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opinion, Strength and Conditioning

About Carrot and Stickship

I just got to thinking…

I was at training on Monday afternoon with some young guys and spoke to one of their parents afterwards. While the class was clearing up we had a little chat and she joked “I can’t even get him to walk to the shops and here he is exhausted after training with you, how do you do it?”. Now this is not a blog about how to get kids to clean their rooms, this is a blog about motivation, rules, and getting people to train hard for you, but if you want advice on how to get your kid to clean their rooms, I think the solution is to have them live 60 years ago in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia, and even at that I doubt you’ll get them to do it.

Anyway, in response, I said something along the lines of “Ah y’know, a little carrot, a lot of stick”. That’s a pretty common saying of course and I’m sure she didn’t go home and write it down thinking how incredibly witty I was, (“A little carrot, a LOT of stick. Ha ha, that Barry guy should start a blog”) but it’s also nothing like what I do to get people to train or work hard in the gym. In fact, whenever I consider that saying, I always think you’re implicitly saying that you think of the person you’re trying to train as a donkey. It’s a pretty bizarre metaphor if you think about it, and pretty old fashioned. But there are people out there who may apply this literally. That’s not to say that they will bring a carrot and a stick to the gym one day, but that they will create a black and white set of rules of reward and punishment, right and wrong, do or don’t or face the consequences.

I’m sure it works, especially in very large groups such as armies, prison populations and so on, but when you’re dealing with a group of 16 year olds it’s a bit different, and ultimately I think people work hard for you because they want to, and because they trust you. They’re there because they want to be, and they work hard for you because they believe that you are doing what is best for them. I believe in people I suppose, and that given the right structures, the right attitudes from coaches, and the right environment (set by the coaches), you can motivate almost anyone to give you their maximum effort.

Case in point, I was in a gym one day and there was a woman on an exercise bike really grinding through a workout with her Personal Trainer beside her. She was struggling, and started to slow. The girl beside her just said “You can do this” and like a switch had been hit, she began to speed up again and finished. It’s a small example, but the trainer didn’t have to say “embrace the grind, max the envelope, pain is just weakness leaving the body” or any other stock phrases. She didn’t even raise her voice, she just spoke clearly. She had her client’s trust, she knew her limits, all she had to do was speak once and her client believed her and responded accordingly.

I’ve been yelled at, castigated, told I was shit, told I was awesome, told I was the best I’d ever been, told I was going to pot, told I was magnificent, and never believed any of it. The people telling me didn’t have my respect. I didn’t care, consciously or subconsciously, about their opinion. That doesn’t mean I hated them, or thought they were bad coaches, they just didn’t have my trust, or didn’t have my trust yet.

I’ve seen guys in my training sessions regard me with suspicion too, particularly with newer groups, and sometimes they give me less than 100% initially. I don’t shout, I don’t yell, I don’t roar, but I do set down some boundaries for the behaviours I will tolerate in the weight room, on the pitch, on the mats and so on, and then I go to work. 99 times out of 102, that guy comes around. He’s just less trusting of new faces than the others. I could give him “the stick” or offer him a “carrot” but I suspect that with a strong character like that, one day the stick will be used to beat me with, and the carrot will be held aloft as an example of what you get if you initially don’t respect your coaches. Behold, I did fuck all, and now I have a carrot from my coach. That last sentence was half Ben Hur and half Jay and Silent Bob, but I hope you catch my drift.

It may have been legendary American Football coach Vince Lombardi who said this, or I may have said it while watching a Football game and now those two thoughts are combined in my fractious memory, but it’s been said that “If you give players lots of rules, you just have more rules they can break”. I suppose I could Google that quote, but this isn’t a scholarly article this is my blog. If you want carefully researched work you have to pay me. Good coaches understand the importance of discipline, but also understood better than anyone that boys will be boys. Behaviours and ethics are instilled through culture, leading by example, and trust. Rules are just things written down with numbers beside them. Without accompanying behaviour, you have nothing but letters.

And ultimately, I believe you lead by example. You don’t have to do every rep they do, but they have to see someone who is motivated to do the coaching before they’re motivated to do the work. Enthusiasm is the most infectious disease in the world. I’ve found myself becoming interested in all sorts of obscure subjects just by watching videos on them made by enthusiastic people. That doesn’t mean you shout “Go Team!” and jump up and down when your guys do something right, it just means you approach your work with genuine love for it and people can’t help but follow along. It also doesn’t mean you have to be overly-expressive with your emotions. Think of the personal trainer with her quiet word in her client’s ear. A rare compliment spoken quietly is better than 20 shouted at the top of your lungs.

Well that’s me done. I’m off to be enthusiastic somewhere.

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