We have slowly made sports go from play to work. And I think that’s because we have shifted our objective. Our objective used to be for pure enjoyment. But now our objective is optimal performance. Is that bad?
For me, I constantly questioned why I played golf. Do I play golf to win? Do I play golf to master the skills? Do I play golf to game a lower scoring average? Do I play golf to set records and be the best ever? These were all motivations of mine at one point.
I believe no one has ever started a sport because they wanted to achieve something.
But eventually I realized what helped me play the best. That was getting back to my original “why?” from when I first started. This is impossible to confirm, but I believe that no one has ever started a sport because they wanted to achieve something. We all start out of enjoyment.
But over time that enjoyment becomes practice and routines and efficiency and goals and optimal performance, and ultimately becomes work. The thing is there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these, until they distract you from your original “why?”
And that’s when burnout happens. That’s when efficiency becomes inefficient. That’s when you get emotionally fatigued and the sport you used to love tastes a little more sour. And that’s when it gets a little harder to get out of bed and out to the course.
Does a kid who just discovered golf ever “go through the motions at practice”? No, because to them there’s no such thing as practice and the motions they’re going through are of their own design. There’s no mold to fit into so they never have to change themselves in order to fit.
I’ve never raised a kid, and I’ve never even had to “run practice” for kids, but I was a kid who played a sport. And I had big dreams for myself! And I would practice tirelessly into the night for years trying to achieve those dreams. There was no end in sight to my motivation.
But over time I began to dread practicing. Why? I’m still not totally sure where I took the wrong turn at one of those forks in the road. But I believe it was a search for perfection. Instead of being comfortable with who I was I sought to be what others had deemed “correct”.
I searched for a mold to fit into, and the only way to fit that mold was to change myself. In my case, no one imposed a mold onto me. I created that myself. But whether it’s society or a parent or a coach or a teacher or a boss or yourself, the principle is that forcibly cramming someone into a mold takes away all joy.
And worst of all it removes the possibility of being bigger than that mold.
It removes the joy of discoverability. The growth of personal accountability because now you’re accountable to something else and the blame can be deflected. And worst of all it removes the possibility of being bigger than that mold.
What’s the culprit? What’s the solution? Is there a solution? I think it’s the responsibility of coaches (I am always learning ways to earn that title) to practice what we preach: just as we tell players to loosen the grip on the game, we ought to loosen the grip on our players, both young and old. To figure out ways to make improvement fun.
To give discoverability back to the player. To let the player choose their goals and dreams and encourage that dream and let the joy of pursuing a dream inspire the player, not the forcefulness of hard work and regimen and being like these other players over here or some predetermined mold.
I preach “forget about your goals and dreams and work your plan with head down” and I still believe that and think it’s right. Because fun or not, if you have a lofty dream it’s going to take years of focused effort to get there.
But what I’m learning is that the way to motivate players on that path towards their dream is not to make it more like work, but to help the player return to enjoyment. Because we can all agree that we play better, are more productive, and move faster when we’re relaxed and having fun.
I recently heard an anecdote of a basketball coach trying to teach a team of undersized players how to be able to defend against the larger players in their league. The coach realized that the team would have to work around their deficiency in size and instead use speed. So the coach made the players run “suicides” (crudely named for an exercise where you run back and forth on a basketball court until you feel like throwing up). But he noticed the players dragging and not giving it much effort. And who could blame them. So he decided to try another way of getting the players to work hard. He said “you three at ‘it’. And everyone else, if you get tagged, you have to run suicides.” And he never saw the players run harder in their lives.
The moral of the story is that the coach found a fun way to make his players achieve a desired outcome.
I don’t have that solution figured out.
And obviously I don’t have that solution for golf figured out. I don’t perfectly know how to make improvement fun. But I do know giving the player more choice as to how things get done can inspire that motivation. Reminding the player of why they started in the first place can unleash more creativity.
And then there’s no such thing as hard work. It becomes easy work. It’s still work, but it’s fun and enjoyable and relaxing, while still productive and focused and achieves a desired outcome.
That’s the ideal. Enjoyment that produces desired outcomes. Now we as coaches have the responsibility to figure out how to help each player know their “why” and stoke that fire.