Why is Play a Motivator?

When you reflect on the root of your love for hockey or any sport it will bring you down a magical road. For me, it’s playing in the living room with my grandmother chanting “Go Leafs Go”, mini-sticks in hotel hallways, and playing outdoors under the night sky and lights in outdoor rinks in Etobicoke, Ontario, Canada.

So what is it about “play”, that is so motivating and beneficial to growth? Let’s look at the self-determination theory to help us understand. The SDT is a theory of motivation that suggests humans require three basic needs to be motivated:

  • Autonomy: You have choice. It is a self-directed activity that allows you the space to find your own path, make decisions, solve problems, fail, and try again.
  • Relatedness: You feel connected to the people and the purpose of the activity and organization. You sense you are part of something bigger than yourself – a cause that is fulfilling. You are with people you respect and your contribution to the team is valued.
  • Competence: You can see your improvement through effort. You recognize that by putting in the work you have the ability to grow and develop as a person. There is also opportunity to advance beyond your current role.

Play is easy to see in children. That’s all they want to do and they are very good at it. When playing with others, they have the autonomy to choose what to play and also the rules. They are working with others to make these decisions and then solve problems as they arise.

When participating in unstructured play there are points of conflict. When playing any form of hockey, a common dispute is contesting whether it was good goal or if a penalty has been committed. These social interactions and conflict resolution is building teamwork and connection to others, achieving relatedness.

Inevitably, as you play, you start to get better. You also see the older kids and begin to find ways to mimic them and see the strides you are making which leads to the condition of competence.

Motivation is about the environment you create, not a speech you give. If you consider the SDT it can help you find ways to maximize the joy and benefits of “play” in your program. How you do that is predicated on the uniqueness of your team and personality as a leader.

There are some things you should NOT do that are consistent across all hockey teams:

  • Don’t give them the answers
  • Don’t criticize when someone is creative and fails
  • Don’t forget to say hello and smile
  • Don’t label players
  • Don’t yell from the bench like you have a remote controller

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I had an amazing conversation with Laura Bellamy, Associate Head Coach of the University of Minnesota Duluth women’s hockey team about creating an environment to motivate athletes. We talk a lot about play as well as other powerful tools to get the most out of your players. Check it out:

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