He said, “I don’t care what you say. You CANNOT motivate people.”

Muscles in Rockets Gymfinity Gymnastics
Motivation comes from within

I was a much younger coach and still relatively new as a businessperson when I went to a business seminar for people in our industry. Since then I have presented at many such seminars, but I digress, let me get back to where I was going. The speaker said with unequivocal vibrato “I don’t care what you say, you cannot motivate a person to do anything.”  The context was that we were discussing pay incentives, bonuses, earned time off and such for employees to do their jobs well. Other attendees argued that such strategies induce employees to comply with the standards set forth by the business. The speaker’s point was; people are only going to do what they want to do. Extra pay, a free T shirt, or an earned discount can incentivize an action, but it doesn’t motivate a person to make a specific decision. It may make the decision easier at the moment, but they are going to turn out doing what they were going to do anyway.

Up until then, I considered myself a pretty good motivator as a coach. I could usually get kids past setbacks, get them pumped up for a meet, or “motivate” them to train hard for a reaping of rewards later-on. I had to really dig deep to see what I thought about the statement the speaker made. If I couldn’t motivate my gymnasts or our staff, what was I doing?

Since then I have refined my thinking and I see the wisdom in his statement. It’s true I cannot motivate anyone, and neither can you.  Motivation does exist, but its only produced and utilized by an individual for themselves.

When a coach, manager, parent, or any of us rely on motivation to make someone do something, it often fails because the person has to feel that motivation is pushing them to do something to 100% when they are all-ready at 50%.  If they are not already interested in doing what you are asking, they will have no interest in participating. Without a high percentage of commitment they have a hard time overcoming inertia, and they likely will choose to stay in the same place, regardless of how you try to lead them.

What we can do, is inspire. We can lead by example or create an atmosphere of development and empowerment that allows the athlete (or employee) to make a decision that may align with what you want. But it will still always be what THEY want.  All those years, that is what I was doing; creating an atmosphere of empowering a gymnast to choose to do something, or not. Providing them the information on outcomes so they could make a decision. Giving them perspectives, setting the stage to allow them to make their own call. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I have had gymnasts back down and reverse skill development, even choose to allow fear to rule over their mindset.  But I know that nothing ALWAYS works and I have to be willing to accept that.

For a decision to take root, the person must have the feeling that they can choose a course of action or not. The atmosphere must be set to allow them to feel that the choice is in their hands. If a person feels forced to do something, they may do it, but not for long, and not without resentment.

The other factor that must be present is reinforcement. If the “motivation” we apply is tangible like a bonus or a prize, the action won’t get repeated because the action was initiated for the prize and not because the action is right. So, without further prizes that are bigger, better, or more frequent, there is no reason to do what YOU were asking. That’s where the reinforcement comes in. Their choice to act has to be noticed and praised. If it was chosen by their free will, even if we manipulate the perspectives, and we praise them for the decision, it will last or be repeated.

Well isn’t that “reinforcement” just another form of attempting to motivate? Yes and No. I don’t believe that offering a prize after the fact will work either, but using non-tangibles, like praise, reinforces the person’s decision and action.  That which gets noticed gets repeated. That which gets noticed gets repeated. (yeah, I meant to do that).

Because people are human, and we all make our own decisions, all we can do is offer input and then set the stage for a person to make their own choice. Believe me, I have sought the magic word that can get a person “motivated” to do what I want and to make things happen but I have found that the magic only comes from within.




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