By Lauren Taylor
When I take a moment to think critically about sports – and youth sports in particular – it seems bizarre to consider how passionate we all are. In concrete terms, after all, the grass field has no meaning without us on it. The rules of the game are worthless unless we believe the score reflects some form of superiority. As athletes, we charge the game with meaning.
But why? Why is it important – and why do we play?
This is one of my favorite questions to ask the laxers I coach. In my small consulting business, I get to work with players on an individual basis and it never takes long for this issue to surface.
Typically, when I first ask the question, I get puzzled looks. The girls suspect I’m some nutty Yale-educated existentialist. After the shrugging, fidgeting and squirming, however, words emerge. The first round of spoken answers are something like “Well, because it’s fun” or “Because my friends do it.” To many young players, this may be all there is to the question. In some cases, I may leave it at that.
But for most of my high school players, I push further. “OK, but what else?”
This gets the wheels turning. From here, conversations embark in unique directions. Some girls talk about wanting to make Dad proud; others describe feeling a sense of identity as an athlete; and still others reference the bonding among teammates that comes with long bus rides and pre-game rituals.
When I think back to why I played, I know my motivations ebbed and flowed over time. I was a ten-year-old who liked to get dirty – and was loud and aggressive. At 14, I was awkward everywhere but on the lacrosse field. As a 17-year-old, I needed sports to balance the chaos of an AP-heavy academic schedule.
Now, as a coach, I am struck by what you can learn about a player by asking an open-ended question and shutting up. Each conversation helps me to identify the value systems on which a particular player bases her decisions. I become better informed about root causes of success, struggle and failure. In short, I become a more effective coach.
An example: A young player who tells me she plays because she wants Dad to be proud will not respond to my yelling at her during a game because as I yell, Dad watches, and instead of listening to me, this player thinks about what Dad hears from his seat in the bleachers. Her play suffers. Inevitably, there’s a breaking point beyond which she reasons there’s no way of making him proud today – might as well pack up and go home.
In that scenario, I’ve lost her for the rest of the game – and I may not even know it. That is, unless we’ve discussed her motivations for playing. If we have, then I can use her value system to my team’s advantage – leveraging the fact that Dad is there to privately encourage her to dare to be great today. I can even use her language: “I bet Dad would be really proud if he saw you running as hard as you can after every loose ball.”
This may be a single (and common) example. But I believe it matters at virtually every level of sports competition. Sure, coaching at higher levels you can be more selective about choosing players who are driven to play for one reason or another.
A college coach can seek recruits whose their internal drive is in line with the program and team values. But at youth and even high school levels, attaining such homogeneity almost never happens. Youth coaches, on the other hand, would be wise to accept – and even embrace – their players’ motivational diversity.
Lauren Taylor is assistant lacrosse coach at Yale, a former three-time college All-American selection, and and 2009 graduate of the Yale School of Public Health who now works for the Yale Global Health Leadership Institute.