Friday, June 15, 2012

Go-fer Class, Free Time and Intrinsic Motivation

Many, many years ago while a graduate student I studied everything I could get my hands on about how to motivate children. Of course, I found that intrinsic motivation is preferred head and shoulders over extrinsic motivation.  Therefore, I set out to develop a love of gymnastics in my students that they would never loose. My goal was to ensure that I was providing activities that were fun, that the gymnasts wanted to do because of the thrill of the activity itself. I avoided an overuse of extrinsic rewards and followed any other advice I had picked up in the many hours of library searches. The members of the boy’s team I was coaching at that time were having a great time in the gym and were excelling in competition. So, I assumed I was doing the right thing for them. But, I wondered how I could be sure of that. How could I find out if they were intrinsically motivated or if something else was contributing to their success and motivation? I decided to give them some free time in the gym and see what they did with it. After some safety guidelines were established, I allowed each of the boys to choose what they wanted to do with about a half an hour of their practice time. I watched, spotted skills when they asked, but didn't participate in the choices concerning what they would do. This created such a rewarding experience for me as a coach that I have used the same tool many times over the years. Left to choose what to do with their time, those boys choose similar activities to what we had been training. Of course, their choices leaned a little more toward the new skills we had been working rather than basics, but their preparation turns for those new skills were very logical and responsible choices. Now, you need to know that this group of boys had a regular game of pit football as a pre-warm up, competed doubles off rings before they even dreamed of doing a handstand on those same rings, learned doubles off high bar before learning giants, liked to play music too loud (1982, Eye of the Tiger) and would beg to do snap-down double backs off a mini-trampoline into a pit. Yes, they (or should I say "we") liked to push the envelope. My little experiment with free time, although very non-scientific, showed me that they loved what we were doing in the gym. Of the six boys in that group, three stayed in the sport through college.

Two weeks ago I was reminded of the "free-time tool", it's purpose and the importance of the intrinsic motivation cornerstone of our core philosophy. We had started our summer workouts struggling with basic techniques, causing slow progress and therefore boring practices. Every summer for the last three years I have offered an additional class for my level seven's and up. It's called the Go-fer class and gives the girls opportunities to work on skills and progressions for skills a few levels ahead of their expected level for the upcoming season, to go-fer harder skills. As in the past, the girls loved it. Several level seven's from the previous season did front fulls onto mats in the pit, Tkachev drills, etc. They were fired up. A few days later, I was talking to Jen, who coaches floor and beam. We were discussing our struggles getting the girls through their basic skills with enough time left in the rotation to work new skills. Solid basics, proper technique and good form are keys to our success and we weren't going to lower our standards, but we were boring the girls and they weren't motivated to perform those basic skills to our standards. I pulled the free time tool out of the old tool box.  We used it and it brought the team back to life.  And, guess what? The basic skills improved and are getting back to the standards we expect. The lesson I learned (it's not the first time I've learned this) is that a coach is asking for trouble when he takes the intrinsically motivating activities away from his athletes. As coaches we should create environments and opportunities to enhance our athlete’s intrinsic motivation. We should do what we can to grow their love of the sport, and then let them do what they love.