In Daniel Pink’s excellent book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, he discusses the difference between intrinsic needs and extrinsic needs, and how intrinsic needs are much more powerful motivators. Things like money, reward and punishment hold little value. What Pink says are the three elements of true motivation are autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Think about that when it comes to how we coach our teams. When we think about motivation, do we think about giving our players autonomy, mastery and purpose? I think most of us look at motivation as a reward and punishment model. Winning, playing time and success are the ultimate reward for our players, so that is what will motivate them to work hard, right? Conversely, if there is a punishment for the wrong behavior, that will motivate players to do the right thing. I think most of us are trained to see motivation in that context. If we can increase reward, or threaten them with punishment, we’ll get the most out of them.

That isn’t how the human mind works. Sure, people like having success and want to avoid failure, I’m not saying it doesn’t have an impact. We all want to be good, we all want to win. It’s fun. But in my experience there is a limit to that level of motivation. If everything you do is based on winning, eventually that will get stale. The best way to motivate people to win is to eliminate the result from their mindset. Focus on other things that are more important.

According to Pink’s research, those things are autonomy, mastery and purpose. How much do we think about these values when we are coaching? Autonomy is giving the players control, allowing them to own the process. This is crucial to sustaining long-term success for any organization (Hey, I even wrote a book about it!). Get your players to the point where they own what they are doing every day, and they will be highly motivated to succeed.

Mastery is something we probably do think about, although maybe in a different way. We all want to make our players better. We spend a lot of time working with them on their skills to improve, helping themselves and helping the team along the way. When player see that what you are doing is making them better, that is the ultimate motivation. They love coming in the gym, even if it’s really demanding, if they know you are making them better. We all emphasize individual development, although we probably don’t call it mastery. However, I’m not sure we see it in the context of motivation.

Purpose is one we probably don’t spend enough time on. If our purpose is simply to win, the motivation will only last so long. We need to spend more time with our players discussing their purpose. Talk to them about why the play. What are they doing all of this for? If it’s just for fame, money or winning, their purpose is pretty shallow. If they see the value of what they are doing every day – the work ethic, the commitment, the sacrifice, the discipline – and the impact it is going to have on their life beyond basketball – that is true purpose. That is much more of a motivating factor than success, and it’s probably something we need to unlock more often as coaches.

Autonomy, mastery and purpose. Intrinsic factors that are the key to motivation. It’s not about running sprints at 6 AM to motivate your team not to do something – although that type of punishment can certainly play a role in the discipline necessary for your team. Find ways to get at the intrinsic factors that impact your players to make sure you are motivating your team.

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