Danny Jackson when he played for the Seattle Sounders
Danny Jackson on Motivation Matters: Getting the Real Win
Daniel (Danny) Jackson is a former Major League Soccer (MLS) player and was captain of the Seattle Sounders. SN is pleased to bring readers Danny Jackson’s column with insights into the professional world of soccer.
What motivates people in sports? The players, coaches and – at the youth level – parents, who put so much time, effort and even money into a game?
For me, it’s a fascinating question, with so many varying answers. With the media portraying such glitz and glamor, it’s easy to see why people can be motivated by the possibility of money and fame. So let’s step back and emphasize the basics. In premier soccer, there is an intense focus on winning, which is important, of course. But the end game is about much more than any individual game or season. At the youth level, the focus can’t just be all about winning.
Winning is a by-product of everything players and teams must do to achieve that goal – such as learning to execute under pressure, as well as having fun, working hard and developing teamwork.
If young players crave the bright lights of professional sports, they must commit themselves to doing what it takes to get there. The behind-the-scenes work is not glamorous, and is often invisible.
Scholarships, accolades, fame, contracts and money are all rewards for players who continually strive to do all of the small things right. That should be the ultimate motivation of ambitious young players, because without that mindset, the highest levels of play will remain elusive.
Focusing on minute details allows players to create the big picture, to be ready for critical tests. I remember when my University of North Carolina team played in the 2001 National Championships. Dean Smith, the legendary UNC basketball coach, wrote our team a letter prior to the start of our NCAA run.
His simple message: survive and advance. We did just that. We played Stanford University in the semi-final and we were completely out-played. But we persevered and kept fighting.
We were down 2-0, with nine minutes to play, and we scored two goals in two minutes to tie it up, ultimately winning the game in the fourth overtime period.
Survive and advance certainly came into play during that game, but we earned our luck based on our body of work throughout the season and our individual careers. We were prepared for adversity, and had the mental will, strength and quality to strike when necessary.
During an earlier game in the Sweet 16, a junior on our team missed an important penalty kick. We got through, but I felt it was important to make the statement that a senior should have shouldered responsibility.
Three games later, fate delivered my chance. Put in the same position, I was able to score off a penalty kick that helped our team pull out a 2-0 win in the championship game. I was extremely fortunate to start and play in every single game in my college career, but I have to say I didn’t feel great about my championship play. As team captain, I was playing OK. Not great, just OK. My take-away: we all want to play our best all the time, but it’s more important to be ready to do your part. All my years of practice, drills and hard work – all of my focus on process – prepared me for that kick. I was relieved and happy to execute successfully when my team needed me.
Many different things inspire people. I must admit, I am largely motivated by fear. It’s healthy for me; it gets me going in the morning. When I played competitive soccer, I knew that if I did everything right, we would win. My execution on game day was driven by confidence, but my preparation was driven by fear and my deep desire to not lose. That might sound negative, but the fear of not being the best I could be, of not trying as hard as I could, was powerful.
It eliminated complacency and the dangerous expectation of winning. A healthy fear of losing – the acceptance of that very real possibility – kept me focused on improvement and correcting mistakes. It mentally prepared me for both success and failure.
If something did go wrong in a game, I was prepared to quickly overcome that disappointment and refocus on the end goal – winning the game. Enjoy success after the final whistle, not before.
This perspective has worked well for me. But different approaches work for different people. And the diversity in motivations and personalities is one of the elements that make sports so interesting – and so challenging for coaches and team leaders.
There’s no doubt premier youth players are motivated by WINNING. Many kids are also highly motivated by the pros and spend a lot of time mimicking their idols. I myself used to closely watch games on TV as a kid, memorizing the stars’ plays and visualizing myself under stadium lights.
These fantasies can be a powerful motivator, as long as that visualization leads to hard work, practice and preparation… not just dreams and unrealistic expectations of money and fame. At the youth level, it’s also important to remember that many kids are playing just for fun, to be with friends and be part of a team. For these kids, winning matters, but if the game stops being fun, they won’t flourish.
As coaches, one of the most challenging – and interesting – tasks is to understand each of your players’ motivations and apply that to your teaching. All coaches, of course, want to win. But coaches would be well-served to take a step back and evaluate their individual players. Are kids mostly motivated by state championships? By fun? By team friendships? Is anyone trying to win a college scholarship? The world’s best coaches are experts at “man management” – understanding and guiding individual players, optimizing them to work as a team. This can be particularly challenging when team members have very different motivations or when players’ skill levels vary widely. But it’s not impossible. A coach can, for example, take a more skilled player aside and ask him or her to channel any frustration into team leadership. That could effectively optimize that player’s desire to improve, lead and build skills.
I recently received a powerful reminder of the value of “man management” in the form of an email from a mother whose daughter I coached a few years ago. Our team was not a premier team; it was mid-level team that didn’t quite have the right combination of talents to rise.
But this woman’s daughter – our goalie – caught my attention. I guess I saw a spark in her, and I liked her personality. So I pushed her to work harder and improve, and I even brought in another goalie to motivate her through competition. There’s nothing like fighting for your position to fire you up. When I coached this 15-year-old, she had not yet hit her stride and gained her full confidence. Yet, a few years later, her mother reported she’d received a full soccer scholarship from Cal State Fullerton. Through hard work and determination, she is now playing D1 college soccer.
I was proud to have played a part in her development and success. And even though our youth team didn’t win a state championship, preparing talented players for the next level of soccer and academics is equally, if not more, rewarding. As a coach, it’s important to commit yourself to the development and success of all your players. Understand that players are motivated and define success differently. Some need to score, others want to tackle. Value your defenders as much as your striker. No team can flourish as a whole without the success of individual players, and vice versa.
Parents have a different role to play and should also assess their own motivations. I think the percentage of parents who obnoxiously push their kids too hard for the wrong reasons is probably very small, but these stereotypes exist for a reason.
I personally witnessed a really disturbing scene between a pushy father, his roughly 10-year-old son and a doctor a few years ago, while waiting to get a light cast for my cracked wrist in the hospital. The son was getting his arm cast in an open treatment room and was obviously still in some pain.
His father was urging the doctor to write a note, clearing him to start Little League, and asking if his son could bat one-handed. The kid was clearly uncomfortable and the doctor was shocked. And all I could hear in the dad’s voice was his own dream of a Florida vacation home by way of his son’s athletic success.
I often wonder who pushes kids harder: parents who’ve played competitive sports or parents who never made it as far as they hoped. Parents who exert too much pressure or nurture unreasonable expectations run the risk of ruining sports for their kids and burning them out. Always remember – this is not about you. Youth sports are about the players, their experience and their enjoyment of the game. A parent’s role is to support the coach and their child, understanding and working to address their kid’s needs. Parents can motivate as they see fit and help children reach their personal goals. The focus should be on building the skills and the character to become a better player, person and teammate.
Ideally, coach, player and parents will be walking the same direction, focused on what it takes to win, not just winning itself. Then, success will be a natural bi-product of a solid, realistic, properly-motivated game plan.
Danny Jackson's recent coaching experience ranges from youth soccer at Eastside FC and the Sounders FC / ODP youth development program and speaks to high schools and youth clubs regarding the far reaching impacts of youth sports. Danny also is serving as the Director of New Business for Korrio.