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June 7, 2017 • Coaching

Between the Lines: Motivating athletes with more than words

There’s a scene from the movie “Remember the Titans” where coach Herman Boone, played by Denzel Washington, leads his team on a grueling morning run. They maneuver through forests and splash through creeks before arriving at Gettysburg, where thousands of American soldiers were killed during the Civil War.

The movie takes place in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, and Boone’s players are struggling to coexist. It’s here where they’re united.

“You listen, take a lesson from the dead,” Boone said. “If we don’t come together right now on this hallowed ground, we too will be destroyed just like they were.”

It’s a powerful scene that unintentionally carries a subtle message for coaches — motivation and inspiration is more effective when you go beyond words. Here are just a few ways coaches have used this kind of creativity with their respective programs:

• Team trips. It’s not uncommon for football coaches to take their teams to museums, historical landmarks and other local attractions to send a message to their players. Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski calls these “feel-it” moments, where players are more likely to have an emotional response to the coach’s lesson.

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• Tangible motivation. Kennedy (Iowa) High School football coach Brian White asks each of his varsity players to sign a 4-by-4, signifying their commitment to the team’s 16 goals inscribed on the piece of lumber. The stick travels with the team on road games and is always visible on the sidelines.

Programs can use something as simple as a rock and other various objects of significance to the team. The idea is give players a meaningful, tangible object that they can use as a rallying point throughout the season. When times get tough, it can remind them of their shared commitment to the program and their fellow team members.

• Special guests. Words still have an impact, but it can be greater when they’re not coming from the coach who players hear on the practice field every day. Consider inviting former players or local celebrities to talk to the team after a workout. Ask them to reinforce your message about leadership, teamwork and other key elements of your philosophy.

There are several Division I coaches who ask members of the military to speak to their players. Their thoughts on hard work and commitment often resonate with young athletes.

Give it a try with your team. Whether you’re overhauling your team culture or lighting a fire under your players before the season, visualize your message. Chances are, you’ll notice a difference.


Kevin Hoffman is the editorial director of Coach & Athletic Director. He can be reached at [email protected].


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