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They Don’t Want It Badly Enough

In my late 20s, I had the good fortune to meet the legendary coach John Wooden at an event in Los Angeles. As I knelt beside his wheelchair to speak with him, I remember how his sparkling blue eyes radiated a light that had already begun to leave his frail and bony frame. He passed a few months later, and I remember finding comfort in a verse from Macklemore’s “Glorious”,

“I heard you die twice; once when they bury you in the grave, and the second time is the last time that somebody mentions your name.”

Given the tremendous impact Coach Wooden had on the world, I knew he would “live” a very long time – what I didn’t know is that a few years down the road I would learn more about Coach Wooden through his friend and fellow Bruin, Sue Enquist.

Affectionately referred to as “Papa,” Sue has given me an education on Coach Wooden through sharing stories of their days together at UCLA. One that comes to light often is how Papa used to tell her, “You can’t pass moral judgment if they don’t love it as you do.”

When it comes to the commitment level of our student-athletes, I’ve lost count of the times coaches have told me, “they just don’t want it bad enough.” The challenge, however, is the various implications inherent in this judgment:

  1. The idea that commitment is binary. For example, “You’re either in, or you’re out.”
  2. The idea that desire determines ability. For example, “If they just wanted it more, they could make it happen.”
  3. The idea that a commitment level different from/less than our own makes an individual less valuable/good. For example, “I can’t want it for them. If they don’t care, why should I?”

When we believe that commitment is binary, equate desire with ability, and ascribe value based on the level of commitment, we do not set ourselves (or our student-athletes) up for success.

Let’s explore the idea that commitment is binary. A summary of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s levels of commitment, as derived from the book Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time by Hubert Dreyfus, illustrates that commitment has several levels:

  • Level 1: “I will continue to do it as long as I like or enjoy it.” (I’ll play this sport as long as it’s fun).
  • Level 2: “I will continue to do it as long as I don’t have to give up anything else that I like or enjoy.” (I’ll play this sport as long as its fun and playing the sport doesn’t mean sacrificing the other things I enjoy).
  • Level 3: “I am willing to give up something I like or enjoy to have this.” (I’m willing to give up something I enjoy in order to keep playing this sport).
  • Level 4: “World-defining commitment” – when you can see how your life to this point led you here, and how your life from here forward will be different because of it. (All those years of practice have given me the opportunity to be part of a program where I can achieve the highest level of success in my sport).

Understanding a student-athlete’s level of commitment allows us to appropriately set our expectations. As coaches, we know we need Level 3 and 4 commitment to achieve team success, so how do we work with student-athletes who are at a Level 1 or 2? [If you’re thinking, “Cut them” or “Give them a transfer form,” I hear you, and let’s explore some possible conversations first].

Questions for Commitment Conversations:

  • “What is the difference, for you, between liking something and being committed to something?”
  • Based upon their answers, you can then follow up with a version of “What does that look like?” to explore the specific behaviors of someone who likes their sport, versus someone who is committed to their sport.
  • Based upon those answers, you can take the conversation in a variety of directions…
  • “Do the behaviors you just cited for someone who is committed match your behaviors?”
  • “In what way would it benefit you to change your current behavior to demonstrate an increased commitment to your sport/our team?”
  • “What could get in the way of your ability to consistently behave in a way that demonstrates a high level of commitment?”
  • “What may you have to reduce or give up to more fully commit to this team?” (And “Are you willing/prepared to make that sacrifice?”)
  • “How do you/we stand to benefit from your increased level of commitment?”
  • “How can I support what you’ve said you’re committed to doing in service of our team?”

Let’s explore the idea of equating desire with ability. The relationship between commitment and competence is complicated at best. Often, conversations about commitment reveal that an individual wants to do something, but they don’t feel they have the skill or ability to do it well, so they avoid trying or committing more fully for fear of failure, judgment, embarrassment, etc.

Questions for Commitment Conversations Related to Competence:

  • “Talk to me about your ideal level of performance… How good/skilled do you want to be?” (I recommend starting here because if an individual doesn’t desire to improve their skill level, then that warrants a different conversation).
  • “What do you think it will take to achieve that level of performance?”
  • “Which skill areas will you need to develop in order to perform at the level you desire?”
  • “How do you plan to improve your skills in those areas?”
  • “What could realistically get in the way of your improvement?”
  • “How can I best support your development and ability to improve?”

Lastly, let’s explore the idea of ascribing value to an individual based on their level of commitment. It is easy – so very easy – to, in the words of Papa Wooden, “pass moral judgment” on others when we feel they are not as committed as we are. The problem becomes that when we stand in judgment, we erect a barrier to relationship and to progress. The solution lies in replacing judgment with curiosity. What’s going on that prevents an individual from committing at a level 3 or 4? What if their lack of commitment has less to do with skill and more to do with structure? When it comes to assessing commitment, we often miss an opportunity to curiously explore the various structures in an individual’s environment.

Questions to Ask Ourselves for Commitment Conversations Related to Structure:

  • “What kind of environment am I creating at practice/within our program?”
  • “Does the environment I’m creating include the essential motivational elements of autonomy, competence, and relatedness?”
  • “Does the way I structure practice create a space that is safe and supportive for my athletes to try new things and to fail?”
  • “How does an individual’s home structure or social structure support or prevent them from being more fully committed to their sport?” (For example, a student-athlete living at home who is providing childcare for their younger siblings so their parents can work does not have the freedom of structure to practice at a level that supports their skill development).
  • “What does a structure of support look like when my student-athlete experiences a setback or breakdown?” (If support structure does not exist, it is virtually impossible for a Level 3 or 4 commitment to occur).

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably wondering, “Okay, Betsy, but what if after exploring the questions above an individual is still at a Level 1 or 2?”

We cannot force or bribe or even inspire an individual to commit to a greater degree than they are willing to or prepared to. An individual who remains at a 1 or 2 when the team needs a 3 or 4 to move forward, I am now going to have a conversation focused on their options. The important elements here are that I acknowledge their commitment and choices without judgment, and illustrate that I want what’s best for them and that what’s best for them is no longer in alignment with what’s best for our team. I will ask if their time could be better spent in pursuits outside the program and if they would like to make that choice. I will tell them that if they choose to stay and also choose to remain at their current level of commitment, I support that decision so long as they understand that their role will be greatly reduced and/or possibly eliminated out of my responsibility to continue moving the team forward. (In my experience, student-athletes often elect to make their own choice and opt out at this point).

Thanks for reading, and I hope this offers a broader perspective on how to think about and work with commitment.


Meet Betsy Butterick

Betsy Butterick is a coach and communication specialist working with individuals ready to improve and teams of all kinds – from the locker room to the boardroom.

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