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Individual Motivation

by Dave
Thursday, January 28, 2010

I want to venture into a very difficult labyrinth today.   I should probably just step back and not get into this but something is pulling me and I don't feel like fighting it.   The issue has to do with how athletes become motivated individuals and how parents and others interact with them in order to enhance this "coming of age," if you will allow me to call it that.   This is not a particularly straightforward issue to discuss.   But I feel the need to try.

Some time ago, I told you that I once was told by someone far more experienced than I that a father must find the right time to step back from his softball playing daughter in order to allow her to mature in the game.   She needs to be coached by someone not related to her.   She needs to find her way in the real world where not everyone thinks she's wonderful, where some folks might be less tolerant of some of her bad habits.   She needs to prove herself anew to someone else in the sport who has interacted with many other girls prior to meeting her.   You (I) need to stand back and become a mere fan again.

Since I heard those words, I have discussed the issue and related ones many times with friends, others in softball, and even a few visitors to this site who wrote me e-mails on the topic.   I agree wholeheartedly that a parent of a softball player needs to give her the room to stretch her wings, as it were, or she may never learn to fly.

I say she "may never learn to fly" because many girls have indeed gone very far within this sport while being coached by fathers or mothers.   Tincher was taught to pitch by her father.   Other name players had heavy parent involvement before they became name players.

Most kids need their parents to step away in order to take the steps of personal development on their own but it is not necessarily a panacea for raising a softball player.   Both ways work, depending on the individuals involved.   Still I agree in principle with those who argue for giving my kids space because I am not trying to raise softball players.   I am trying to raise people, two individual people.   I believe I need to step away from them in order for them to grow up.   It's just not that easy to do!

Within the issue of stepping away from a softball playing daughter is the related one of her self-motivation.   Youth is wasted on the young.   If I had my life to live over again ... I would know how much effort would be involved in developing any skill to a desired degree.   And, of course, I would put in the effort needed for the things I wish I were doing today!

When I was very young, I decided I wanted to be a baseball player.   I was too young to have my dreams dashed so, when I told my parents, they waited several years before explaining to me why this was a bad idea.   When I told my father that I wanted to play football in the NFL, he quickly pointed out that I would need to be at least 6-3 and that was unlikely.   He also pointed out the short duration of a lineman's career and other problems with my idea.   When I told my parents I wanted to be a mathematician, they pointed out that the only career for that kind of direction was teaching and since teaching didn't pay, I might find another career choice.   They were wrong on that and other scores but I am not going to try to beat my parents into the ground today.   What I want to point out is it is not a great idea merely to explain logically to a person why they can't or shouldn't do something.   Instead, it is probably a better idea to inform them slowly about what is needed to become this or that and then let them find their own way.

With respect to school, my parents always wanted me to get good grades.   Perhaps they wanted me to get great grades but they accepted my somewhat above average ones without giving me too much trouble.   My siblings struggled in school to some degree so when I had better grades than they did, I was able to get away with less than I was capable of.   But my motivation was external, not internal.   I got the grades I got in order to appease them, not because I enjoyed learning or wanted to achieve at some level in order to accomplish things or make my life better.   It was not until I returned to college as a 23 year old that I found self-motivation and at that point, I became an "A" student, near the top of the class, who wanted to achieve the highest grades possible regardless of the level of effort required.

Self-motivation is tricky because each of us are individuals who have our own hopes and dreams, who mature at different ages, and who have our own unique capacities and abilities.   One kid is apparently fully mature, within the context we are examining, at the age of 7 or 8.   Another is incapable of self-motivation until perhaps 16 or in my case, in terms of academic motivation, as old as 23.   It is next to impossible to know for sure when a kid is capable of self-motivation in any pursuit.

When we start out the softball careers of our very young daughters, they really do not know what it takes to improve their skill levels and play to their potential.   I recall one of my daughters, 8 at the time, telling me that she would like to throw better.   We went out into the yard and threw the ball for 15 minutes before she informed me that she was tired or saw some neighbor kids playing and ran off for that action.   A day or so later, I reminded her of her desire to throw better and suggested another session of catch.   She told me she had something else to do and, after all, "we did play catch for a very long time yesterday."   She was sure she had done enough to improve to the level she desired!

Later, when pitching lessons arose, my wife and I decided to tell the girls that they could continue pitching lessons and we would pay for them provided that they practiced an acceptable amount.   We decided that 2 times per week in addition to the one lesson would be the minimum and 4 the maximum.   They could continue with their lessons if they practiced twice a week but it would be better if they did more.   And, if they did more, we would never consider dropping lessons.   If they stuck with just 2, we might one day put an end to lessons.

So my daughters continued to pitch several times a week in order to preserve their lessons.   When they wanted to play travel ball, we put certain other restrictions on them.   They were required to get their homework done in a timely fashion so as to avoid conflicts with practice.   They were also required to step up their pitching to a minimum of 3 times weekly in addition to lessons.   If they pitched for one half hour at practice, that would count.   We didn't want to burn them out.   We just wanted a commitment level in order to justify our spending this much time and money to keep them in travel ball and pitching lessons.

As time wore on, my kids did what they needed to do to maintain things as they were.   But sometimes that edge you need to compete was missing.   I won't quantify it in this article but there is a level or degree of pitching effort one must do in practice in order to maintain proficiency levels and advance them enough to make all this worth it.   Sometimes, with one kid or the other, that level was missing.

Sometimes, one or both of my daughters would complain about me making them pitch.   It might not be right at the start or at the mere mentioning of "we'll be pitching at 7 o'clock tonight."   It wasn't always a direct complaint.   Sometimes we had just finished the warm-up and my kid would say "I'm really tired today" or "I'm still sore from all that pitching we did yesterday."   Sometimes it was even more insidious like, "how many pitches are we going to do today?"   And still other times, it was a matter of one kid, or both of them, putting out the bare minimum of effort in making each pitch.

Initially, I told them that I never want to be asked how many pitches we are doing.   At different points I told them that I am not going to waste my time by catching them while they put forth less than 50% effort.   I have actually picked up and walked out on a few occasions because I felt their effort was completely insufficient.   I refuse to waste my time if they don't have their body and mind into it.

Soreness is a tougher issue because I don't want them to alter their motions because a bicep or forearm is sore.   When they complain about sore muscles, I try to diagnose the problem, come up with a solution or dump practice for that day.   I used to think they were using soreness to get out of practice but I have learned that my kids don't do that.   When they complain about soreness, I believe them and we can usually do some skills that will not beat them up further.

As time has worn on, I have become weary from listening to my kids try to make practice shorter or get out of them entirely.   It doesn't happen very often but when it does, it gets under my skin.   That has been made more irritating by my often very sore shoulder, elbow, wrist or hand.   A couple years ago, I developed bad tendinitis in my catching wrist which required me to soak my hand in ice water several times each day.   It eventually went away but pain in my catching shoulder is a constant companion.   Sometimes my elbow hurts and sometimes my hand does.   I try not to complain to them about it - I don;t want to teach them how to get out of things - but when they are trying to wiggle out of practice and I'm hurting, I have less patience with the head games.

That was a while ago because gradually they have become self-motivated and that's why I am telling you this.   My older daughter became self-motivated quite a bit sooner than the younger one.   She loves just about everything that has anything to do with softball.   Softball dwells within her very being, perhaps her soul.   If she were confined to a wheelchair today, I believe she would either find a softball league for wheelchair bound persons or start one on her own. .

I know I am prone to digressions but I want to explain the wheelchair comment lest I receive some angry e-mails.   When I was in my late teens, I worked as a lifeguard at a pool.   One day, one of my fellow lifeguards dove into the pool and fractured his neck.   He was paralyzed from pretty much the neck down though he could use his arms fairly well.   The name of this fellow is Doug Heir.

Doug was an athlete before his accident.   After the accident he wanted to end his life.   That's pretty normal for a person in that predicament.   If you love sport and one day are told that you'll never do any of the things you love, well, that's about as tough as it gets.   Gradually, through the efforts of his brother and friends, Doug found the motivation to move forward with his life.   Move forward, he did!

Doug became the President Of The National Spinal Cord Injury Association.   He also finished law school and has been a practicing attorney.   He has run for public office.   He is a motivational speaker.   He also has been called the most accomplished athlete on Earth because he has won more gold medals than any other human being.

Doug found his self-motivation, with help from his brother, in sport.   He competed in field events at Paralympic and other world championships.   He has one too many events to name and, in the process, set several world records.   His image has appeared on the Wheaties box and many sports media outlets have proclaimed him the world's greatest athlete, among other noteworthy achievements.

So, you see, I do not use the wheelchair example lightly.   And when I speak of self-motivation, I have seen it at its all-time low.

So my older daughter is now just about fully self-motivated.   This was accomplished primarily by gradually allowing her to control the direction of her practice sessions.   At every turn, I have reminded her that the game belongs to her, not us.   Our purpose is to facilitate her accomplishment of what she tells us her goals are.   She is never practicing or pitching for us.   We enjoy watching her pitch but if she were never again to pitch, that would not change anything about the way we love her or treat her.   The decision to pitch or not is hers and hers alone.   The decision to play softball is hers alone.

As I say, she is just about fully self-motivated.   It is a long process which requires work for the full duration.   One does not one day turn from being externally motivated to being completely self-sufficient.   It is a process not a watershed moment.   We must still remain vigilant and work towards instilling the internal motivation.

As I say, this was a gradual growth which took place probably over a 2 year period.   It probably, I don't remember, started as a result of a planned practice session at which she was not motivated.   She may have complained.   She may have inquired about how many pitches we were going to do.   She may have thrown at less than her best.   I just don't remember.   But at that point, I believe I ended the session early.   I was tired of the continual lack of effort - in a relative sense.   I told her that she could tell me when she wanted to practice again.   And I waited for her to do that.

After a few days, she missed working on her pitches and came back to me.   In the next session, I let her control almost everything.   There is a pattern to her warm-ups which I like to be adhered to to avoid injury.   After that, it was "so, what do you want to do next."   I really enjoyed asking her "how many pitches are you going to do today?"   I think she understood the irony.   But she chose her direction and I have to say that it was fine.

Now, what I do in order to sway her in the direction I think she should go is make suggestions.   If I think her screw, drop, or drop curve is not quite as sharp as it should be, I ask, "do you want to work on X pitch today?" or "you know, you have thrown better drops, maybe we could work on that pitch more during one of our sessions this week?" or "is there any pitch that you would like to work on?"   I try to sway her but I don't want to take over and I don't want her to get mentally lazy and allow me to take over.   It's her game.   These are her pitching sessions.   If she's going to put into them, she must decide what it is she is going to do.

At various times, I think she informed me of when we were going to pitch and then, when the time came, she complained or was less than thrilled when I reminded her.   Now when that happens, I react by telling her that I would love to have the hour to myself and it doesn't matter to me if she doesn't practice.   She does not do that often anymore.   She is responsible for her success or failure.   If she wants to skip, it is entirely her decision.   And she has to live with the results.

When she does complain, I generally believe she needs the time off.   She has become self-motivated enough and we have informed her enough that she now knows that there is a minimal level of effort required to maintain and only through exceeding that will she get better.   She wants to get better.   She works pretty darn hard at it.   Her practice sessions are much better.   She seldom, if ever, takes a pitch off during practices.

To tell you the truth, I'm the one lacking motivation these days.   She wants to pitch more often and her sessions are longer.   I intervene more because I think she is overdoing it than I ever did because I thought she was doing too little.

My younger daughter is more difficult, as a general matter.   She has had way too much success at almost everything from too young an age.   She is very successful in school without ever having to put out much effort.   Her report card is almost always better than her sister's, even when her sister gets almost all A's.   When the kids take those state proficiency examinations, if her older sister scores advanced proficient on the math part, as she has many times, the younger one will score higher.   She once scored a perfect score on that test.   That's the way it is for her.

She was also a successful pitcher with far less practice work than her sister.   The only times she would really work were after losses, expecially those in which she got hit fairly hard.   It has been very difficult to get her to work at anything, especially pitching, unless she experiences some degree of failure.

She was always the biggest complainer with respect to practice.   Even when she did not complain, she was far more prone to those lackluster sessions in which the effort needed to improve was missing.   It probably took 3 years to find her self-motivation and I'm not quite sure I know what brought it on.   Something, somehow, somewhere must have happened which caused her to recognize that she needed to work in order to succeed.   And very recently, she has begun to use this self-motivation in many different ways.

I should tell you that I understand parents who tell me about their daughters, "if I didn't push her, she would do nothing.   If I don't make her pitch, she won't and her ability will drop off."   I am not telling you to drop everything and do all that it takes to get your daughters self-motivated.   What I am telling you is that you should have this as a goal, a long-term goal.

Every kid, every person, is different.   Some require more push than others just to achieve up to their 50% level.   There is no particular age, no particular experience level, at which a given kid must become self-motivated.   But as much as I have encouraged you to do certain things in order to have your kid become a good pitcher, catcher or whatever, I am encouraging you to find those things that will point her in the direction of becoming self-motivated.   And everything you do with respect to this must leave the door open for her to become self-motivated when she is ready to do so.

This process, like the game of softball itself, is often rather difficult.   Worse, while I can tell you how to fix some hitch in the swing, some shortcoming on the drop ball, or some particular fielding or throwing problem, I cannot tell you how to instill self-motivation in your child.   It is a hands-on chore.   Problems must be diagnosed in person.   Treatment varies with the individual.   Prognoses will vary.   The time during which you may be able to accomplish the task is going to be different for any two kids.

I had a friend from childhood who became an Olympic medalist (a couple gold and, I think, one or two silver).   He was a champion from a young age.   His motivation was entirely external.   He became a champion to appease his father.   He was a world class athlete before he found self-motivation.   But he also developed substance abuse problems.   It was only after he solved his substance problems and found self-motivation that he became an Olympic champion.

I have often observed parents encouraging their kids to play hard, hustle, get a hit, etc. in softball tournaments.   I have sometimes been an overbearing father with respect to my kids' softball play.   I understand when parents need to be involved with their kids' softball.   I also understand sideline nerves.   But there is one thing we must remember and a few corollaries which spin off this single principle.   It is their game - we had our opportunity already.

It is their game and we cannot necessarily relate to what it is like to stand 4o or less feet away from some hitter to guard against the bunt.   We don't know what it is like to stand in against some 60 mph rise ball throwing freak of nature.   We do not know what it is to live amongst their peers while suffering a tough game when everyone else is hitting the ball hard.   Sure we had similar experiences but we do not know what they are going through.   We have to guess.

When we were their ages, we didn't necessarily trust when our parents, teachers and coaches told us how to live.   We learned most of what we know today thanks to mistakes and a few very smart mentors who taught us how to be self-sufficient.   We got bored at practices.   We turned our heads away on hard grounders.   We complained about the duration of practices, etc.   We dogged it.   Why on Earth would we expect them to be any different.

When a young kid starts hitting, catching or pitching lessons, their coaches tell them what they need to do in order to prepare for the next session.   "Don't forget to take 50 swings in the yard, do your blocking homework, pitch 4 times between sessions, etc."   We can and should encourage our kids to hear those messages over and over again.   We can tell them that if they would like to continue doing these lessons, they must practice on their own.   We can make them practice but they will learn how to do it with the least possible amount of intensity to appease us.   We can be perfectionists who mentally beat on our kids to make them all that we think they should be.   But what is gained and what is lost when we do this?

If you think you may have the next Jennie Finch, there is probably nothing to be learned from me.   If, on the other hand, you are simply using softball as an enjoyable way to teach your kid certain things, if you just want her to enjoy athletics, if you are not trying to take her up to the very top levels of the sport, then one of your goals should be to teach her self-motivation which she can use in other aspects of her life.   It isn't an easy thing to instill.   You will have to find your own way.   But, in the long run, it is a highly advantageous thing to have taught your child.   It is well worth the significant effort.

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