How to Spark Motivation (Step 1: Shut Your Mouth)


Lighting-the-flame-of-a-g-006We intuitively think that motivation originates from deep inside us — from the heart, as the old saying goes.

But in fact, as the psychologist Carol Dweck and others have shown, this idea is mostly wrong. Motivation is largely social; fueled by our interactions with the people around us. In other words, motivation is less about what’s in your heart, and more about how you connect with your social circle.

Check out this passage from a new soccer book called Stillness and Speed, which tells a story about a promising but unproven younger player named Robin Van Persie and a veteran star named Dennis Bergkamp. It begins with Van Persie recalling an afternoon on Arsenal’s training ground.

Van Persie had finished earlier and was sitting in a Jacuzzi which happened to be by a window. Out on the field he noticed Dennis doing a complicated exercise involving shooting, and receiving and giving passes at speed. Robin decided to get out of the bath as soon as Dennis made a mistake.

“It was a 45-minute session and there wasn’t one pass Dennis gave that wasn’t perfect,” [Van Persie said.] “He did everything 100 percent, to the max, shooting as hard as possible, controlling, playing, direct passing… That was so beautiful! To me it was plainly art.  My hands got all wrinkled in the bath but I just stayed there. I sat and watched and I waited, looking or one single mistake. Bu the mistake never came. And that was the answer for me.

“Watching that training session answered so many questions I had. I can pass the ball well, too. I’m a good football player as well. But this man did it so well and with such drive. He had such total focus. I found myself thinking, ‘OK, wait a minute, I can play football well enough but I’ve still got an enormous step to take to get to that level.’ 

And that’s when I realized, if I want to become really good, then I have to be able to do that, too. From that moment on I started doing every exercise with total commitment. With every simple passing or kicking practice, I did everything at 100 percent, just so I wouldn’t make mistakes. And when I made a mistake I was angry. Because I wanted to be like Bergkamp.”

Van Persie, of course, went on to become a huge star. It’s a familiar pattern. You start out thinking we’re pretty good. Then you have the thrilling, slightly frightening experience of seeing somebody who’s on the next level. Then, using that person as a north star, you start taking steps that direction.

From that moment on I started doing every exercise with total commitment… I wanted to be like Bergkamp. 

Those moments are powerful because they’re fundamentally unpredictable. They can’t be scripted by a coach, or inspired by mere words. They’re more like social lightning bolts, high-voltage connections between people that happen when you least expect them.

That said, I think it’s possible to engineer these moments by paying attention to the design of our learning spaces. Because while these lightning bolts may be uncontrollable, the odds of them happening are increased if you follow certain rules. For example:

  • 1) Design for openness. Don’t separate the stars from the rest of the group; instead, provide space for lots of mixing of various skill levels, whether it’s in the office, the classroom, or the locker room.
  • 2) Build in free time. In our hyper-busy world, we tend to be allergic to unstructured time. Yet these moments — when someone sits idly by a window and stares in rapture at a brilliant performer — are exactly when this sort of connection happens. So let it.
  • 3) Be quiet. So many coaches, parents and teachers feel like they need to be talking in order to motivate their learners. But it’s exactly the opposite. Words shatter the spell.

Can you imagine Van Persie’s reaction if a coach would have come over and started giving him an inspiring speech about how he should be more like the veteran star?

Uh, thanks coach — but I really gotta go. 

And Van Persie would have been absolutely right. Because it’s not about the coach, the teacher, or the parent. It’s about creating a learning space that’s aligned with the way motivation really works.

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20 Responses to “How to Spark Motivation (Step 1: Shut Your Mouth)”

  1. Philip Simmonds says:


  2. Doc says:

    Dan, Another excellent post. I think it would be interesting if you and/or some of your colleagues could take the info in your books “The Talent Code” & “The Little Book of Talent” and maybe some of the info Vern Gambetta puts out or other like-thinking professionals and design a progressive coaching program or template utilizing your thoughts, observances and experiences. I know Gambetta talks about training body weight before external weights but how many of us actually do that. You spoke of the training Russian tennis players go through before ever playing a match and I know we don’t do that.That’s two examples of the many things a coach could do that you’ve written about. I think it would be a great experiment if an intelligent, energetic coach could take a group of players and actually do everything you write about.

  3. Love this. Add in age mixing and democratic governance and I think you’ve got the Sudbury valley School model down pat.

  4. Heike Larson says:

    Wow! This is exactly what we see happen in our Montessori mixed-age classrooms. They are open–the three-year-olds work side-by-side with the five- or six-year-olds, who to them are masters that are just a step or two ahead of them. We often see younger children standing quietly, hands be hind their back, observing an older student at work. Later, when the teacher introduces an activity, say, associating sounds with the Montessori Sandpaper Letters, she may discover that the child has already mastered the activity, by watching and imitating the older child. And we place a huge emphasis on teachers observing first, and only getting involved when needed. This focus on observation, on fading into the background, gives children the space to they need to try out new things, to learn from the inspiration of others, and to have the freedom to try, make mistakes, and grow themselves.

  5. djcoyle says:

    Thanks for sharing that, Heike — I love how you describe that scene. Especially because it reminds me of what I see at my kids’ Montessori school!

  6. djcoyle says:

    Hey Doc, Good idea, and I’d love to participate in something like that. There’s so much good/useful stuff out there that it seems ripe to put it all into a larger template. Paging Maria Montessori!

  7. Joanne M says:

    Social Motivation at 2. Our daughter potty trained herself almost immediately when she came home from daycare saying, “I want to wear big girl pants like Ava.”

  8. Ted says:

    I visited many mini “hotbed” soccer free play spaces in Sao Paulo and Rio, they were located along highways and favelas and unexpected places. They all had things in common. 1) Small spaces. 2) Leaders. Someone was in charge, (an old man who kept the place clean, an older kid) these guys passed on the rules of the space and kept order. And, 3) Bleachers. Why all the bleachers? It didn’t seem to make sense. But looklng closely it allowed a place for the kids to watch. Younger kids could step out of the game to watch, even younger kids who didn’t play were there to plan for the day they could hang with the big dudes, and very interestingly there were former players, older man and women, silently watching the new “talent.” Dan, you have hit on an important point: great environments of learning have systems built in to pass on knowledge one to another. Oh, and count me if you want to build a template of a new learning environment!

  9. djcoyle says:

    That is awesome, Joanne.

    Those younger kids have it pretty good, don’t they? What’s more, the Avas of our world tend to get overlooked — and they’re the key catalyst to this whole thing!

    This phenomenon deserves a Gladwellian name — I’m going to call it THE TITO JACKSON EFFECT.

  10. djcoyle says:

    That is absolutely fascinating, Ted — thanks for sharing it. All of those factors add up to something kind of primal — a safe, exciting place with super-clear rules and lots of opportunity to watch, mimic, and get motivated. Maybe that says something about the way our brains are built: We learn best and fastest when we’re organized into a tribe.

  11. Doc says:

    Hi Dan, Just saw an article this morning that someone reading this blog might be interested in. There is a Charter School opening in Asheville, NC that will open next year and from the article it sounded like the perfect place for a teacher or coach following many of the principles you write about. The article can be read on line in the Asheville Citizen Times and the website of the school is In the article they mention things such as rigorous academics, inquiry based learning with a focus on service learning, fieldwork and internships. Just thought I would throw that out if anyone is interested. I think the article said they would be hiring in January. Asheville is usually ranked as one of the top ten places to live in the US.

  12. djcoyle says:

    That sounds incredibly interesting. Thanks, Doc — really thoughtful of you to post it here.

  13. John says:

    This post and subsequent comments have convinced me that I need to stop “coaching” my kids (and that I need to enroll them in a montessori school). What is the advice for when you do not have direct access to the next level professional? Specifically, if you are trying to become a professional writer of children’s books?

  14. djcoyle says:

    Hey John, Funny, but I just bumped into this very short video that might apply. It’s about screenwriting, but the skills aren’t that dissimilar.

    It’s good advice, I think, because it speaks to the essential challenge of getting good at creative endeavors. You have to use the work as others as an end-point on the map, and then work out how they got there. Most writers train by reading/analyzing/re-reading the works of the best.

  15. Cecilia says:

    Great post! I think kids have the unprecedented opportunity for these experiences of seeing somebody who’s on the next level through youtube videos. Its not as powerful as human connections and therefore may not be the social lightning bolt that shifts their approach, but I’ve been amazed at how my son can spend hours watching and looking for youtube videos to learn certain soccer or basketball moves, to watch complex skills like hitting baseballs or pitching intently. They seem to inspire him to try these things which he never would have thought to.

  16. John says:

    Fantastic. Thank you Daniel!

  17. […] 4)      Team environment: ALL athletes need a good inter-personal environment. This means a good relationship with teammates, coaching staff and specialists. However, coaches also need to facilitate a great learning environment. Here is a great read by one of my favorite authors as of late, “Motivation is largely social; fuelled by our interactions with the people around us”” […]

  18. Gróa says:

    I have three sons, one is 13 and two are 7 years old. My husband and I have often talked about that the twins are more matured than their brother, at the age of 7, because they have a older brother. They have learned so much from him, so much more than we can teach them. They admire him and do everything like him, both positive things as well as negative 😉

  19. I just finished reading the Bergkamp book. The Van Persie comment is in the beginning. Equally important is the finish. BergKamp and Johan Cruyff are engaged in reinventing the Ajax youth program. Why? Because every player was the same. Good, but predictable. Players had lost their inventiveness, the individuality which makes a player unique and special. They were talented and predictable. There is a lesson here as we think about youth programs in sports in this country, or even Common Core. Allow me to refer you to an essay from my own blog about The Beautiful Game and how it relates to American education. The game has been part of my life as player, coach, referee, and fan ever since I began playing in eighth grade.

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