Helping Young Athletes Get Motivated


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By Tim Fitzpatrick

I am the head coach of the Florence, Alabama Swim Team. It is a Park and Recreation Department sponsored program and we are located in the northwest corner of Alabama. The swim team currently has seventy-five participating members, is forming a parents’ organization, and interest in the sport is growing in our area.

As head coach of the program, I have accepted the challenge of keeping young athletes motivated. I have learned that motivating age group swimmers is often a difficult task. An individual that coaches any sport has a great influence over the athletes that they lead. I feel that it is the coach’s duty to uphold the athletes sense of self pride as well as guide them in the principles of sportsmanship, teamwork, skills, nutrition, time management; etc.

I offer my swimmers incentives such as “Swimmer of the Week” and daily “Workout Leaders.” At times, my competitive swimmers are asked to assist me in teaching the younger swimmers starts, turns, and new or complicated drills, giving them the opportunity to share their experience and develop a true sense of teamwork.

I am a big believer in the use of analogies. I feel that teaching difficult skills or a theory dealing with mental training is comprehended more easily through the use of familiar objects. With the use of analogies the swimmer’s light clicks on. Try explaining V02 max or acceleration drills to a seven-year-old without them. But sometimes a coach may have problems coming up with new analogies, so I have one I would like to share.

I recently had a “talk” with the competitive members of our team. I found great success with an analogy that had an incredible impact on the swimmers. Of course, it is not documented exactly as spoken, but the focus is the same. The story I shared with them deals with the principles of motivation. I was pleased to see the swimmers so energized. Our motto has become “Acceleration through motivation” and an apple was quickly adopted by the kids as a symbol of strength and courage. It has been four months since the analogy was used and the team’s enthusiasm and team spirit are reaching new heights!

Here is it…

Let’s pretend I have an apple tree, on it there are hundreds of red, shiny apples. Each apple represents my ability as a coach. All my knowledge, experience, patience and motivation skills are contained in each apple. Every time we practice I give each swimmer a whole apple. Everyone receives 100 percent of my coaching abilities. That is what you expect when you come to practice, right? How might you feel if some days you walked in and I said, “Hello, I’m glad to see you. I picked an apple just for you!,” and other days I just looked at you and yelled, “What are you staring at? You know what to do, get in the water and do it!” You would be “a little” surprised and “a lot” disappointed. What if you were in the water and I picked one apple off the tree, threw it across the pool and said, “Fastest one gets it!” If the strongest of the group always got an apple and no one else did, would anyone else improve? If I gave 100 percent to only the fastest swimmer, do you think we would have much of a team? How about this, I walk in and say, “Boy, I have had a terrible day. I’m only going to pick one apple, cut it up into little pieces and give everyone a small slice. I’m too tired to give each of you 100 percent, so you will each get five percent today.” Would you feel cheated? Would you feel like swimming hard? Would I be doing my job as your coach? Would you feel energized enough to do your job as a swimmer?

“What is my job as a swimmer?,” you may ask. It might seem really neat just coming to practice, eating the apple I give you, and leaving. Think about it. Does it really work that way? Would I, should I be satisfied as your coach to see you come in, swim like a robot and leave? The truth is, each of you has an apple tree as well. Some of you new swimmers have only begun growing your trees. Small trees with small apples. The more you learn, the bigger your apples get. Over the years I’ve seen some of your trees grow quite large. If you take care of your tree, try your best to keep it healthy, it will grow.

Whether you know it or not, when you come to the pool for practice each day, you cut a deal with me. You get an apple from my tree, I get an apple from your tree. I get you excited and moving with my apples. And, although you may not think about it, you get me moving with yours. If I spend time teaching you, but I don’t see improvement, I don’t feel satisfied. Your duty as a swimmer on this team is to show me what you have learned. Don’t take my apple if you are going to take a bite or two and throw it away. Don’t depend on others swimming with you, thinking if everyone gives me an apple except you, I won’t notice that one is missing. We must work together to truly be a team. I give you 100 percent, you give me 100 percent. That’s fair, isn’t it? All of you need to understand. You motivate me to grow my apple tree, as much I motivate you to grow yours. I expect you to do the best that you can. Sometimes I may not be able to tell if you are really giving your all, or if you’re holding back a bit. But, I guarantee that you will know in your heart if you have given your best. If you have, only then will you truly be satisfied.

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