Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs famously organises drivers of human motivation from the most fundamental physiological needs to a higher order of ‘growth’ related needs. The theory being– once a basic level of needs is met, a person will seek to fulfill the next levels in pursuit of constant growth and betterment. A similar representation of needs may be helpful to coaches as we strive to grow the game and engage young athletes in golf.
The topic of engagement and retention has never been more relevant in our sport. As participation numbers decrease at an alarming rate, it’s time to take a closer look at how we can engage young athletes and prompt them towards a journey of development and sustained involvement.
Not only do our jobs depend on the generational influx of new players, but more importantly, the game that we have devoted much of our lives to is in danger without it. As the generation of Baby Boomers that have sustained our sport for so long begin to pass the torch to a new wave of players and their children, devoting our efforts to engaging new players is of critical importance.
From a personal and more immediately rewarding perspective, a further examination of these motivational factors could result in more activity on our lesson tees and the opportunity to do more rewarding work– work that matters.
Improving our ability to motivate will obviously help us develop more skilled players, but it also helps us fulfill a more meaningful mission– it allows us to impact the personal and social development of young people. We’ve all encountered a coach or teacher early in our lives that made that massive impact on us. A person that makes us wonder ‘Where would I be if I hadn’t met this person?!’
So what ingredients make up a young athlete’s criteria for involvement? What factors should we consider when introducing golf and how do we continue to foster that initial interest into a desire to improve and eventually excel?
Based on our experience and research, there are some key motivational milestones to consider. We believe motivation to participate starts with positive peer and coach CONNECTION, which leads to a fun environment that allows skills to develop through PLAY, which then builds CONFIDENCE, and ultimately provides enough motivation to ‘stick with it’ long enough to grow expertise and SKILL.
Motivation to participate starts with a connection– it’s the most basic need of a young athlete. If I don’t feel like I belong, I’ll never stick around long enough to find out how much fun the activity is or that I might actually be good at it. So this is our first priority. We have to facilitate positive connections with peers, connections with coaches, connections with parents, and ultimately a connection with the game.
Think back to your own childhood hobbies– in all probability your willing participation was heavily hinged on how many of your friends followed suit.
Or maybe you were drawn to an activity because of the warm and nurturing connection offered by the coach– a non-judgemental connection that made you feel safe to explore, experiment, and learn.
When connected, early childhood psychiatrist, Dr. Edward Hallowell, says, “children develop a feeling of security and safety, which, in turn, instills courage and the desire to take risks in the world.” So to combat the initial nerves inherent in encountering a new activity, we have to earn their trust and show that the learning environment we’ve created is a safe one, free of judgment or criticism.
We were turned on to Dr. Hallowell’s work by one of the most brilliant minds in junior golf, Kate Tempesta. Kate expanded on this concept when she told us, “It is paramount that we, as junior coaches, create an engaging and supportive learning environment. We must teach to the whole child and not just simply to their developing physical skills. This is the key to long- term success! Children are social, emotional, creative, spiritual and cognitive beings that need all of these domains nurtured and supported.”
Once a safe environment has been introduced, we have to facilitate the social bonds amongst peers that motivate participation. These early social connections lead to the first tipping point in the development of a young golfer. All of a sudden, the young person in front of us begins to identify themselves as a golfer, a key milestone to igniting a lifelong relationship with the game.
“Social identity has been defined as the part of an individual’s self concept which derives from his knowledge of membership in a social group with value and emotional significance attached to that membership.” (Tajfel, 1981) When we encourage these friendships around golf, we are nurturing feelings of connection and a sense of belonging that comes from feeling similar to the others in the group.
To fulfill the basic motivational need of connection, we need to promote positive feelings of association with peers and coaches, along with a sense of belonging and the ‘fit-in’ factor.
- Remain ‘Connection Conscious’ throughout your group sessions. Be vigilant about noticing how each individual is interacting with the group and how their motivation to stay involved could be affected.
- Develop skills through small-sided games. Split groups into small teams and have them complete challenges or competitions. Not only does this begin to fulfill the need for ‘Play’, but it fosters stronger social bonds among team members.
- Promote a Growth Mindset. We often use the phrase ‘Not getting it is part of getting it’. To open up in a way that allows for meaningful connections with peers and coaches, the kids need to know it’s safe to make mistakes. Nothing can kill participation faster than a humiliating experience caused by a poor performance or perceived incompetence. Reminding athletes that mistakes are acceptable and a natural step in the learning process reinforces a judgement-free environment where positive connections are more easily made.
Fun is the single biggest factor for athlete retention and sport participation. If an activity ceases to be fun, the likelihood of an individual sticking with it over the long term, diminishes greatly. That being said, as easy as it is to say that ‘fun’ holds the key to everyone’s success in growing the game, fun remains somewhat of an elusive deliverable. Here is Dr. Hallowell on the topic of play in sports,”Many parents, teachers, and coaches don’t realize that fun sets off a cascade of positive events. If you make having fun the goal, and your child achieves that goal, then it is likely your child will also achieve all the rest: practice, discipline, mastery, and the other intangibles that sports can so wonderfully instill… Play that is fun leads to practice and practice leads to mastery.”
For a better idea of how we can deliver this level of fun, a perfect model of the play that leads to sustained participation can readily be found at recess and after school during a variety of ‘pick-up’ games. Look for a group of screaming and laughing ten year olds playing outside. These environments are void of technical instructions and instead rely on the kid’s creativity, autonomy, and social connections to deliver the ultimate form of play. Kids have to be pulled away from this type of play. School bells, dinner time or sunset are the only things that can suspend the action.
This informal environment has to be inclusive so as to achieve active participation from a variety of competitors and they have to come up with rules that maximize fun given the available resources. No one is concerned with the ‘right way’ to execute a skill, they just look to the top performers to serve as a model to follow. While skilled performance can eventually come as a result of this play, the sole intention is fun– not improvement like so many of the activities that we design for them.
- Promote autonomy by allowing juniors to be active participants in the learning design. I’ve haven’t seen anyone do this more effectively in golf than Kate Tempesta. The video below is one of many in which she shares the practical application of this idea– this is one of my favorites. A cardboard box and a coach who is willing and able to nurture creativity and autonomy as a means to develop skill and inspire participation.
Moving past the primary igniters of interest – Connection and Play – expanding an athlete’s confidence becomes critically important to sustaining motivation and participation. Moreover, as coaches, confidence represents an exciting possibility, as it’s a factor we have a significant influence on. Specifically, the way in which we communicate and interact with young athletes has a significant impact on their self-efficacy, self-esteem, and experience (fun or not fun).
What we want to focus on is Self-Efficacy. In its most basic form, self-efficacy is an individual’s perception about their ability or competence. Although there are many different sources from which athletes can increase their self-efficacy, the most powerful are instances in which an individual has to overcome a mild form of adversity to achieve a goal. Jane McGonigal calls them ‘epic wins’.
“The most effective way of creating a strong sense of efficacy is through mastery experiences. Successes build a robust belief in one’s personal efficacy… Some setbacks and difficulties in human pursuits serve a useful purpose in teaching that success usually requires sustained effort. After people become convinced they have what it takes to succeed, they persevere in the face of adversity and quickly rebound from setbacks. By sticking it out through tough times, they emerge stronger from adversity.” (Bandura, 1994)
Coaches should leverage gamification and challenge point framework to help design appropriate activities – activities that require the learner to dig in (just enough) such that they have to extend themselves to accomplish the task. What they get is a quick shot of ‘I can do this’ and consequently, their self-image and level of confidence, increase. Additionally, the feedback you give to the athlete should focus on the effort they are making, and should provide enough encouragement to help them push past the challenge that the activity provides. This one-two coaching punch paves the way for growth and accelerates ignition.
- Ensure that you scale the task demands and difficulty to the skill level of the learner. Be very aware as to how much success or difficulty participants are having with a given activity and modify tasks accordingly.
- When giving feedback, praise effort, reinforce the positive aspects of what they are doing, and provide them with one thing that they can do differently. This also helps to promote a growth mindset.
- Celebrate success! Allow young golfers to get excited when they experience success. As much as you want to get them to persevere through the right amount of difficulty, ensuring that they get to enjoy their ‘mastery moment’ makes it more likely that they will continue such behaviors. It also tends to lead to a little more fun for all! Fist pumps should be HIGHLY encouraged.
Rather than a final stage of motivation that we have to fulfill, SKILL represents the top of the motivational pyramid that represents a by-product of sustained participation. As with Maslow’s Hierarchy, ‘one must satisfy lower level basic needs before progressing on to meet higher level growth needs. Once these needs have been reasonably satisfied, one may be able to reach the highest level called self-actualization.‘ Well, in the Junior Golf Hierarchy of Needs, self actualization is replaced with Skill. Once we have met the young athlete’s requirements for connection, play, and confidence– in all likelihood they are inspired to participate long enough to develop some level of skill. This could be enough skill to continue a lifelong recreational relationship with golf, or for some, those previous steps have motivated them to work hard enough to develop a skill level that leads to more competitive pursuits.
A junior will learn the skills when they are ready to. By taking an interest in growing their motivation, we, as coaches, can set the stage for continued participation and eventually, skill development. More importantly, however, are the effects of sport on the rest of their lives. By making a point to help each child grow their self efficacy, establish positive social connections, and develop a sense of mastery, such characteristics transcend golf and filter into other areas of their lives, ultimately leading them to become better learners and people. As such, this is work that matters– to ourselves, the golfers we encounter, and the game we love.
— Corey Lundberg & Matt Wilson