Beth Holland

Food for thought…

Thinking of Neil

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I’ve started this post a few times. Ironically, I’ve lacked the motivation to finish it until now. Lately, the issue of how to instill intrinsic motivation in teens has come to the surface – again. I had parent conferences and report cards at school. We discussed effort. One student was described by a colleague as being especially lethargic and unmotivated a good deal of the time these days. Of course, there was no discussion of how to instill any motivation back into this student. Similarly, coaching sailing, I’ve been struggling with the lack of talent and motivation in some of my sailors. In fact, this has bothered me more than anything in the classroom.

The first thing to know about high school sailing, in New England, in the spring, is that it’s really cold. The air is cold. The water is cold. There are inherent safety risks. Given that, when you take a kid with little experience into that environment, it can be terrifying if they don’t have any basic skills. This year has been different, and not just because of lack of ability, but because of the dearth of motivation. I’ve always felt that I can create skill, that I can take any beginner with a shred of talent and turn them into a varsity sailor, but I don’t know how to make motivation.

My friend Roy, who is also the head coach, has taken a sort of passive-aggressive stance with my frustration in working with these bottom boats. I think he’s trying to coach me into being a better coach. Last week, he sent me this article from the New York Times. This quote got me thinking.

Moreover, the very process of acquiring that expertise requires tremendous drive and determination. But where does that exceptional motivation and energy come from? Is it learned or inherited — or another combination of nature and nurture?

Isn’t that the big question? Where does motivation come from and how can you convert drive into skill? These are the questions that got me thinking about Neil. Yesterday, on my way to go pick up the team for a long practice, his story came to mind. In the spring of ’98, Neil was a new junior on the team. At the start of his first practice, he came careening through the fleet, flipping boats. One year later, Neil had progressed from the bottom of the team to the top. During that initial spring, he did not exude talent or give cause to make anyone believe that he could progress so quickly. When he started his senior year, he shocked everyone.

Neil had that drive and it evolved into talent. He did everything that we asked of him. He was truly coachable. Which brings be back to my current group, because as I look at them, I wonder if there is a Neil among them. Can they learn to be coached? Can anyone?

Will Richardson has been blogging lately about the availability of DIY learning opportunities, and the fact that as teachers we also need to be learners. Just as I wonder about my sailors, and whether or not they have the talent or motivation to compete, aren’t we asking the same thing of our students, our teachers, and our colleagues. In other words, are they coachable too?

According to David Shenk, author of “The Genius in All of Us”, talent is a process rather than something that people do or don’t possess. But what about motivation? Daniel Pink has a relatively new book out called, Drive. He claims to leverage research in order to explain what motivates people. I haven’t read the book, but based on various interviews and reviews, I gather that it has to do with freedom – if you can choose the area in which you want to succeed, then you are more likely to be motivated. So, then, if talent can be learned, and drive comes from just having a choice, why can’t all of my sailors and students be rock-stars? What makes some kids, and adults, more coachable than others? Based solely on my own personal observations and experiences, I think that coachable people have a few common traits:

  • They listen to, and internalize, instruction.
  • They immediately apply what they have learned, regardless of success.
  • They proactively practice basic concepts and skills.
  • They exhibit a drive for success, and define success as excellence in their pursuit.

From what I saw yesterday with my kids, maybe I do have a Neil. But if I don’t, I wonder who else is there….

Author: brholland

EdD Student, Writer, Speaker, Consultant

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