

To answer this question appropriately, two components must be addressed: first, what is your goal? Next, are your behaviors mapping on to that intented outcome?

Start by being more explicit than you think you have to. What does success look like for you and for your team? Until this shared purpose is explicitly clear, leading others toward it will be difficult. We often hear coaches suggest that “it should be obvious”, and that frustrated that young people “just don’t get it.” 

It isn’t obvious. Without experience, they can’t get it. 

Take some time to work through this, Coach – you can do this at practice, or you can grab a classroom and sacrifice some practice time to get the team on the same page.

Ask your team if they fully understand the goals and shared purpose. Ask it they agree that what you have discussed will give the team the best chance to succeed? Once everyone is on the same page, begin to articulate what this looks like in practice – and be sure to have the athletes take part in this! Don’t give them all the answers. What do we mean by hard work? What exactly does it look like? Keep sourcing stakeholders until you get a list of specific behaviors. 

The coach in the story mentioned above eventually got to behaviors like “Be disciplined and focused during the warmup,” “Finish every rep and every play to the whistle,” and eventually, “Cheer for teammates who give extra effort” – that was the turning point in the season. Now, instead of telling athletes what to do or scolding behavior he didn’t like, the coach merely reminded them of the standards they had set for themselves. 

The mindset did not change overnight. But with this new template, the coach now had the ability to hold athletes accountable in a different way. Now, when he pushed them, they responded well. They lifted, they ran, they gave full effort. They were applauded for that effort and compared to professional athletes who also reached their potential through hard work: “you’re like a young Walter Payton out there” and “you’re looking like the Michael Jordan of football.”

By addressing the problem accurately and solving in a thoughtful way, the coach’s natural intensity was more well-place and – importantly – more effective.

Like the stagecoach drivers of old, a coach should meet people where they are to take them where they need to be. This will not always be easy, but it will always be worth it.

For help along this journey, or to schedule a team workshop, REACH OUT.

Related Content

WEBSITE: Good Athlete Project

PODCAST: PA Radio Episode 242 w/Jim Davis

BLOG: How to Empower Uncoachable Kids w/ Effective Influence by Jim Davis

BLOG: Coaching Key Components of Grit by Jim Davis

EDU: Trainers Course Power Athlete Academy

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Jim Davis

Jim is a former professional football player and champion powerlifter turned author, educator, and coach. He is the founding director of the Good Athlete Project (@goodathleteproject), Director of the Illinois High School Powerlifting Association (@ihspla), and the Staff & Student Wellness Coordinator at New Trier High School (@ntstrength), where he runs one of the nation’s largest strength programs. He was the 2018 NASA National Coach of the Year and has recently been recognized as a 2020 Semper Fidelis All-American Mentor by the U.S. Marines. His keynote and invited presentations have taken him all around the world (from L.A. to Ireland to Haiti) and his writing has been published in the Harvard Crimson, the Orlando Sentinel, the Psychologist, World of Psychology, and the USOC Coaching Magazine, among other journals. Jim is a graduate of Harvard University, Northwestern University, and Knox College. Find him on Instagram @jimdavis.art

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