Upgrade Your Motivational Skills with Storytelling

Personable ice hockey players Jason Yee

The best coach I ever had, had me on the edge of my seat every meeting. He had me rethinking my approach to the game. He had me captured and engaged every intermission. I felt uplifted when I needed to feel uplifted. I felt a little scared when I needed to feel a little scared. And I felt motivated to work together with my teammates to do what it took to win tight games. I trusted my coach and I trusted his process. So did my teammates. And we won lot’s of games due to this.

As a coach, wouldn’t it be nice if you knew you could get this from all your players? Here’s how…

Coaching can mostly be summed up as: know what your athletes should do and then get your athletes to do what you want them to do.

The technical side of coaching is the knowing. The technical side of coaching involves forechecks, power plays, penalty kills, and telling your players what they did right and wrong.

Being a very technical person myself, I’ve always valued the technical side of coaching. Due to my playing career, my coaching is limited to the off-season, where I’ve passionately coached skating, skill development as well as strength and conditioning. This made me great at the technical stuff. Two years ago, I debuted coaching a team: I coached a spring team for a handful of practices and one tournament.

I dove headfirst into the technical. I drew up every play for every situation. I was certain that my systems were innovative and best suited for the level I was coaching. I did a great job instructing the systems in practice, and they began to execute the systems well. I started to increase pressure on them in practice…they could still execute the systems. This was going well, I thought.

Then we got to the tournament, and everything fell apart. It became extremely obvious to me (this time as a coach), how different practice was than the randomness of a game. My pre-game and intermission speeches included many key areas where they needed to improve their systems and execution. I diligently gave feedback to each player on the bench based on what they did well and what needed improvement. Remember, I’ve thoroughly researched how to optimally provide feedback, and give cues to get the players to do what I want. Other than an overload of information, I was doing a textbook job.

Then something shifted in me. I remembered my coach. I remembered how I felt sitting in the dressing room hearing a story from him, and how it related to my play that day. I remembered how the opponents were our enemies because he vilified them in some way. I remembered the metaphors he used to describe how we should act. Then it clicked for me: my pre-game and intermission talks shifted from the purely technical, to technical with storytelling elements. Then I got better at weaving the technical into the storytelling. And then, my team started gathering momentum, playing as a unit. We went undefeated all tournament until the finals, where we lost 3-1 to a team that had us highly outgunned. I was proud of the team, and I was pleased with my own changes as a coach.

I tell this story to highlight a few lessons that I will take forward, and that I think coaches should consider.

It does matter what you know. But how you communicate it matters even more. What I experienced as a player, and then as a coach, was that weaving the technical elements of hockey into a story improved the motivation of the individuals on the team, improved the trust in the coach, and improved the passion of the team.

Storytelling serves to create a narrative. As humans, we are naturally drawn to a compelling narrative. Especially when we feel we are a part of it. Think about Apple selling iPhones and iPads. They sold the idea, the story, that their users are unique, innovative and think outside the box. The story was so compelling that it seems that half the world uses Apple’s phones, tablets, and computers. Apple created a narrative, a story, and we as humans are so damn keen to be a part of it.

The same is true in sports and in life. The coach or leader who can distill the technical, and lace it into a story, is going to hold the attention of the group and motivate the group. In fact, research in the Journal of Educational Technology & Society shows that introducing a storytelling element to digital learning material increases learning motivation, problem-solving competence, and learning achievement.

The story serves as a common narrative. Something that allows the team to form their own identity. Merely glossing over metaphors isn’t good enough (“let’s get all hands on deck…like a ship…[done]”). Using powerful, teamwork oriented metaphors, and deeply lacing into the metaphor and story exactly how the technical elements of the game relate to the story is much more effective. One effective story that stood out to me was that offensive in-zone possession was like a boxer jabbing. Even if we didn’t score right away, the possession served to annoy and fatigue our opponent. It disrupted their momentum. And then, when they let their guard down, BOOM! RIGHT HOOK, KNOCK OUT PUNCH, GOAL! Within that story was lessons of: forecheck to get possession…keep possession in the offensive zone…being proud of our puck possession in zone, it’s a team identity…being patient and waiting for our chance…everyone who had in-zone possession was contributing to the team effort, not just the scorer. But not only did it communicate all of that, it also had me salivating, ready to get out on the ice to embody the predatory boxer.

So for stories to be effective in coaching, they should: 

  • Involve all members of the team
  • Create a positive team identity
  • Communicate team values
  • Distill important technical elements of gameplay

The power of storytelling can also easily turn against you. As soon as your internal narrative, as a coach, turns negative, so too does your external narrative to your players. Using a negative story will also have power over your players, which will have major negative emotional and motivational impacts. A player who feels alienated from or by the narrative is going to be much less effective. As a coach, be aware if you start at positive storytelling, then shift to negative storytelling, then shift to being negatively critical of technical elements of a player’s game. In almost every circumstance, you can find a motivational and positive story to communicate the changes you want to see in a player’s game. Choosing to use positive storytelling will inherently get more out of the player you are wanted to help than negative storytelling or being negatively critical.

As a coach, I’m hoping that you consider your storytelling as another skill to develop. As a player, and a new coach, I have found it to be effective in bringing a team together, and sending them in the right direction. Much like bench management, giving players feedback, and adjusting your forecheck, storytelling is a skill. It is a more effective way of communicating to your players what you want done while fostering a team identity and enhancing motivation. Like I said at the start: coaching is about knowing what your players should do, and then getting them to do it. Story telling is an upgraded way of getting them to do what you want them to do.

Checkout more from Jason Yee at

train2point0.wordpress.com

Hi, I’m Jason.

I’ve stood there in front of a group of kneeling players, just wondering, “what the hell are they thinking right now?”. I’m thinking, “I just talked for 5 minutes. I impressed myself with all the things I just said, but why did Johnson just yawn, and why is Smitty looking over there?” Should I yell? Make them skate over and back to wake them up? Kick them off the ice?

I have always enjoyed coaching. I love being a coach, but at the same time I’m also a player. I’m not a player-coach in some obscure league you’ve never heard of. I coach in the spring and summer, and play at an elite level in the winter. I realized quickly that being a "coaching expert” backed with all sort of psychological theory and high level coaching information was just not quite what they players wanted. I’d have the best systems for the players, the intelligent psychological theory, but was still missing ways to connect.

Now imagine you show up to a game. Every single player is attentive and ready to put it on the line for you. Your team executes its systems and gameplan that day to a tee. If you deal with parents, they know their boundaries and are supportive and helpful. You win the game, but you’re happy because you won it your way, playing your game.

I PLAYED in those games for coaches who did a few simple things. And once I thought back to how I felt as a player, I learned how to COACH those games. I want to share what I learned as a still active player and coach with other coaches who want more wins, more development, and to feel like they are connecting with their players. I talk to the players too and put together articles outlining exactly how to give them what they WANT, but still teaching them what they NEED.

Feeling a connection and that you’re making a difference is important to coaches. I want to share my experience walking the line between the playing and coaching. If you’re looking to round out your skills, this series is for you. And if you want more uncommon insight, check out my website at www.train2point0.com where I have advice for smart parents and players looking to get better, faster.