NBA Draft 2019: What is motivating the new age players?

As we prepare for 2019 NBA Draft, the buzz and excitement of an expected busy off-season ignited by player selections to make up NBA sides rosters next year shall reach new heights in a few hours. However, with the the media attention and public anticipation, how do these fresh-faced superstars stay grounded, focused and motivated as they shall prepare for their newest and biggest challenge of entering into the premier basketball competition and where do the role of coaches fit into these scenarios?

Let’s look at some of the comments made by involved players this week before comparing against the research; expected #1 draft pick, Duke’s Zion Williamson, dubbed the hottest draft pick since LeBron James said recently:

“I don’t play basketball for the money; it was the last thing I thought of when I was a little kid….When I was a little kid, I looked at my mom, stepdad and said, ‘I want to be an NBA player,’ just because I love to play the game of basketball like 24/7…..I’m going to still be playing the game I love. I feel like with the circle I have around me, they’ll keep it the same as it’s always been, just probably more people calling my name


After the excitement of Toronto Raptors victory and the most Canadian players ever in NBA Draft, Canadian basketballer Nickeil Alexander-Walker has been quoted saying:

When you get to this level, motivation comes from within. It shouldn’t really come from other people because if you need other people to motivate you at this point, you should probably choose another profession…..I’m trying to be as humble as possible because I know at any moment it can be taken from you. I’m just trying to enjoy it.

Ideas around “talent requires trauma” is supported by Ja Morant’s statement. The mid-major Murray State Racers’ player discussed how negative comments and emotions have driven him to be touted top 3 pick:

I really like the negative energy. The ‘he hasn’t played against nobody. He’s too small. He can’t shoot.’ I love, like, negative energy motivates me. It really doesn’t bother me because my dad was my first hater. So if I can take it from him, I can take it from anybody

So, with seemingly internal, external, positive and negative feelings fuelling player’s drive and motivation, how can top coaches such as Steve Kerr, Gregg Popovich and Doc Rivers motivate these new players entering the league? Can their influence or design an environment which enhances player’s focus to reach the lofty heights expected or build resilience to push through the first few years of finding their feet? Or is their drive solely internally driven, players answering their passions and intrinsic motivations?

Intrinsic motivation leads to greater persistence, improved performance and enhanced well-being in a physical setting as found in many forms of research such as Angela Duckworth’s research of grit whereby working towards singularly important goals being the hallmark of high achievers in every domain. While passion and intrinsic motivation stems from innate physiological need of competency and represents the prototype of self-determined behaviour, self-determined extrinsic motivators, which are extrinsic motivators which have been internally rationalised with oneself, become activities which are being carried out as are important and concordant to one’s values (Mageau, 2003); these types of motivations could be seen from Ja Morant’s statement. Self-determined forms of motivation also result in optimal behaviour, resulting in peak performance and persistence (perseverance for this example) (Deci and Ryan, 2008), important factors remembering deliberate practice can take supreme effort and concentration with top performers only able to complete between 3-5 hours per day, a timeline which may be foreign to newly professional athletes.

As Coaches Kerr, Popovich and Rivers most likely understand, the challenge of successful coaching is acknowledging social interactive dilemmas within individual and team goal setting and development, offering suitable scenarios and choices with all members’ involvement and collaboratively dealing with matters as opposed to eradicating them. Past research by Mageau and Vallerand regards the “actions of coaches as (possibly) the most critical motivational influences within sport setting”. Coaching should be recognised as a dynamic educational relationship, where the coach can satisfy player’s goals and development but both sides have an investment of will capital, where human initiative and intentionality are both dedicated to show commitment towards goals and relationships. Top NBA coaches could motivate these newly drafted modern day athletes by offering autonomy supportive practices and offering engagement and drive through understanding and supporting individual’s intrinsic motivations. Ultimately, high performance coaching environments need to adopt and offer players ingredients for genuine motivation; mastery, autonomy and purpose. Amorose supported that “the more athletes felt autonomous, competent and have sense of relatedness, the more reasons for participating were self-determined in future” (Amorose, 2007).

So in what ways or how can involved coaches find and mix these ingredients and push these players to elite levels? How should our coaches act and help influence or support these young athletes? The importance of offering autonomy, the capacity to decide for oneself and pursue a course of action in one's sporting or working life, and being autonomy supportive to our young players is key. These actions include acknowledging and providing choice within specific limits and rules, providing rationale for tasks limits and rules, inquiring and recognising other’s feelings, allowing opportunities to take initiatives and complete independent work, provide non-controlling feedback, avoid over control, controlling statements and tangible rewards and prevent ego involvement from taking place. This shall help start to offer the engagement, purpose and impact these emerging adults are desiring and searching for as they start to understand themselves and their position in sport and life in broad, existential terms.

In previous sport specific research, Pelletier found that changes to people’s perceptions of competence and self-determined motivators should increase intrinsic motivations and identification while decreasing introjection, external motivators and amotivation in athletes (Pelletier, 1995). Theories around self-determination such as Basic Psychological Needs Theory (BPNT) addresses the degree to which people’s behaviour in a domain is governed by self-determined motivators (Adie, 2010). The areas addressed as basic needs requiring fulfilment include competence, autonomy and relatedness. Vallerand and Mageau’s research has shown that intrinsic motivations and self-determined extrinsic motivators are necessary ingredients for athlete’s optimal function (Mageau, 2003). Deci and Ryan’s research investigated that intrinsic motivation is experienced as consequence of feeling competent and self-determined. Intrinsic motivation leads to greater persistence, improved performance and enhanced well-being in a physical setting.

Developing expert status requires interest and motivation within sport to increase along with proficiency of skills, which is inline with another popular sport in America, USA Hockey Ken Mantel’s mantra of “play, love and excel” meaning you must love the sport prior to mastering. Offering a playful, athlete-focused atmosphere with games as a significant portion of the practice environment, include activity-based games, skill-based games and game situational role-based games which encourage peer teaching opportunities and autonomy in playing practices, shall tick off many of the autonomy, relatedness and competency boxes. Collective and collaborative development shall ensure the newly introduced players are heavily involved in their own development and practice design while rising or being risen to the standards of NBA players and teams. This allows the head coaches to focus on the relationship building and testing elements; our role as coaches is to make players comfortable with being uncomfortable, help them grow and continually to think for themselves or make decisions as part of a group and act independent from coaches. We as coaches in highly dynamic sports such as basketball need to develop close and meaningful connections to enable us to offer accurate feedback and enthusiasm on the run. I believe we as coaches need to address our current fundamental purposes in the game; understanding the needs of players as individuals, ensure players basics skills are addressed and developed while expanding their imagination and motivation to succeed within the sport.

So again, how should our coaches act and help influence or support these young athletes at a critical stage of development and can we offer them what they want or need? Offer them exactly what we want in return; passion for learning and application, meaningful communications and relationships, support to choose and make autonomous decisions, following instinct while offering honest feedback on performance and support for a growth mindset; all things we must educate, support and train to others. This will allow our newly integrated players to look past media attention and public anticipation and focus on what’s important to them and the people closest to them.

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