Sigmund Freud theorized that when it comes to satisfying our psychological and physical needs, we act in rather predictable ways by seeking to gain pleasure or avoid pain. This simple understanding of human psychology and behavior is summed up in his theory of the pleasure principle, and Freud’s original assertion that we consistently act in ways to seek pleasure or avoid pain still holds true today. Aside from gaining a better understanding of our own behaviors, the pleasure principle can be used in many other settings involving people, including the ways in which we lead and coach kids. When we learn how kids operate, only then can we provide the best, most efficient and safe ways to maximize human performance.
Excite — or scare — kids into improved performance?
When we examine the basic premise behind the pleasure principle, it is important to note how basic and fundamental the approach is to understanding human behavior. For example, when you ate breakfast today you might have done so because A.) you were excited to enjoy your favorite pancakes (gain pleasure!), or B.) you were starving and needed something quick on your way out the door so that you could avoid dealing with hunger issues (avoid pain). In fact, you can probably come up with many more examples where, in retrospect, you can now see that you chose to gain pleasure/avoid pain with many of your decisions from just the last day or two. Indeed, Freud was most certainly on to something!
When it comes to how we coach kids in youth sports, I often see the same methods used to get the most from their efforts. The “old-school” coach approach tends to scare kids into different behaviors, like when a coach threatens the team that they will run more sprints unless they correct a specific behavior. This approach “works” in the sense that most kids will try harder when faced with the looming prospect of more sprints that they don’t want to do, but is this the best way to motivate kids? Why scare and threaten kids when there are better, more effective ways to go?
Contrast the “avoid pain” approach to the other facet of the pleasure principle, specifically how humans will also improve motivation by “seeking pleasure” and working harder toward gaining things and/or privileges in the future. For example, a coach might motivate his team to work harder in practice in exchange for something the kids really want — like a future pizza party, or movie night. Drilling even deeper, really good coaches go beyond macro-prompts for the entire team (i.e. practice hard and we will take off practice early) and get to know each kid individually, including learning the things that each kid enjoys and wants for his or her future. Does this take a little extra time and effort from the coach? Of course it does, but think about the overall return on investment by coaching kids UP rather than scaring them into getting better.
Learning what makes each kid tick is invaluable as it applies to building relationships, improving self-confidence, and galvanizing resiliency when pursuing challenging goals and overcoming adversity. Coaches who take time to know the kids they coach soon find out that kids play sports for different reasons — for some it is to be the best athlete possible, while other kids play to simply be a part of a team that includes their friends. With this knowledge, coaches can employ specific motivational approaches depending on each kid’s values and reasons for competing. For example, competitive kids who want to be the best might be motivated by the excitement of beating the best teams and will work hard to do so, while less invested kids might work harder when reminded of being a great teammate to their friends and supporting the action on the field, even when they are not in the ball game. The end result is two motivated kids, but motivated to improve for very different reasons.
The saying “there’s more than one way to crack a nut” is a good way of thinking about the many ways in which we can use psychology to help us better motivate and lead kids to future success. While “avoiding pain” will prompt kids to take action, it is worth considering how you might witness the same (or greater) levels of motivation by exciting kids of the prospect of gaining pleasure by means of earning future things that they desire. Take time to learn about the kids you coach, including things that motivate them to work hard and achieve success!