Motivation doesn’t exist as a real thing. Motivation is an abstract concept. And as with all abstract concepts, one has to consider whether its use has any value. The concept of motivation is a double edged sword. When used correctly the concept of motivation can help you a lot to motivate players. If used wrongly, then it will hinder your efforts to motivate players and actually increases the risk of hiring bad players. Fortunately, the neuroscience of motivation is the neuroscience of instrumental learning which is used in football to train a player’s technique. So we can use what we know about instrumental learning to learn about motivation.

The mistake most made with motivation is that idea that people can be intrinsically motivated. There is no motivation inside people’s brains. We, as outside observers, can describe someone’s behavior as being motivated. Or we can describe someone’s behavior as lacking motivation. Motivational problems can be defined as:

Motivational problems are performance deficits that are not due to lack of capability or due to a lack of opportunity.

In other words, the player can perform well. He can, but he doesn’t. The reason is that he lacks an incentive do perform well. Motivational problems differ from attitudinal problems. With an attitudinal problem players behave badly, but this does not relate to their performance. Players may behave correctly, but lack motivation to perform well. Or they might behave badly, but perform well. In most cases attitudinal problems stem from players’ personality.

So if a player is not performing well, first check whether this performance deficit is due to:

  1. Lack of technique.
  2. Lack of game intelligence.
  3. Lack of opportunity, for instance because other players don’t involve him in the game.
  4. Lack of proper tools. It is hard to play if you don’t have a ball.
  5. Lack of working conditions. If a player is being bullied by other players his performance might suffer.

Pitfalls of incentives

There are six different ways in which you might think a player has all the incentives he needs to perform well, but in reality he hasn’t:

  1. Incentives for the team do not always reach the individual player.
  2. Incentives for the team do not always translate into incentives for each individual player.
  3. What is an incentive for a player at a certain time, may not be an incentive for that player in another time.
  4. You only look at long term incentives, but do not look at short term incentives.
  5. The club thinks that something is an incentive, but didn’t check whether the player felt the same way.
  6. You only look at the incentives for doing something, but you haven’t look at the incentives for doing something else.

How to build more motivation

To get players to perform better and thus be more motivated, it is important to make sure that they have the right long term and short term incentives. Long term incentives are fame and fortune. Short term incentives can be praise by the manager. One way to effectively build motivation is the build on player’s strengths rather than their weaknesses. When you look at what a player is already able to do that is close to what you want him to do and praise him when he does what he is good at, then you can use that as a bridge towards the behaviors where you want him to be more motivated. Even though it looks like a detour, building on strengths works actually faster than working at weaknesses, even if the weaknesses are very small.

The advantages of building on strengths are:

  1. Building on strengths has a better motivational effect.
  2. Building on strengths tends to start from a firmer base.
  3. Building on strengths helps avoid making big changes where judiciously selected small changes work as good or better.
  4. Building on strengths has a snowballing effect where players get more motivated for a number of other activities and perform better.
  5. Repairing weaknesses becomes harder and harder as the weaknesses become smaller and smaller. Whereas building on strengths becomes easier and easier given that the player develops more and more strengths.

Adapted from: Brethower, Dale. Behavioral Analysis in Business and Industry: a Total Performance System, Behaviordelia 1972