PhD Coach’s Approach To Motivation

Joe Tauer, Head Men’s Basketball Coach at the University of St. Thomas, has a doctorate in psychology and teaches the subject as a tenured professor at the school. So it’s not surprising that he’s regularly asked how he uses that to motivates his players. What is unexpected, however, is his response.

“The short answer is, I don’t,” says Tauer, who became Head Coach at St. Thomas in 2010 after 11 years as an assistant there. “I say that half tongue-in-cheek, but a big part of my approach is to bring in players who are intrinsically motivated, which means they have a built-in desire to take part in an activity for its own sake. My assistants and I tell our players, ‘We’re not going to try to convince you every day to work hard. You either decide to work hard, and we will push you and help you improve, or we’re going to put our efforts into somebody who wants to get better.”

“That doesn’t mean we don’t talk about motivation,” he continues. “But if I have a bunch of players who are only externally motivated, we’re going to struggle, regardless of the degree I have.”

St. Thomas has obviously found those intrinsically motivated players. The team has posted a 98-19 record in Tauer’s four seasons as head coach, winning four conference titles, and reaching the NCAA Division III semifinals in 2013.

So what is the long answer to how he motivates his players? “One of the greatest motivators is hope,” he explains. “Whenever someone feels hopeful, they’re optimistic, energized, and inspired. That’s when you see people do things beyond what they’ve ever done before. With our team, we try to create a vision for what players can be, both individually and collectively, that will give each of them something to strive for.”

Tauer says his philosophy on building that vision comes down to two key team-wide concepts. “The first is, ‘Dare to be Great,’” he says. “Second, we emphasize sustained and consistent excellence, as expressed by the quote attributed to Aristotle, ‘Excellence, then is not an act, but a habit.’ Those two quotes provide a vision to our players of what we want for them every day—not only on the court, but also off the court and in their lives after they leave here.”

While establishing a shared vision is critical, Tauer says coaches also need to learn what makes each player tick. “Everybody marches to the beat of their own drum, and we have to know our players well enough to understand the beat they’re marching to,” he says. “We don’t have to agree with it. We don’t have to change it. But if we don’t understand it, we won’t know why they act the way they do.”

This is a challenge when each athlete may be motivated differently. “For example, in my first year as an assistant, I was handling the defense, and we had a talented player who never worked hard on that end of the floor,” Tauer says. “Every day I was on him, stopping practice to have him run sprints and holding him out of drills. After about two weeks, nothing had changed so I told him his effort wasn’t cutting it, and that I didn’t like getting on him every day and seeing him roll his eyes at me. He kept saying ‘I get it, Coach. I understand.’ And I said, ‘No, you don’t. Otherwise it wouldn’t be like this.’

“Finally he got frustrated and said, ‘I do get it, Coach. But what you don’t understand is that I’m lazy. I need you to yell at me and make me run sprints when I don’t play hard on defense.’ The rest of the year we had an understanding, and I didn’t feel bad about getting on him.”

Tauer explains there are three main areas of motivation: biological, psychological, and environmental. “All we have control over as coaches is the last one, and that’s only for a few hours a day,” he says. “So during practice, we have to model the behavior we want to see. If we talk about guys being good teammates, we need to ask ourselves, ‘How often do I stop practice to recognize the guy who made the extra pass, or took the charge, or dove on the floor to win a loose ball?’ Because if we reward them with praise, they’ll do more of it. If all we do is talk about our leading scorer, they will only want to score.”

While motivating in athletics can sometimes involve yelling and screaming, Tauer teaches his players it’s not that way in the real world. “The analogy I use is that most bosses aren’t going to yell and scream at their employees on a daily basis,” he says. “But they are going to expect you to do unbelievably good work. They’re going to expect you to be motivated because you recognize it’s the right thing—not because you’re scared or fearful.”

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