How to Motivate Athletes and Better Manage Their Personalities

How to Motivate Athletes and
Better Manage Their Personalities

As coaches we tend to follow a common developmental evolution. Most tend to start out wanting some skill focused drills. Then you realise you have only been drilling and not teaching. There is a difference. You see you were not casting a critical eye and providing athletes with feedback on skill execution, so you start to do so. Then you do a course or become an assistant and acquire more knowledge about team offence and defence.  Now your focus becomes Xs and Os. You move from junior club coach to higher levels (rep, state or adult) and then you have an epiphany and realise you are not coaching basketball at all, you are managing people and their personalities. So the last evolutionary step in coaching seems to be people skills. The reality is, this should be the first thing you need to learn when becoming a coach. Before sharing with you how to motivate athletes and better manage their personalities, I want to tell you a little about an adverse coaching experience which drove me to seek to better understand my athletes.

My Experience (or lack thereof)

After coaching for over 27 years at various levels, I recognised a failing in my coaching abilities. I had landed in an environment where I had to rebuild a team. Every other year prior I had always inherited teams where core groups of players had been together with only a couple athletes coming in for a new season. So entering a new program with only two returning players on roster, I started player recruitment. Having never been in this situation before I sought skilled players to fill spots needed on roster.

I sat back and looked at the team list once completed. Three players had professional experience, some were veterans and some rookies. I believed they could compete and on paper they appeared to be a team to contend with. When I brought the team together things looked good early. Players were playing together in the preseason, moving the ball and competing for each other. Then my import arrived.

The very first preseason game the import entered, I noticed a significant shift. The 17 year old Rookie who had led the scoring in my team in our 3 previous preseason games, was no longer receiving the ball within structure. I hoped time would correct this. It did not. As we progressed into the season I started to notice my shooting guard and import were looking other athletes off when they were open. Now I had a situation where my players were no longer on the same page.

The season progressed and trying to manage the group had my head in a spin. I could not deal with this. All my other teams had always played well together. During and after the season I focused my efforts on trying to understand where I went wrong in the recruitment process as they were all skilled likeable people.

Pecking Orders

Mid season I went searching for answers as to why I could not get athletes on the same page, when previously I had had no issues. I stumbled across an article about the Miami Heat. When Lebron joined the team, the article questioned and tried to determine who would be “The Man” in Miami given the 3 superstars Lebron, Bosh and Wade were all considered “Alpha” males. When I read the word “pecking order” in the article, it drew my attention to chickens. It led me to seek out an article explaining how chickens have pecking orders in the flock and each chicken knows where it stands in relation to the next. When you throw another dominant chicken in the coop, chickens start to “Peck” and “Bully” each other to re-establish order. I discovered humans follow a similar hierarchical process. I then realised, being a new team, the group had no established pecking order so the more dominant athletes were all engaged in establishing superiority in the group (i.e. trying to be “The Man”).


Athlete Assessments and the Sporting D.I.S.C. Model

At the end of the season, I participated in a Level 2 refresher course and one of the components was the Sporting DISC model presented by Athlete Assessments Bo Hanson. Bo was a 4 time Olympian and had worked with many US colleges and elite sporting bodies including the Australian National Basketball Teams. Mr Hanson explained how there were 4 types of characterised behaviours we all possess to varying degrees. The four aspects are Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Conscientiousness. The behaviours vary from our natural style to our situational approach. Basically meaning the way we act in one scenario, may not necessarily be how we are in another, but when the going gets tough, we usually gravitate to our “natural” tendencies (i.e. show our true nature, so to speak).

Four Charecterised BehavioursDominant

Dominants are individuals who value results and success. When challenged they reassert their dominance. They love overcoming tough situations. Seen as the “Alpha” members of a group, problems arise when you have too many. A group of 12-15 individuals should have one, but no more than two of these individuals. A positive result focus means they don’t like to lose. Some may have a win at all costs attitude even if it is to the detriment of others. On an extreme level they may like to control others (bully) or take control in adverse situations. Threats are met with reprimand or reprisal.


Influencers gravitate towards outgoing, enthusiastic and positive behaviours. When the chips are down, they are high spirited and lively. They are the towel wavers at the end of the bench. They tend to be people oriented. On an adverse side they can be false salesman, telling people what they want to hear in order to influence or avoid conflict. They tend to avoid negative or aggressive situations, and try to break tension when such situations arise. Highly likeable, they usually win the “popularity” or players’ player contest.


Those with steady attributes can drive the other 3 behavioural types crazy. They are content, patient, even tempered and accommodating. They tend not to like conflict and will be tactful and humble in defeat. When decisions need to be made, these guys have a fence sitting attitude. Those with this behaviour tend to go with the flow of what others decide for them. They are more layed back and seem to be on a different time clock to everyone else, arriving late to training or having others wait for them to be ready in their own time is not unusual. These individuals don’t need instant reward and in more extreme cases, at the end of a game, win or lose, they go ahead with life giving little reflection to that outcome.


Those with this behavioural pattern are analytical, they tend to be more reserved or introverted, precise, private and systematic in their approach. These people like structure and planning. They take pause to think before they act, contemplating or projecting a number of possible outcomes. In the extreme, in tough situations they can over analyse things leading to paralysis by analysis (counter productive when quick decisions are needed in a fast paced game). When the game is over, they tend to play everything back in their head to analyse the result. These individuals tend to be on time or early and well prepared/organised. These are task driven moderate paced people. Long term result driven, they see success as a journey.


Motivating and Managing Characterised Types

The DISC model as a tool can show you how to motivate athletes and better manage their personalities. Athlete Assessments suggested an ideal basketball team make up would be: Dominance = 1 (max 2), Influence = 1 (max 2) and the rest a 50/50 mix of Steadiness and Conscientiousness. If there is an imbalance in this mix, the team dynamic tends to change. In hindsight reflecting on my adverse season, I identified 5-6 athletes had natural dominance behaviours. I changed my behaviour to become more dominant which made matters worse. I felt uncomfortable trying to assert my dominance, however Athlete Assessments re-assured me given the circumstances, my approach was the correct one. Intentionally modifying your behaviour in a manner not natural to you can make you feel uncomfortable, which it did.

Motivating a Dominant

These guys want to see a positive result and want to know they had a hand in that result. Allowing them to lead drills, or judge others feeds into their “alpha” perception. Give them challenges. Have them problem solve. Ask their opinion. Give them positive feedback on the results. If you don’t have a strong vision or strategy, these individuals like taking things into their own hands. Giving direct orders to this type of person tends not to work and quite often results in conflict. They need to feel like they were part of the decision and influenced the outcome.

Motivating an Influencer

These athletes want social recognition and value being part of a group or team and love building relationships. They are good for helping set up group activities or team events. Give them a chance to shine socially. If the team achieves, they achieve, even if they never take the floor. This athlete will respond to personal stories. They also make good spokespeople for your team, don’t give them anything too heavy to digest but they are great with helping design policies, standards and organising activities for their team mates.

Motivating the Steady

These players love working with others, but are not big fans of change. You need to let these people know how their actions make a difference. Applying tasks to the group motivates them. They don’t tend to want to do too many tasks, so let them focus on the one at hand, before asking them to do another. Be clear with them on what your expectations are and always ask for any concerns or issues they may have. Engage them in the process or they may fly under the radar.

Motivating the Conscientious

This type of individual want to learn and become an expert. Giving them tasks geared around learning new plays and then sharing them with others is a good approach. Facts and statistics motivate them. They will be cautious until they have the information they need. They tend to be long term focused, so do not require instant recognition for tasks, they prefer to get recognition when they have reached a tangible long term goal. If you create any rules, stick by them, because these athletes like structure and hold you to account if you don’t stick to what you say you will do. Give them a problem to solve and time to do it and you should get a well thought through result. But do not expect quick decisions.

Getting the mix right

Ultimately I have concluded the reason I struggled to get the group I had on the same page was because the mix of individuals and what motivates them was incorrect. My questioning lead me on a quest to recognise where I went wrong to avoid the same scenario in the future. I am better equipped now to help motivate my current Ozswoosh Blaze team with the DISC model knowledge. The journey has helped me identify how to better understand different people’s behaviours and manage them and work to understand what motivates them to drive us all towards a common goal. If you are a coach just starting out, take a look at the groups you work with, try to determine what type of people make up your group and how best to motivate them towards a common goal. Also make the D.I.S.C model known to your athletes if old enough to understand it. It too can help them understand their team mates, what motivates them and helps them relate and work better together to achieve a common goal.

Written by Coach Rowe {NCAS Level 2)
Ozswoosh Academy Principal

About the Blogger: Coach Rowe studied print & broadcast journalism at the University of Queensland graduating in 1994. He is a qualified graphic designer, entrepreneur (RSU Computer Solutions, and Ideal In Design), is an endorsed coaching educator and started Ozswoosh Academy driven by a passion to help others achieve their goals.

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