The Master Motivator

The Master Motivator

Legendary NFL Head Coach Bill Parcells, known mostly for his time with, as Carl Brutananadilewski calls them, "The Big Blue Wrecking Crew", is regarded as a master motivator.


While this blog post is going live in July, it is never a bad time to have Carl remind us of the true reason for the holiday season.

Just as you could "just add water" to whip up some Kool Aid, if you have a talented but unmotivated team, just add Parcells and you will find yourself with a high performing organization. That is the implication anyway.

But what did he have to say about his skill set as a motivational coach?

In an interview I once saw he was asked to explain the secret to his master-motivating skills. He may have been being humble, but the answer did not really imply that he changed anyone from lazy to hard-charging. He said roughly the following, "Find motivated people and point in the direction of the competition".


Now there are some motivated people carrying their coach! 


This is very different from the "just add water" picture. In my interpretation, according to that quote and assuming he wasn't just being humble, the only manipulation he was doing to the mindset of the players was to bring their attention to an upcoming competition and tell them to focus on it. Did he take unmotivated players and change them? Apparently not. It does sound like he helped to channel their motivation though.

Honestly, that makes the most sense to me. In my model of how motivation works there is internal motivation and there is external motivation. In internal motivation, a person is compelled to make a change in the state of the world through their own effort and they set out to do that. People do this all the time. Although doing a lot of it comes easier for some people than it does for other people.

External motivation is imposed upon you. In that case, the incentives for your situation are being intentionally manipulated by some other person or group of people so that you become compelled to exert some effort. To me, this is not a persistent form of motivation. Or, better said, it isn't a persistent form of strong motivation. It's a way to get people to do enough to satisfy whatever measuring device is being used to decide if the incentive conditions have been met (reward or punishment or both). Exceptional effort over a long period of time will not happen this way. Job burnout anyone?


Peter explains to the Bobs how his externally imposed motivation makes him only work just hard enough to not get fired.


Internal motivation can produce sustainable high levels of effort. And to me, if one is talking about a master motivator, that sort of special level of motivation is what one is trying to get at. It's saying that the master motivator changed a lazy person into one that has an internal drive to accomplish some thing or things. So, it's an external influence creating sustained internal motivation. This is a contradiction in terms. As such, I am saying that the master motivator thing is, to some degree, a myth.

This is not to say that a coach or other authority figure can't nudge a person temporarily in the direction of increased internal motivation. Instead it is questioning how large and how long that effect will tend to be.

And, it's the "just add water" style that is a myth. But, as discussed above, there is another side of that coin. That other side is the "assist motivated people in elevating their level of focus and performance" side. That is real and it is impactful.

Zooming out, there are some additional factors in Coach Parcells' situation that we should not ignore.

First of all, all coaches should be so lucky with their selection of pupils as pro sports coaches. If an athlete is in contention to play at the top level of their sport one of three things are true.

1. They are either an anomalous freak.
2. They have already proven that they are highly motivated (or else they would have been selected out).
3. Both 1 and 2 are true.

In the NHL, there are a few notorious examples of guys who didn't or don't really work very hard. To my knowledge, the list of guys like that can be counted on one hand. How good could those guys have been if they worked on their game as diligently as the rest of the league?


Sisyphus knows what its like to engage in repetitions. He, however, is depressed because, unlike with professional athletes, his repetitions are not aimed at improving performance in an upcoming game.


Also, in pro sports, coaches, to varying degrees, can choose who they work with. This is encapsulated in the "Find motivated players" part of Parcells' explanation. If he found himself with unmotivated players he could solve that problem. But, he didn't have to motivate them. He could replace them.

Youth sports isn't populated by super freaks and, thankfully, doesn't involve hard core player-personnel moves.

Should we expect to move the needle significantly on the motivation side of things given those constraints?

As coaches, when we want a little extra motivation imposed from the outside, we often communicate exaggerated expectations. However, just because we can say something doesn't necessarily mean we should believe it.

Is there a more sustainable approach? I don't think there is anything that works reliably to turn an unmotivated player into a motivated one, but there is something that a coach can try to achieve in order to create that change. Its the same thing as I've discussed in my most recent two posts prior to this one (Inspiration-First Coaching part 1 and part 2), namely, inspiration.

It is hard to predict what will inspire someone. That is why there isn't a reliable way to do it. The approach I like is to try developing some new techniques with a player and see what gets their attention. When you find one, lean into it. See if you can make it so that is the thing that inspires them.

If they also lean into working on that thing and then go out and use it successfully in a game, all of my experience says that you'll have helped create inspiration for that player. The durability and the impact of that inspiration will vary from player to player and situation to situation, but, regardless, this is a huge success!

It is the closest thing to a "just add water" type change from unmotivated to motivated that I know of!

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