What motivates athletes to excel?

By Jacob Grismer

The most disheartening experience in a team sport is sitting on the bench, debating whether to cheer for the team you’re not actively playing for. What’s the difference between bench warmers and our star athletes? And what can we learn about how star athletes succeeded in motivating themselves? 

One common trait noted by star players was the influence of friends. They were equally important as a source of enjoyment and deterrent against poor playing. Senior Carson Labensky, a football player with multiple Division I and II teams looking to recruit him, cites camaraderie as a key motivator. “It’s a good group of guys that I can lean on and have lifelong friendships with,” Labensky said. “I don’t want to let my best friends down or community down. I feel like Bellbrook football is a big part of the community.” 

Senior Grace Krane, captain of the volleyball team, shared this sentiment. “I don’t want to disappoint other people. It’s something that everyone individually tries to work towards,” Krane said.

Having strong connections with teammates is especially important to an athlete’s development. They can support each other and offer their advice to improve each other’s game, all while providing meaning and fun to players that want to immerse themselves in the sport. It’s everyone lifting each other up.

Learning and personal goals played a lesser role for the athletes. “That’s what we’ve been trying to do this year: to try to focus on helping others rather than getting in your own head,” Krane said.

Sometimes the athletes don’t even know what they’re learning until they’ve seen the difference. “Football teaches you hard work and discipline, and those are things you can carry for the rest of your life,” Labensky said.

Sometimes the goals are more specific like going to college, or just proving people wrong. “Tryouts were unfair to the new kids,” senior Keegan Heft, a hockey player, said. “I’ve been the top goalie for four years at my high school hockey league but I never got that spot in my other tryouts because of how biased they were towards players that didn’t have family in that hockey organization. People always underestimate me because I’m not 6-foot — I’m only like 5-foot-7 — and being taller helps goalies block more. But a coach even came up to me after a tryout and said I deserved the top spot that I didn’t get, so I left and found a team that saw my skill.”

Goals give players a target to work towards and makes them feel useful, no matter how small the goal is. Michael Jordan even once remarked that he found all the drive he needed to win a game came from a friend from another team not saying hi to him at a restaurant. So if you want to excel in your sport and know why and how, you’re already on your way there.

Internal and external expectations were another common motivator, not only from teammates but also from coaches. The expectations were especially high for Labensky partly because of his older brother’s stellar reputation in football. “[Coaches] expect a lot more out of you. Summer conditioning is amped up for sure, because the expectations are way higher in high school football,” Labensky said.

Krane also shared similar experiences being team captain because the team has a strong track record. She had to step in to lead an already high-achieving team.

Maybe the simplest reason found between players was fun and they all agreed winning was more fun. Living in the moment can help too, which Krane has been striving towards. “We’ve been trying to just have fun this season and make it about being together and having fun. So when I’m out there I don’t really think about anything that I’ve accomplished. It’s sort of like a blank slate, like I’m just starting fresh,” Krane said.

Ideally, we should enjoy our sport like Labensky since his least favorite part is the end of the season and “hanging up the pads.” 

If one has the work ethic and can surround themselves with external and internal motivators like Labensky’s reward of getting to see his best friends every day, or Heft’s desire to defy expectations, or Krane’s desire to meet the expectations of being a captain, then excellence will come.

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