Motivating 14 and 17 Year Old Gymnasts

Subject: Keeping Up Gymnast Motivation

This is an issue that some of the older optional team girls I work with and coach brought up to me.  I said I would get back to them on motivation. They feel motivated when they get to the gym but get tired and lose motivation to keep working half way through practice. I was going to have them do daily goals tomorrow (not my group normally) and research your site and others tonight too. The girls that have that issue are a 17 and 14 year old level 9’s who are sisters.

Motivation for 14 and 17 year old Level 9’s

While the initial motivation problem for these two may seem the same, the solutions are likely be very different. The problem they both may have is that they really have no clear vision about where they are going in the sport, exactly how they can get there or a belief that they can (in their current circumstances).

Need to Jump Start/ Goals Start Her Waning(?) Career

The 17 year old may see herself as having topped out, been passed by for the highest levels of the sport, or feel like it is too late to have a great career or get a college scholarship. She does need short-term goals to aim for – Make Level 10, make Level 9 Nationals, get college scholarship in the next year or so. In a sense, her options are somewhat limited to what she can do before she goes off to college (or goes to work) in the not too distant future. As a coach, you have a real job to convince her that you (all the coaches) can really help her achieve whatever it is she might choose to do in the next year or so. You have to let her know how you can help her get what she needs  – what her skill and conditioning training plan will be like, etc.

No Limits on Goals

The 14 year old, on the other hand, is already at Level 9 and has four more years of training, before she is in her older sister’s situation, of soon going off to college or into the work force. Four years is a lot of training time. A little more than four years to next Olympics. 4 years to become an Elite. 4 years to win at Level 10 Nationals. She has a lot of possibilities and enough time to accomplish any of them and many of them.

Do They Believe They Can Achieve?

So, you are right to look at their goals. But motivation is often determined by their beliefs. Attribution theories of motivation require that gymnasts believe their gymnastics results will be as a result of internal factors that they can control, like the amount of effort they put into practice and that the training they are getting can actually get them where they want to go.

Going With the Flow Does Not Work

Gymnasts also have to be interested in actually achieving something in gymnastics to be motivated and not just enjoying a meandering path along the way or just going with the flow of their life and gymnastics career this far.  You have to make sure they understand that they can only  make progress and achieve goals by planning and taking action to achieve them.

2 Types of Motivation

There are, of course, two major types of motivation – Extrinsic (External) and Intrinsic (Internal). Extrinsic motivations come from outside of the gymnast. Common extrinsic motivations are rewards like money, coercion and threat of punishment. Even competition and trophies are, in general, extrinsic because they encourage gymnasts to win and beat other gymnasts, not necessarily to enjoy the intrinsic inner rewards of the activity. You are looking to help these girls decide on something, inside of themselves, that will motivate them in their gymnastics.

Internal and External Motivations

Intrinsic motivation happens when gymnasts are internally motivated to do something, because it, either, brings them pleasure, they feel it is important, or they feel that what they are learning is significant and important. Extrinsic motivation happens when gymnasts are pushed or obliged to act a certain way or do something, because of external factors, like money or awards.

External Rewards Kill Inner Motivation

Social scientists have shown that extrinsic rewards can, and likely will, decrease intrinsic motivation. In other words, gymnasts bribed with money, will likely, in the future, tend only to work out for money, instead of for the joy of learning new skills. On the other hand, relatively valueless extrinsic rewards, that are used to track personal progress (like you get a penny for every new skill you learn), not only will not interfere with motivation, but can actually increase intrinsic internal motivation.

Instant Praise = Instant Reinforcement

Non-tangible rewards, like verbal praise and unexpected rewards, do not undermine intrinsic motivation. In fact, praise actually increases intrinsic motivation by verifying to the gymnast that they are on the right path. Operant conditioning coaching uses reinforcers (like praise) not rewards, to reinforce behavior that coaches want repeated in the future. Operant conditioning coaching and “penny” reinforcers are both coaching strategies and techniques that can help motivate gymnasts along their own internally, personally chosen path.

“Away” Motivators and “Towards” Motivators

There are two types of motivators – away motivators and towards motivators. Away motivators are motivations to move away from negatives (like “I am going to work out hard, because I am tired of being embarrassed to not win any medals at meets). Towards motivators are motivations that draw gymnasts toward them (like I want to enjoy traveling all around the world and living life as an International Elite). To be truly successful, gymnasts need both types of motivators. This is because away motivators become less effective the farther away you get from the negative (like a gymnast, now, has won a few medals and ribbons and is less and less embarrassed and eventually not embarrassed at all). But they are also not yet Elites.

You Need Both Away and Toward Motivators for Maximum Motivation

In the beginning, when the gymnast is embarrassed by not winning any medals, the possibility of living an International Elite lifestyle is too remote to be very motivating. But the better a gymnast gets, the more likely that “towards goal” becomes and the towards motivation is drawing them towards their goals. The closer they get, the more motivated they are. You need both “away and toward” motivators and a balance between the “away and toward” motivators to increase motivation maximally.

Fulfill Basics To Move to Gymnastics Goal Achievement Levels

Another factor in motivation comes from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The first level (out of the 5 levels of needs) of basic physical needs is not usually the responsibility for the gym and coach to provide, but of course a starving gymnast won’t be motivated to or get any useful work done. The second level includes safety and security. Providing gymnasts with a sense that the training program they are participating in is safe and stable is necessary. Make sure your gymnast know your gym and program are going to be around and they don’t have to worry. Third level is sense of belonging (to the team), unconditional love (you let them know you like them, regardless of how they do in competition) and friendship (where better than the gym to find that). These levels must be satisfied, before you can expect results and progress on the next two levels (recognition, achievement, self-esteem and self-actualization), where the majority of gymnastics goals are.

Turn Desires into Motivation

In gymnastics, there are certain inner desires that motivate a gymnasts movement in some direction:

  • Acceptance – the need for approval (Show gymnast’s you approve of what they are doing, by complimenting them in front of their teammates and parents)
  • Curiosity – The need to learn (Provide daily opportunities to learn new skills)
  • Independence – the need for individuality (Help gymnasts choose and learn signature skills and work individually to improve on their skills and conditioning)
  • Order – the need for organized, stable, predictable environments (Post workouts, post skill checklists)
  • Physical activity – the need for exercise (work them out hard)
  • Social contact – the need for friends (peer relationships) (Shared tough experiences like hard workouts build strong relationships)
  • Status – the need for social standing/importance (Gymnast as Heroes program)

The more a coach can provide experiences and opportunities for meeting these basic needs, the more they can help motivate gymnasts.

Compelling Gymnasts Can Kill Inner Motivation

It should also be noted that the more coaches rely on forcing and compelling gymnasts to do what they are told and only what they are told, the more gymnast’s intrinsic internal motivation becomes deadened. With no control over, and no choice about, what they are doing, internal motivation fades, because it is essentially useless to gymnasts in this predicament. Gymnasts, who are working out hard, as a result their own internal motivations, will find their intrinsic motivation levels increasing. Gymnasts, who are only ever treated like mushrooms (kept in the dark and fed a bunch of crap), will continue to lose intrinsic motivation.

You may also find The Inspiration and Motivation of Gymnasts helpful.

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