Fighting Fire with Fire

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“How do I motivate people to learn? To work? To do their chores? Or to take their medicine?—are the wrong questions. They are wrong because they imply that motivation is something that gets done to people rather than something that people do.”

—Edward Deci

I can clearly remember the first basketball game I ever coached. I thought I was great! I was shouting every second of every play. I was dripping in sweat. My voice was hoarse. My tie and shirt were a mess. I gave it my all. And for the next few years, I would continue in that fashion nearly every game. I prided myself on being the guy who coached harder than anybody else out there! And often, people would tell me how they loved my passion and energy.

The truth was that I considered this type of sideline behavior not only acceptable, but effective coaching. While it can sometimes be effective in the short term, I have come to learn that it is not the best or most beneficial way to coach.

Ever wonder where the source of this phrase came from? Well, it originates back to the 19th century, when settlers in the West would try to prevent the spread of forest fires. They started creating backfires to create firebreaks, removing trees and other fuel in advance of the forest fire. And this strategy of using firebreaks is still used today, with firefighters literally fighting fire with fire.

Over the course of my coaching career, I started to become more aware and mindful that I was doing just that—fighting fire with fire. My motivation and energy started to create a firebreak for the motivation and energy of my players.

As for my attempts to add fuel to their motivation with speeches and inspiring videos, I was often like the idiot who impatiently attempts to start a campfire by adding too many sticks and pieces of wood, only to end up smothering it. A Boy Scout, on the other hand, understands the importance of letting the fire breathe, and slowly and patiently adding more and more fuel.

Motivational speeches and inspirational videos are not bad; they are often effective, beneficial, and fun! But when we do too much of that, we smother our players.

Regardless of your sport, many of the most prominent and well-respected coaches are incredibly passionate and high energy. Often, they can be found pacing the sidelines, shouting encouragement and directions.

Still, I find that the most elite coaches—the really, really great ones like Brad Stevens of the Boston Celtics—take a far different approach. Some just say it’s a difference in style, and it may be, but your style makes a significant difference.

How does your style impact your players’ motivation?

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“If you have the right people on the bus, they will be self-motivated. The real question then becomes: How do you manage in such a way as not to de-motivate people?”

—Jim Collins

While we need to be “ourselves”, we also need to tailor our approach to our sport, our context, and the people we are leading. A team’s peak performance number (energy level on a scale of 1-10) differs due to the sport, level of play, and circumstances. We need to not just be ourselves, but the version of ourselves that our team needs us to be.

So, film yourself during a game or even a practice and reflect on the level of energy you are bringing. Are you operating at the peak performance number for your team? Are you being intentional about your energy or is it just your default mode of operation?

Let me know if you are interested in my mentorship program, which has some spots opening in August. If you have any doubts about the value of the program, I have many current and former mentees who are willing to share their experience with you.

My consulting services are customized programs tailored to fit your athletic department, club, or team’s unique context. I work with administrators, coaches, athletes, and parents to create a culture that develops mental toughness, leadership, and character.

—J.P. Nerbun