Whenever I was working out and got tired and figured I ought to stop, I’d close my eyes and see that list in the locker room without my name on it.

That usually got me going again.

—Michael Jordan, on failing to make varsity his sophomore year

There are definitely days when I feel I may have missed my calling. I know some of you are going to say, "it’s not too late," and I agree; to a certain extent you are correct. It’s really never too late to alter your path—I truly believe that. When it comes to my own involvement in youth athletics and work as a strength coach, we’ll have to see what the future holds.

Sometimes I watch “pitching mechanic” work with one of my sons. As he regales his baseball stories of old, bragging on his past players to enforce the lesson of the day, or simply sharing a story of when things went south and all hell broke loose on the field, I’m truly envious of his body of coaching work—thirty-plus years of coaching experience is a true marvel. Working to ensure a young athlete reaches his/her full potential is an extremely rewarding calling.

I’m fortunate in that I’ve had the opportunity to surround my own children with some really impressive coaches (both in Texas and Connecticut). When I say impressive, I mean both in terms of technical mastery (i.e., the ability to coach proper mechanics) and their ability to motivate players, keep them engaged, and to inspire them to maximize their talents. Having great coaches is certainly a luxury.

I’ve stated this before—I’m definitely old school in many ways, especially when it comes to training and coaching. In the Beast Reality article, Lessons for Parents, Coaches, and Players, I discussed the fact that athletic training should be challenging, and that good coaches should be hard on their athletes, pushing to get the most out of them. Unfortunately, not all coaches are good at all aspects of coaching youth athletes.

player motivation

I believe the qualities of a good coach are:

  • The ability to motivate players
  • The ability to lead and inspire players (to provide a generally positive impact)
  • The strength to properly discipline players when appropriate
  • A solid understanding of the game and its fundamentals
  • A high level of technical expertise

Having spent a lot of time with athletes over the last several years, both in the gym and at home with my own children and their peers, I get to hear a lot of grumblings about coaching and coaches in particular. Sometimes, it appears the fault is with the athlete—failing to take accountability for their own actions or inactions (i.e., when they’ve not invested the time to perform the work necessary for success) and the coaching gripes are without merit. Other times, the true culprits in the dissonance are the parents, who have an inflated view of their child's abilities and contribution to the team as a whole. Yet, there are times when the coaches are truly at fault and are undeniably culpable for certain deficiencies.

RECENT: My Hateful Eight

In this brief article my goal is to address one of the coaching deficiencies I’ve stumbled-upon many times over my years in athletics, as an athlete, parent of an athlete, and a general observe: a lack of ability to effectively motivate players.

The Ability to Motivate Players

I have to confess, there is an old-school part of me that believes if a player needs their coach to be their primary motivator, the game is essentially already over. Which is to say, the internal and/or intrinsic motivation needs to be present for an athlete to have a modicum of success. That said, recall, I am speaking specifically to youth athletics, where young minds and bodies are still being shaped and, rightly or wrongly, the coach has the ability to impart a significant motivational impact to a child and young adult as well.

The aspect of coaching I would absolutely abhor is dealing with the process of finalizing a team roster and having to “cut” athletes from the team. I really feel for the coaches in this regard. Although it’s a job I think I could perform (if it was my mandate), I would absolutely agonize over the process. I recall having to serve as an umpire for my son’s six-year old baseball team. Calling a player out on strikes, at that age, particularly my own son, was brutal. I would call the third strike with such reluctance, parents would misinterpret the cadence of my voice for uncertainty.

I remember one of the other coaches whispering after an inning, “You need to call it with more conviction—they need to swing if it’s a good pitch.”

coaching youth athletes

I believe one of the critical areas in the motivation of young players is the ability to disseminate criticism in a constructive manner. This is certainly true when finalizing a team’s roster. Realizing all athletes are different, offering constructive criticism is definitely a challenging process, but it is so important because the manner in which it’s handled can have a profound impact on the future direction the athlete takes.

Delivering the Message

To relay a personal example in delivering a message, I recently went to see a sports medicine/orthopedic doctor to discuss some shoulder problems I was experiencing as a side-effect from all my years of heavy benching. To make a long story short, the physician’s assistant (PA) attempted to dissuade me from continuing to utilize heavy pressing to train my upper body, suggesting I was setting myself up for significant amounts of pain down the road.

After some discourse, I sighed and said, “Well, I guess I’ll have to shift more focus onto my squat and deadlift—additional lower body training.”

To which he replied, “Great, I’ll see you in a couple of years after you damage your lower back and knees.”

I shrugged off his comments and shifted the conversation a bit.

“I’ve been thinking of taking up Jiu Jitsu because I need a way to express my physicality.”

The PA said, “Well, that’s an option, but you’re going to suck at it because you have such poor flexibility.”

Thanks for the positive advice, Doc.


Well, that’s an option, but you’re going to suck at it [Jiu Jitsu] because you have such poor flexibility.

—Unnamed Physician’s Assistant, speaking to the author of this article


Fortunately, I am a (sometimes) confident adult with the ability to largely deflect messages delivered in a truly demotivational tenor.

The Message — Bringing It Back to Athletics 

When working with young athletes, there are many ways to deliver similar advice with a positive spin. A coach should attempt to connect with the player to earn trust. Remember, both power/strength and athletic skill are not static. In many situations, they can be dramatically improved with training, focus, and repetition. This is extraordinarily true with young athletes who may have the capacity for exponential improvement, particularly if they are untrained or have not yet found their true motivation. Consider the following examples where, arguably, a similar message is delivered:

Example 1

Delivery 1: Johnny, you have a very weak lower body and we don’t see you as a major contributor to this team.

Delivery 2: Johnny, if you do the work to significantly improve your lower body strength, you can be a contributor on this team.

Example 2

Delivery 1: We [the coaching staff] don’t think you are a good enough hitter to play Division 1 College Baseball.

Delivery 2: If you want to play D1 Baseball, we think you should focus on improving your hitting.


Both essentially deliver the same message. However, I would argue in each case, the second delivery provides both direction and a positive tone. Work on your lower body strength and you can be a contributor. If I heard that message, I know what I would be doing the next day: squatting, sprinting, and/or jumping. Compare that to we don’t see you as a major contributor. If I heard that, I might find a different way to allocate my time.


People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.

—Theodore Roosevelt

Michael Jordan Didn't Make Varsity 

Michael Jordan scored 32,292 points, earned six NBA championships and five NBA MVP titles, and made 14 All-Star Game appearances during his basketball career. He is considered by many hoops aficionados to be the greatest basketball player ever to grace the court. 1

Yet in 1978, Jordan failed to make one of the 15 roster spots for the Emsley A. Laney High School varsity basketball team. Jordan, a 15-year-old sophomore who was only 5'10" was relegated to play junior varsity when his friend Leroy Smith was selected ahead of him. 1

"Whenever I was working out and got tired and figured I ought to stop, I’d close my eyes and see that list in the locker room without my name on it. That usually got me going again." 1

Not making the varsity team initially threw another log on Jordan’s competitive fire and reenergized his focus and work ethic, helping him become the player he could be. Jordan discussed this event in his Hall of Fame Enshrinement Speech.

"When he picked Leroy over me, you made a mistake, dude!"

From junior varsity to arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, I love to share this story with young athletes, especially those navigating a tough athletic road, yet many coaches should take heed as well.

Coaches, your stars of today aren’t necessarily the stars of tomorrow. Take care to keep fanning the flames of all of your player’s athletic fires. Sometimes a shred of motivation goes a long way.


1. "MICHAEL JORDAN DIDN'T MAKE VARSITY—AT FIRST." 17 Oct. 2015. Web. 25 Jan. 2016.