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Milton’s keen – on motivation: The importance of motivating players and the crucial role coaches play

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Wales Rugby Union Under 18sWales U18 v Scotland U18 - Under 18 Home Unions Festival - Pontypridd - 1/4/05

  • Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) National Under-18s attack coach Dan Milton talks about the importance of motivating players and the crucial role coaches play.

  • Milton believes that motivating players is never as simple as being results-based.

  • He stresses the importance of working on what makes players tick, both individually and collectively, and to share views with them and encourage their input.

The greatest athletes in the world, with bundles of natural talent, still need another key component to succeed in their sport of choice – motivation.

Level 4 qualified coach and coach educator  Daniel Milton  is acutely aware of this and realises the crucial importance of motivating players and keeping this mindset ongoing.

Milton is a senior rugby coach within the Cardiff Metropolitan rugby squad, and is currently the WRU National Under-18s Attack Coach. He is also a lecturer in Physical Education and Sport Coaching at the Cardiff School of Sport.

The former school PE teacher has been working with Birmingham University and Sport Wales on an innovative collaborative research project centring around motivation and empowering principles.

Milton says the role of the coach in motivating players cannot be over-emphasised:

‘A good coach will make it their goal to be empowering to their pupils, and once achieved, will strive hard to retain this.’

He realises too that, on some occasions, poor coaching techniques can produce the other side of the coin: ‘Coaches must realise they also have the potential to be disempowering, and this is something they have to understand and take steps to avoid at all costs.’

More to motivation than winning

Milton believes that motivating players is never as simple as being results-based, and is a much more subtle process than this.

‘Let’s take a hypothetical example. Wales could play France and win 34-0. To all intents and purposes, surely this is a fabulous result, and the team will have demonstrated their motivation to succeed?

‘However, what if the reason for the massive margin of victory is that, on the day, France were awful? For whatever reason, they didn’t turn up, and it didn’t take a lot for Wales to secure an emphatic victory. And that alone was the reason for the win. The next game, however, France run out easy winners, but the Welsh team play at the top of their game, with some players playing out of their skin and achieving new levels of excellence, despite the ultimate defeat.

‘The good coach will take time to point out these benefits and emphasise the positives, achieved in the face of an opponent at the top of its game. Which would be more motivating?’

Milton believes the latter would be a more positive situation, and although, in sport, winning is always the ultimate aim, there are other things to take into consideration, moving forward, to drive future success.

‘If we focus our players on their personal goals, and they achieve these, then it’s an excellent example of being successful whether or not we win or lose.’

He explains that to progress and to stay motivated, it is vital for players to measure their performances against themselves. If there is a continual improvement and progression, then, putting aside external factors, this is a sure sign of things moving in the right direction.

Don’t forget the fun

‘A good coach will make sure that their players are engaged with the sessions – and enjoying them. It may seem obvious, but if they have fun while training and learning, then they will be eager to come back.

‘We need to relate to players and give them a voice. Empowering again!’

Milton says it’s important to work on what makes players tick, both individually and collectively, and to share views with them and encourage their input.

‘Nothing is more motivating than having a say on how you are coached – within the remits we are following – and things that may seem repetitive and potentially not too exciting can quickly be turned into real positives.’

He uses the example of World Cup winners the All Blacks as a perfect case in point: ‘They value the drills for the results they ultimately bring. The New Zealand players recognise the results achieved by repetitive drills, and the skills these help to fine-tune. What could potentially be tedious is turned into fun as long as the players are on-board with the programme, and their unprecedented success is the reward and motivation for this type of training.’

Fear is the path to the dark side

Milton is also keen to explain the differences between good and not so good motivation – ways of coaches engaging with players that can have lasting success, and those with a shorter-term, less long-lasting benefit.

Motivation based on fear can only go so far, he says, and can be counterproductive in the end. It’s human nature to want to please your coach – if you have a good relationship with them. But this aiming to please should be for positive reasons, and not about worrying over the consequences of not doing so.

‘Any success based on simply wanting to avoid displeasing a coach out of fear will only be a short-term win,’ he says. ‘In the end, this is not a viable model going forward. Players will quickly become disillusioned if this is the only criterion.

‘Players and coaches need mutual trust and respect if they want to work towards lasting success, and this is true for school pupils right up to elite level sport.’

Find a reason

The reasons for motivation can be varied, but can sometimes be found in unusual ways, with Milton using a domestic example: ‘My wife likes me to wash the dishes, this isn’t something I’m ever motivated to do! But my life and its dynamic is always improved by a happy family unit, and this simple task helps to achieve it. This, then, is my motivation, and it’s a positive one, and not merely “to wash the dishes”. If there’s a good and positive benefit to an action, it ceases to become an unwelcome chore and becomes something you are motivated to do.

‘It’s all about approach, and this, in its own way, is empowering for sports players and coaches alike.’

A potential enemy of sustaining player motivation is time, as Milton explains: ‘Even at elite level, there is only so much time. And certainly at other levels of sport, when it would be great to give each player an individual personal programme, this isn’t always practical. Therefore, we must work to utilise what time we have in the most productive way possible.

‘What needs to be done is to establish and reiterate core values, and – crucially – give pupils input into this,’ he explains.

‘When this understanding is achieved then it can be massively effective, with everyone then working towards a mutually agreed and mutually designed process. This is another example of where coaches giving pupils a voice is massively empowering – and always leads to stronger motivation.’

Dan Milton’s Top tips

  • Empowerment is key: If a sportsman or sportswoman feels empowered, their performance has the potential to be the best it can be.

  • Don’t disillusion them: It’s common sense, but needs to be kept in mind by coaches – a demotivated, unhappy athlete will never be at their best.

  • Make sure your pupils measure their performances against themselves – this is a true way to monitor progress. This way, we can see when things are on an upwards curve, and if this isn’t the case, we can look at ways to address the issues.

  • Keep them happy: Be sure everyone is engaged and enjoying the sessions. If you’re not having fun, if it becomes a chore, then look at the coach – somewhere along the line, they are getting it wrong.

  • Let the players have their say: Nothing is potentially more motivating than having a say on how you are coached. If done right, the results can be stunning.

What did you think of this article? Do you have any tips to share with your fellow coaches on how to motivate your players/athletes/teams? Leave a comment below.

This blog is also available as a podcast on a number of platforms including Itunes. Listen here.

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Comments (1)

Thanks Rob and Dan, this made for really interesting reading. I particularly like the emphasis on working out what makes each player tick. Each player will be motivated by their own particular factors. If as a coach or manager you can work these out, and then work on them, you will get more out of the player. Who was the England rugby player who when asked by Stuart Lancaster what his aim was, said "I want to buy my Mum a new house"? That gave Lancaster a pretty clear idea of how motivated that player was, and interestingly that it wasn't a selfish motivation.

There is a lot written about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and the relative impact and effect of both. I also like the analogy of the elephant and the rider (used in a lot of psychology books, but probably best articulated by Dan and Chip Heath in their book 'Switch - how to change things when change is hard'). The elephant being the brain's emotional part, the rider being the rational part. Without the elephant being motivated, things will not happen. Once the elephant is motivated, the rider then needs direction, and the path needs to be shaped.

The trick within a team environment is then to try and tie in each individual's motivation with a 'team ambition'. Think the lionesses - their ambition was to win a trophy and inspire a nation. They may not have done the first, but they certainly had a good crack at the second. The All Blacks aim is to 'Leave the Jersey in a Better Place.'

Thanks again for a really good read.
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Glad you liked it Catherine. I can’t take credit for the writing I’m just posting on his behalf but I will be sure to let him know you enjoyed it. Love the analogy of the elephant and the rider!
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