How do you motivate a camper? Well, you really can't. Every human being has the choice to give a 100 percent effort… or to give something less than 100 percent.
The challenge for any staff member is to tap each camper's intrinsic desire to make the choice to give 100 percent intensity and to enjoy feeling successful.
Avoid The Donkey Approach
A common but unfortunate approach that many staff members have used to get reluctant campers involved is what sport psychologist Rainer Martens calls, "The Donkey Approach," which is verbally cracking the whip to get someone to do something… "C'mon! You look like a bunch of sissies out there. Let's show some intensity!"
It's all too easy to use verbal punishment as a quick fix to force someone into motion. But if you were to systematically monitor the behavior of campers after a series of verbal punishments, you probably would observe a drop in both camper intensity and enjoyment.
To make matters even worse, when some staff members see the drop in intensity, they raise the emotional ante. They may yell more forcefully or single out individual campers to embarrass in front of their peers.
Taken to the extreme, the camper may respond like the donkey who is tired of the abuse and decide to just quit.
The choices that campers make about how to act, how hard to try, and whether to persist when they become frustrated come from two sources:
1. Extrinsic motivation is the desire to be successful for external rewards, like prizes, public recognition, special privileges, and the like. One problem with external rewards is that campers, over time, lose their value… How many t-shirts and trophies does a camper need? Another problem is that the external rewards can diminish intrinsic motivation.
2. Intrinsic motivation is an inner sense of pride and satisfaction from being successful. Most young people are naturally attracted to play. If this attraction is reinforced with positive experiences, campers will be inclined to participate with their best efforts.
So what approach is best to encourage campers to give their best and enjoy camp activities? Initially, it would be to give modest, external rewards along with cultivating camper feelings of personal success.
This might sound like a lot of work: Tallying points to give external rewards, budgeting for the material prizes, and so on, and then giving campers feedback that they need to feel successful.
But there are ways to share the workload that may actually produce even greater dividends than having just the staff members providing the incentives.
The Buddy System
Researchers that have studied human behavior and motivation have found that the most powerful incentive that helps human beings to persist in any endeavor is the concept of affiliation.
Affiliation is the feeling of being accepted and valued by other people… a feeling of belonging and being appreciated. When young people were asked why they participated in sport activities and were asked to rank the value of developing skills, achieving recognition, having opportunities to be aggressive, intimidating opponents, being independent, and the relationships that they developed with other people, they ranked those relationships as being the best part of their experience.
The buddy system is an excellent way to give campers this feeling of being valued and one-on-one feedback while they are participating in camp activity. In most camp situations, the buddy system of learning a new skill is fairly easy to implement.
If you were conducting an instructional session on golf, you could start off by asking campers to find the person who has the closest birthday date to their own birthday. This a very easy and non-threatening way to get them talking to each other and to make the choice of finding a buddy fun.
You can mix this up with other variables, like the same last movie you saw or your favorite sports team.
The next step is probably the most crucial. Give a brief explanation of how each buddy is going to be a personal coach. Share with them the benefits that they will receive by coaching and being coached.
Emphasize how to be positive and constructive when they are coaching. It would be a great idea to give a demonstration to model how this should be done.
It would also be important to model examples of negative and non-constructive feedback to help them see how it can be discouraging to the person learning the skill.
Another critical point to demonstrate is how the learner should ask questions if something the coach says is not clear and how asking the questions can be done in a respectful and cooperative spirit.
Once the buddies are set and they understand their responsibilities, you could give them a checklist of the mechanics involved in the golf back swing along with a specific place for both the golfer and the swing buddy to stand so that no one is hit with the club or ball.
It could be a checklist as simple as the body position, grip at address and the swing plane. To make things even easier, you could include a picture of the perfect body position, grip and swing plane for the buddy to use as a reference for completing the checklist.
By the time each buddy has had a chance to coach and be coached, both buddies have gotten a lot of feedback about what they have mastered. They also have experienced the feeling of what it is like to have their own personal coach.
In a team situation, a captain could be in charge of pairing a defensive and an offensive player with the same level of skill to work together during practices.
The buddies could work together to discuss individual strengths and areas that need improvement. Then the buddy would monitor these and give a lot of encouragement.
Once again, the affiliation comes from the feeling that someone is taking an interest in how the player is doing and gives specific feedback about progress.
The coach could actually have each player build a coaching notebook that documents the buddy work. If the coach reviews the notebook at regular intervals, practices can be planned that focus on what the players believe they need to work on. It's also a great learning process for each player to learn the offensive and defensive skills that are crucial to team success.
As you can see from these two examples, the buddy system can increase the amount of personalized attention that each participant receives.
Who doesn't appreciate an objective observer that gives personalized feedback on improvement? And when improvement comes a little too slowly, encouragement from a personal coach who knows you can be just the kind of support that inspires campers to move through the learning curve… And who knows, it might just be the start of a lifelong friendship.
Dr. Susan Langlois has more than 20 years of experience as a college professor, athletic administrator, camp director and sport facilities consultant. She is currently the Dean of Sports Science at Endicott College.
Sharman Hayward has directed sports camps at every developmental level, and has coached intercollegiate field hockey and lacrosse for 11 years. Sharman currently serves as Associate Director of Athletics at Endicott College.