Guest Column: What Motivates Our Coaches?

By Chris White, guest columnist, Seneca coach and SCTCCCA president. 

As Augusts go, this one has started out pretty weird for me.  On one side- I am really honored to be the new president of the SC Track and Cross Country Coaches Association, and to have the opportunity to work through that position to affect change in our sport. On the other side- this is my first August in a long time where I am not a head cross country coach.  Although I love cross country and the kids I coach, I love my two kids at home and it's time that I cut back on the time I spend away from them.  So as I said- it's a weird August because nothing seems normal, and I feel like I'm out of my niche and in this new, unfamiliar place.  

These two changes in my life got me thinking about motivation. Why do coaches coach?  Athletes - why do these coaches, all across the state and all across the country, commit so much of their time and their life to this endeavor?  I know why I do it, but as our runners prepare for their first big weekend of competition: think about your coach's motivation for their commitment to you, and how it relates to your commitment to running.  I had an athlete on one of my first cross country teams (when I was young and much dumber and short sighted than I am now) talk about the money I make for cross country.  Trying to be smart - I told that athlete that I made somewhere less than 50 cents per hour of my coaching time.  Without a beat, the student responded with "that's why you make practice so long." I didn't have a good response for him, and that translated to an athlete who didn't understand the purpose of what we did every day.

Obviously, we don't coach track and cross country for money because, frankly, there's not a whole lot of money to be made in it.  The average coaching supplement for any non-revenue sport at the high school level is not going to make or break a coach, and we all go in knowing that.  So I wanted to get a feel for the motivation for the coaches across the state to coach track and cross country.  I made up a quick survey that asked for the sports they coached, and then asked them to answer the question "why do you coach?"  I sent the survey to 40 coaches, and got 32 responses, which I was impressed by since it was still summer break.  The responses I got really made me proud to be in a position of leadership in an association of coaches for our state. 

Okay- I'm going to nerd out on you for a minute. In the field of Psychology, there are several theories of motivation. Before we look at your coaches' responses, let's look at two of these well-known theories:
  • Expectancy Theory uses the following equation to explain motivation:
Motivation = (Expectancy that effort will increase performance) x (Perception that performance will be rewarded) x (How important the reward is to you)
  • Reinforcement Theory says you complete tasks in order to receive positive or negative consequences

There are many other theories- you might read about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs in psychology class, but I am interested in Expectancy Theory and Reinforcement Theory.  They paint a really selfish view of motivation. Could it be true that your coaches coach you in order for some reward or to avoid punishment? The answer to that is a resounding "no!"

Based on the survey feedback, your coaches coach you for reasons that can be separated into three categories:
  1. Benefits To The Athlete: Coaches identify that helping student athletes attain certain benefits that come through participating in cross country and track motivates them to come to practice every day. These benefits include seeing the benefits of hard work, navigating an activity that will help kids be fit for life, building persistence, and building confidence.  Over 50% of the responding coaches said they coach to help athletes meet their goals and become the best version of themselves, citing that they loved "seeing an athlete improve in a way they didn't think they could." Another 20% of the coaches stated that they enjoy the character building piece of coaching, where students learn to "get back up" and learn to "believe in themselves."
  2. Giving Back To Sport: The second largest group of reasons why we coach were reasons that allow the coaches to give back to their sport. Coaches cited that the "love running, and want to pass that love on to young people." Over 20% of coaches stated that they got so many benefits from running when they were growing up, that they felt the need to "pass on from their own experiences with running."
  3. Comradery and Community: Although responses relating to this idea were varied, they all had a common theme of people. Coaches are people-people, and they love the community of cross country and track. Coaches stated that they love the community within and between teams- we've all been to a race where teams either cheer on competitors or hug after a great race. Coaches seem to love the "competitive spirit" between teams and between athletes on their own team. Many coaches said that they genuinely enjoy being around kids, and this gives them the opportunity to be around them and watch them grow.

Although the psychology textbooks often say that motivation is selfishly driven, your coaches seem to have a much different spin on their own motivation. The categories identified by your own coaches makes their motivation seemselfless more than selfish. Any rewards that come from the activities of your coaches go directly to the students, and very few rewards go to the coaches. Don't use that to feel bad for your coaches, in fact I'll tell you a secret: most of them don't want the attention! In all of the responses, there was very little reference to winning. That doesn't mean your coaches want to lose, I can tell you that is absolutely not the case, but the focus is on your growth as an athlete and a person.

So now - the big question. What motivates you to run and compete in track and cross country? What drags you to practice every day? When you're at the two mile mark and everything hurts, what drives you to keep going? If you can get a grasp on those questions, you can get a "bigger picture" perspective on what you do and it will become more meaningful. Then maybe you'll decide you want to share those life lessons with young people when you get older......

Chris White is in his 21st year coaching overall - all at Seneca.  Head girls track from 1999-2007, served as an assistant from 2008-2013 while I working on his PhD, head boys track from 2014-present, head cross country 1999-2006; 2009-2017.  He has served as the 3A VP for the SCTCCCA for the past two years, and is currently serving as president.  Goals for the sport are to develop an officials body for track and field to separate coaches from officiating in championship meets for track and XC, analyze and modify the qualifying process for track and field as needed, continue to request that indoor track and field be considered as a sport in S.C..