“Motivation is overvalued. Environment often matters more.” – James Clear

Why We Fail to Motivate

I just had a well known college coach ask me to come in and give a motivational pep talk to his team. I declined. Not because I was too busy. Not because I was unwilling to help this coach. I declined, because I knew it would be a waste of his money.

Sure, I could go in there and tell a great story, drop some cool quotes, and “motivate” the players. Everyone might leave the meeting feeling better about themselves and more motivated to “thrive on the challenges” of the upcoming season. I could even plant some necessary seeds for change, but without the right environment, nothing would grow.

Every sports film has a montage.

Every locker room has a motivational quote plastered on the wall.

YouTube has enough motivational pump-up videos and speeches to play for a lifetime.

Twitter and Facebook are flooded with motivational clichés.

Book stores designate entire sections to motivational self-help books.

Fortune 500 companies spend millions of dollars on motivational speakers every year.

Coaches, at the start of every season, give motivational speeches to “treat this season like it was your last and give it your all!”

Parents give their children motivational pep-talks, “Don’t be lazy like I was, and make the most of every opportunity.”

We have no shortage of people trying to motivate. And we have no shortage of people who seek motivation.

Yet, in our culture today, we are less creative, happy, and motivated in our lives than ever before.

I can appreciate the intent behind the attempt to motivate others, and its short-term effectiveness. However, the problem is not that we lack motivation, it’s that we lack action in the absence of motivation.

“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 

As much as I might enjoy giving a team a motivational talk, I am more interested in helping the coach and players build an intrinsically motivated environment than an extrinsically motivated environment . Motivational quotes, speeches, and books can help us feel good, but their influence fades quickly, and as it fades, we are left with the reality that nothing has changed in our lives. Our challenges and habits remain.

We don’t build character or organizational culture by reading motivational quotes or listening to inspirational speeches.

Character is trained, forged, and built in little moments of acting “the right way” in the absence of motivation: When others aren’t watching. When everyone else would act differently. When doing the right thing will not benefit us.

Culture is created in the personal connections made between team members. It’s built in the conversations people are having not just in team meetings, but more importantly the one’s in the locker room, at the water cooler, and in text messages.

Empowering vs. Motivating

“The best motivation is the belief that THEY can handle the challenge.” – Tim Elmore

When we motivate others, we play with their emotions, and we try to change them. We use external pressure, positive reinforcement, and even shame to motivate others to change.

 As Daniel Pink points out in his book Drive, we’ve got it all wrong, “Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.”

We have to stop trying to motivate or change others. Instead, we need to focus on the three keys of intrinsic motivation: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.

How might this look in the practice of a sports team? Below is a practical example of how a coach can build an environment that nurtures healthy habits.


At every practice, designate “player time.” Allow players to work for 10 minutes on what they want to work on. Don’t try to exert control over them with punishments or rewards. Instead, remind them of the power of their actions and the positive consequences that will come naturally from developing healthy habits. Then, step away and let them take control of their training. No praise. No criticism.


After a few practices with designated “your time”, offer to provide some quality instruction and a clear path to progressing the skills they are working on. Limit yourself to being “informative” (avoid judgment). Use questions to help them become self-aware and self-correct.


Schedule a one-one-one and ask these questions:

  • What aspirations do you have for this season?
  • What do you need to get better at to achieve those aspirations?
  • What do you need to do to get better at those things?
  • How can I help you to do those things you need to do?

Discuss the vision of the player and person they are striving to become. Support them in that mission by offering guidance that does not attempt to pressure or shame them into making the most out of that practice time, but instead, simply displays a willingness to help when needed.

Call to Action

Stop looking for more ways to “motivate your players”. They want to be good players. They want to be a good team. Your role as a transformational leader is to create a culture, and an environment that empowers others to take action in the absence of motivation–building good habits.

-J.P. Nerbun