Understanding Underachievers

How do you handle those athletes who don’t have the confidence and competitiveness to climb to the top themselves? Here’s a step-by-step guide to motivating them.

By Keith Manos

Keith Manos is the former Athletic Director and a coach of two sports at Richmond Heights (Ohio) High School. His books include Wrestling Coach’s Survival Guide and Coach’s and Athletic Director’s Complete Book of Forms and Letters, both published by Prentice Hall (800-288-4745).

Athletic Management, 12.5, August/September 2000, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1205/ovounderachievers.htm

“I love to be the best, to have that feeling of dominating an opponent, of being a part of a championship team. After all, no one plays to lose.”
“I compete because it gives me self-accomplishment. I’m always pushing myself to be the best.”
“I think the experience of competing in sports will help me in the future. It’s fun and keeps me active.”
Do you recognize any underachievers here? Probably not. The above three athletes all seem self-motivated and eager to perform to their potential.
However, each athlete also has a very different reason for wanting to win. The first quote comes from a wrestler who needs victories or championships to justify his effort on the wrestling mat. The second athlete finds reward in simply improving herself; her achievement is measured in personal gains only. Finally, the third player’s gratification comes from a type of achievement that is almost social in nature—the fun is in the activity, not the outcome.
But what about those athletes who do not have such self-motivation? Those we often term “underachievers?” Some coaches take a “shape up or ship out” attitude: “If they’re not self-motivated, I don’t have a spot for them on my team.” But we all know that an awkward, shy freshman can sometimes turn into a senior leader in four short years.

Asking Questions
So, how do you motivate the underachiever? The first step is to find out who they are. Take a little time to analyze each of your players at the start of the season by asking these questions:
• What prompted this athlete to join the team?
• Why does he or she want to compete?
• How important to him or her is success?
You have to be a keen observer here, but the answers can reveal some significant distinctions between the overachievers and underachievers on your team.
Next, you can try evaluating each of your athletes by looking at 10 important qualities and grading the athletes in each (3 = very high; 2 = moderate; 1 = very low).
_ Enthusiasm: always hustling
_ Leadership: takes command in tough situations
_ Attentiveness: never needs directions repeated
_ Cheerfulness: easy to get along with
_ Punctuality: always on time for practice and games
_ Dependability: never needs reminders to complete tasks
_ Conditioning: endurance lasts an entire game
_ Skill level: easily learns and performs techniques of sport
_ Ability to focus: never distracted during games
_ Competitiveness: really enjoys competing
Athletes who score in the 24-30 range are probably competing near the top of their potential while those in the 14-18 range are achieving only 50 to 60 percent of their potential. In some instances, it might be useful to have the athletes take the test themselves (and add up their own scores) to help them recognize first-hand when they are competing below their potential.

Individual Goals
Once you’ve identified those athletes who need some extra motivation to find success, the next step is to nurture them in an individual way. The key is to emphasize individual goals and de-emphasize the numbers on the scoreboard.
Achievement is truly in the eye of the beholder, and coaches need to define achievement in as many ways as they have athletes. For example:
• reward effort, not success
• emphasize ability, not outcomes
• ensure the athletes see victory as theirs (or the team’s), not the coach’s
• share losses with the athletes
• respect the performance of all athletes.
If coaches can do this, they can identify achievement in all athletes and build on that. Winning should never be a repeated goal. Instead, use individual performance skills as goals because they relate more to the athlete’s self-motivation and personal achievement.
“My accomplishment was just making it through the season,” says one varsity wrestler who was winless during his sophomore season. A baseball player adds: “I achieved success by setting personal goals for myself and knowing I reached them.”
A winning, competitive attitude surfaces when the coach can give each athlete a challenging yet realistic incentive to practice hard and compete aggressively. New challenges are then offered each time a task has been completed.

Always Injured
For some underachievers, an injury can trigger a subconscious strategy for avoiding failure. If an athlete continually claims he or she is injured, and recovery is always prolonged, it may be a signal that the competition is more threatening than the injury itself. This is the athlete who exaggerates a limp or grimaces at the slightest touch. Some may try to become injured since only an injury can provide them some of the psychological nurturing they cannot receive elsewhere. In this way, the athlete gets sympathy, relief from the competition, and possibly a heroic stature in the eyes of peers.
All of these actions are often intended to cover up a lack of confidence. In addition, athletes could be trying to punish themselves for failing to reach a goal or live up to expectations. They are simply afraid to fail.
The coach needs to understand both the athlete’s fear of losing in competition and his or her feelings of inferiority. Effective strategies are to keep this athlete at practice to train healthy body parts and build confidence. (“You’re showing some real strength there, just keep doing your best.”) The athlete has to be convinced he or she can still be a “winner” no matter what the scoreboard indicates after the competition.
Also, do not reprimand any athlete for faking an injury. In this situation, the athlete is sending an obvious signal that there is a more serious problem below the surface—often a personal one that has nothing to do with you, the team, or the sport. Communication and understanding are the keys to straightening out this type of problem and redirecting the athlete’s attitude toward having a successful season.
Overall, coaches need to be prepared to recognize the underachiever’s anxieties about losing. When coaches put kids first and believe in all athletes regardless of their talent or skill, they remove much of the apprehension athletes may feel about competing. In this way, the underachiever may possibly become an overachiever who ignores complaints, enjoys competing, and becomes self-motivated.

Fifteen Strategies
Coaching the underachieving athlete requires a deft approach to avoid bruising his or her feelings. Here are 15 strategies to get positive results:
1. Get to know athletes personally, but do not violate their privacy.
2. Be sure each athlete knows his or her value to the team.
3. Avoid false compliments.
4. Use their first names in practice.
5. Give them simple responsibilities.
6. Use terms like “Our team” and “We’re on track.”
7. Maintain a positive attitude.
8. Continually highlight positive accomplishments (positive reinforcement) through comments during practice and contests.
9. Regularly discuss the team’s goals.
10. Offer constructive feedback on their performances.
11. Always consider their psychological and emotional needs.
12. Keep tension to a minimum, and practice relaxation techniques with the team.
13. Be firm, but never harsh or domineering.
14. Keep kids focused on what they still can accomplish, not what they failed to do before.
15. Teach kids how to enjoy competitions.