A loss in interest could be a natural progression
Lance Smith explains how the coach should respond when an athlete loses interest
All too frequently athletes stress out because they did not know how to say "enough". Usually, it was because they did not want to hurt the coach's feelings. Coaches can also feel stress, often because they felt an athlete's lack of interest was personal - somehow, they felt they were failing as a coach.
If an athlete is not enjoying the sport they should not be in it. Most will agree this is a fair comment. If we agree that it is the athlete who comes first and is the reason for the coach being there, we must also agree that the coach has a responsibility to an athlete when interest wanes.
Lack of interest may be short term, it may be permanent, it may apply only to certain events ("I hate hilly races"), to specific periods (exam time), or signify a loss of confidence, mental staleness or performance anxiety. Or it may mean they have had enough of running and want to try something else.
This is when a coach must understand
To start with, do not let the athletes get down on themselves if interest goes. It might only be temporary and if not, do not expect them to carry on just pleasing others or in fear of hurting someone's feeling. If passion for the sport is no more, accept it and help the athlete move on. And let us face it, not everyone holds a lifetime interest in a sport or subject. Some do, but not all - look at all the train sets, stamp albums, roller skates, golf clubs and Harry Potter books hiding away in cupboards because interest was supplanted by something else. And do not worry about the so-called "burn out". If there is love for the sport they will not burn out. A loss of interest could be a natural progression. No one ever called losing interest in collecting stamps a "burn out".
More often lack of motivation is short-term and the most frequent causes are staleness and pressure, or more frequently a combination of the two. The pressures of training and racing can and often do build up until the athlete becomes stale. This is the mental equivalent of overtraining. Physical fatigue is fixed by easing back or resting and the same goes for mental fatigue. The brain says "enough".
Imagine a lift with a limit of 10 passengers. If an 11th person gets in the lift will not work. The brain is like the lift, stress is the passengers. The brain can handle a certain number of stresses, add another and there is a shut down that can vary from a loss of interest to mood changes (temper outbursts) to withdrawal and denial (how many times have we ignored something bad hoping it will go away - it never does of course). Exams can add another passenger to the lift. Expectations, loss of confidence, drop in form, an argument with boyfriend/girlfriend, car breaking down; needing money and hundreds of other pressures can add more passengers.
Often the one stress too many is the stress of competition. Adding the stress of a race or commitment to training can put one too many passengers in the lift. So the brain gets overloaded. In this situation the solution is simple. Do not race. Ease off. Let enthusiasm return. Or suggest the athlete races without expectations. If motivation does not return the athlete needs to move onto other interests, as mentioned at the beginning.
The most common pressure is the pressure athletes put on themselves - the fear of failing. It happens to everyone. But this is one stress that must be faced and not avoided unless it starts to affect other aspects of life such as exams or relationships. If the fear of losing starts to dominate an athlete's running they must learn to focus on what they can control, which is running the best they can and not let exterior factors (i.e. the rest of the field) dominate their thoughts.
When lack of self-confidence or performance anxiety is a race-day concern, the athlete should be encouraged to have fun rather than go for a performance. - "get out there and enjoy it" may be a better pre-race last word than "give it everything" or a discussion on tactics. A reminder to "keep concentrating, remember the tactics we worked out" is preferable to "you can win this". And have them take on board these words by noted NBA coach Pat Riley from his book "The Winner Within". (G.P. Putman's Sons, 1993):
"Losing is just as much a part of life as winning. It is critical to realise that failure is as much a part of the picture as success. No matter how hard you compete, you have to absorb losses. So, you do absorb them, with grace and determination to learn whatever they might teach. But never be tempted to embrace them. Be angry. Be upset. Be determined to come back stronger next time."
So, if motivation decreases, do not let it worry you or the athlete (that only adds another stress to the list). A little understanding and consideration will have an athlete leaving the sport feeling positive about it and may well return. Leave with guilt feelings or with a sour taste in the mouth because the coach lacked understanding, applied pressure and the athlete will never return.
The only time interest-loss becomes a concern is when it is an excuse to not push oneself when there is no overload. That is just being lazy, and lazy athletes never make good athletes.
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About the Author
Lance Smith is a practising coach with Athletics Southland in New Zealand with coaching qualifications in sprints, track endurance, road and cross country, steeplechase and high jump and has coached athletes to national championship medals in all the above events. He is also an active "master" athlete and takes part in harriers, track events and jumps.