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Success is not winning

This excerpt was taken from Successful Coaching Third Edition, written by Rainer Martens, PhD.

The basic problem about this issue of worthiness is that athletes learn from parents, coaches, teammates, and the media to gauge their self-worth largely by whether they win or lose. The devastating result is that athletes can maintain their sense of self-worth only by making others feel unworthy. The most important thing you can do as a coach to enhance the motivation of your athletes is to change this yardstick of success.

Winning is important, but it must become secondary to striving to achieve personal goals. This is the cardinal principle for understanding motivation in sport:

Athletes must see success in terms of achieving their own goals rather than surpassing the performances of others.

It is a principle easy to state, but oh so difficult to achieve. If you can help athletes understand and implement this principle, you will do more to help them become excellent athletes—and successful adults—than through any other coaching action.

Personal goals are specific performance or behavioral milestones rather than goals concerning the outcome of winning or losing. The following are examples of personal goals that focus on performance and other behavioral objectives:

My goal is to jump 1 inch farther than I did last week.

I want to improve my backhand so that I can hit it deep into the corner 75 percent of the time.

I want to learn to relax more and enjoy playing.

Setting Realistic Personal Goals

By placing greater emphasis on achieving personal goals, athletes can gain control over an important part of their sport participation—their own success. The important thing here is to set realistic goals; by doing so, athletes ensure themselves a reasonable degree of success. In the face of all of the competitive pressures and parental and teammate influences, you must help each athlete keep a realistic perspective in setting goals suitable for him or her alone.

Team goals should not be confused with personal goals. In fact, team goals are hardly needed if one of the personal goals of each team member is to make the best contribution possible, given his or her current skill level. Team goals such as winning so many games or this or that championship are not useful, and they actually undermine the type of personal goals just described. Team goals more appropriately deal with learning to play together as a unit, respecting each other, having fun, and playing with good sportsmanship. Accomplishing these team goals and each athlete’s personal goals is more important than winning. Besides, when athletes achieve both individual and team goals, winning usually takes care of itself.

Consequence of Setting Personal Goals

When winning the game becomes secondary to achieving personal goals, athletes are much more motivated to practice. Practices provide athletes opportunities to work toward their personal goals with assistance from the coach. Contests are viewed not as the end-all, but as periodic tests along the way toward achieving personal goals. Athletes do not judge themselves as having succeeded or failed on the basis of whether they win or lose, but in terms of achieving the specific performance and behavioral goals they have set.

Evidence from many sources indicates that not only outstanding athletes but also less successful ones who have most enjoyed and benefited from sport focus on personal goals, not the defeat of others. The consequence of this perspective is incredibly positive. When athletes are allowed to set their own goals, guided by the coach when necessary to make sure they are realistic, they become responsible for their own progress. They feel in control and take credit for their successes and responsibility for their failures. As stated earlier, this is the first step in motivating athletes.

To help athletes set realistic goals, you must be able to assess each athlete’s skill level. This brings up another crucial point, one you perhaps have thought about while reading this chapter.

Recognizing Athletes’ Limitations

Athletes do not always perform poorly because they lack motivation. Poor performance may be a signal that personal limits have been reached, that athletes are performing up to their ability. Neither increased effort nor all the confidence in the world will improve their ability to perform. One of your more difficult tasks as a coach is to determine whether an athlete is performing at her or his limits.

Many athletes need help in learning to face their limitations without devaluing themselves. Rather than conveying the nonsense that every athlete can become a superstar or a professional, you should encourage your athletes to learn their limits for themselves. Only in this way can they learn to maintain realistic goals. But if coaches make athletes believe that they have no limits, that to accept limits is loathsome, then athletes may push themselves to seek unrealistic goals, leading to eventual failure, and perhaps even to personal injury.

Realistic Personal Goals

When coaches help athletes set realistic goals, athletes inevitably experience more success and feel more competent. By becoming more competent, they gain confidence and can tackle skills of moderate difficulty without fearing failure. They discover that their efforts do result in more favorable outcomes and that falling short is most likely caused by insufficient effort. Realistic goals rob failure of its threat. Rather than indicating that athletes are not worthy, failure indicates that they should try harder.

De-emphasize winning and reemphasize attaining personal goals. This principle is the key to meeting athletes’ needs to feel worthy—not only to maintain their self-worth but also to develop it further. This principle is essential to enhancing the motivation of your athletes.

From Motivation to Anxiety

To this point we’ve been concerned exclusively with maintaining and increasing motivation because we know that being motivated is essential to performing well and enjoying participation. Be wary of the belief that more motivation is always better, however; athletes can be too motivated or aroused. Let me explain.

Arousal–Performance Relationship

Just as there is an optimal level of arousal for having fun, there is an optimal level of arousal for performing well as shown in figure 7.4. When athletes are aroused too little or too much, they do not perform as well as they might; but if they are aroused just the right amount, their performance will be better.


This excerpt was taken from Successful Coaching Third Edition, written by Rainer Martens, PhD.

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