Motivation in Young People

The idea for this Great Conversation started with the difficult question many of us in our Clubs struggle with: how to keep young people – particularly those between 12 and 15 years old – motivated to stay in our particular sports.

 I’ve had various in-depth conversations with experienced coaches and young athletes, exchanges with leading psychologists, tapped into lots of theory and research and plenty of reflection on practice (some captured in two earlier blog posts on motivation).  The following very briefly highlights some key points that lead me to reframe the how to motivate young people question and thereby give us the starting point for a rich and challenging Great Conversation.  Please share your own reflections, experiences and ideas in the comments box at the end.


-       first off, research I did on job design and motivation some years ago when at Imperial College Management School underlined for me the importance of always critically questioning whose motivation are we really concerned with?

In the sports coaching environment it would be nice to think that we are always driven by seeing our young people achieve their potential.  But when their interests wane, do our disappointed reactions actually reveal something of our own agendas and ambitions?


-       our natural tendency as coaches is to jump straight in with ready made solutions and answers.  We feel our expertise as coaches lies in being able quickly to analyse and prescribe what is to be done.

The standard textbook models of motivation such as Self-Determination Theory, rightly emphasise the importance of athlete-led activity.  Yet in practice the approach can again be rather prescriptive as we look for ways to bolster a young person’s sense of autonomy, their competence to achieve progressively harder tasks and connectedness and sense of identity with others.  There is much of value here but I also think there is a risk in such models leading us to jump in too readily with solutions and answers.

In contrast, I’ve recently had some very insightful exchanges with Professor Stephen Rollnick, co-founder of Motivational Interviewing.  A key tenet of this is what he terms “uncluttered empathy” – to suspend our inclination to offer solutions, to clear our minds of ready made answers and instead listen with compassionate intent to understand.


-       we also tend to talk about motivation as if it were a fixed, quantifiable element that can be measured on a sliding scale, from 0 apathy and disinterest up to 10 fully determined, driven dedication. Another sliding scale one hears and reads about is how much of this given motivation is intrinsic and extrinsic, adding the sense that you either have it or you don’t.  Why is left hanging in the air.

In reality, motivation is far more fluid and changeable.  It is also what I think of as ‘subject variable’ in the sense that someone might be utterly disinterested in one endeavour whilst at the same time having a single minded drive to pursue another.  And in the very moment of putting all their energy and focus into mastering something or realising a goal, they can also be feeling a contradictory wish to take things easier, to be kind to themselves or to focus on others.  Professor Michael Apter captures this contradictory complexity in his concept of sets of paradoxical motivational states (see the Motivation 1 blog post).  So to reframe the question, we might ask what are they feeling and what else is going on?


-       and so back to our young people, I wonder if the idea of paradoxical, contradictory emotions holds something of an answer for us in understanding what is going on. 

I see several, seemingly contradictory emotions at play in young people:

o   wanting to be independent, autonomous and treated like an adult whilst also wanting to sit in the comfort of being told what to do

o   trying to discover who they uniquely are whilst also uneasy or scared of standing out from the group

o   relishing being pushed hard and stretched to find how good they can be whilst also just wanting some fun

o   being competitive and excited by the prospect of doing well compared with others whilst also fearful of failure and all too ready to judge themselves as “no good’. 

So our reframed questions for the Great Conversation are:

§  how can we respond to these contradictory emotions and desires in young people?

§  what can we see going on for those who disengage and for those, as in the case below, who keep going?

§  and what do we recognise and learn about our own motivations?

Please share your reflections and experiences below in the Comments space to get a Great Conversation underway.


A Conversation with a Super Active Young Woman

I had my own long conversation with a very active 15 year old young woman.  I was curious to know what kept her involved and engaged in sports and other activities, exploring what is happening for her.

J is a member of the Triathlon Club where I coach.  She’s also a member of the local running club and youth cycling team.  Through her school she competes in volleyball, hockey, cross country, athletics… and pretty much any other sport going.  And she attends ballet classes.  So about as active as anyone could be.

In the course of our conversation she highlighted three things that are important for her:

o   the social side, of hanging out and being at ease with friends who share the same interests

o   the sense of doing well and getting better at what she does

o   enjoying herself and having fun.

Interestingly she went on to refer to the encouragement of her parents through them signing her up and coming to events.  This makes me think that in young people there can be an important ‘me and others as a unit’ element of motivation that perhaps we tend to neglect in assuming it is all about the inner drives of an independent individual.  And her parents also came up later in talking about her being nervous before competitions – as an outlet for her to rant at! Worth noting, the sliding scale of intrinsic/extrinsic motivation mentioned above doesn’t get hold of the richness of such interactive support.

Talking through her mix of emotions when competing revealed something of the paradoxical nature of her feelings, starting with a firm “I really like competing” and yet going straight into describing the uncomfortable feelings of being nervous, of being intimidated by people who she instinctively assumes are better (sometimes been thrown by their fancy kit or the mind games that go on).  Athletics competitions in front of a big audience further heighten her nervous sense of everyone watching, leading her to think about everything that can go wrong.

As an event then gets underway, she said she switches to a sense of relief as she just focuses on the moment and of surprising herself as those in fancy kit fade into the background.  The seemingly invincible competitor in calf length pink compression socks is soon behind, to her delight and that of her cheering friends.  The attention of the larger crowds also fades away from consciousness.

J also talked with me about her feelings after events – the satisfaction and sense of achievement.  Interestingly, at no point did she refer to competitive positions or winning in this context.  It was all about the feelings of having accomplished something, of tiredness and aching muscles together with being relaxed – as if all energy spent – and holding in mind how it felt to be running (or whatever she was doing) in that moment.  Triathlon has the great attraction to her of packing three sets of such experiences into one event.

One final aspect from a very full and open conversation is worth mentioning here.  I was curious to know what she thought of friends or school peers who don’t share the same active lifestyle and set of interests.  What did she think of why they might have dropped away while she maintains her interests?  From her puzzled look back, the sense I took was that she has few if any such friends and so no reason to understand or compare herself to them.

In summary, three things struck me from our conversation:

-       her easiness, satisfaction and sense of completeness at doing what she really enjoys

-       the sense of excitement at being at her best and further improving, even when under pressure and battling with nerves

-       and how her active lifestyle connected her with her parents and with close friends sharing similar interests.

Much for us to learn from.  With many thanks to J for such an open and insightful conversation.