On Motivation Through Fear Versus Love: Thoughts on “Last Chance U” Docuseries
I have been watching the Netflix docuseries “Last Chance U” which chronicles the struggles of junior college-level athletes aspiring to reach Division I college basketball.
I haven’t finished the series yet, so what I write here may turn out to be off the mark or flat out wrong.
But watching the struggles of the team — and more poignantly, the players themselves — prompted the question of why? Why is the team not clicking? Why are the players not living up to their potential? The East Los Angeles College (ELAC) basketball team is filled with talent. What is getting in the way of success, and what lessons can be learned and applied to other teams and organizations?
In this article, I want to offer some insights on coaching. I’d like to suggest a completely different paradigm than the one being employed by ELAC and, indeed, most coaches, teams, and organizations.
This paradigm is one of love versus fear.
Sounds corny, but stay with me.
One of the series’ central protagonists is ELAC’s head coach John Mosley. Mosley is hard-nosed — about as hard-nosed as it gets as a coach. He yells relentlessly at his players. He physically conditions them seemingly without mercy (you often see players on the verge of vomiting, which is not completely uncommon for high level athletic training). He calls out players in front of their peers — not just for their on-the-court foibles, but also their off-the-court character flaws. He holds his players to the absolute highest standard.
If one looks deeply into the character of Mosley, one can presume that he is motivated by love: a stalwart desire for his players to succeed in both basketball and life. Coach Mosley cares deeply about his players. There is no doubt about that.
Yet the tactics don’t align with the underlying intention. This is where I believe the problem lies.
Coach Mosley is using what I believe is an old paradigm for success in teams. This paradigm attempts to inspire, motivate, develop, and sustain success through fear. The function of fear is to avoid something bad versus being compelled by something good.
Motivation through fear says: I will become a better version of myself out of fear of something bad happening. I don’t want to disappoint others, or myself. I don’t want to feel [inadequate, embarrassed, a failure, yelled at, kicked off the team, etc.]. I am fundamentally flawed and need to improve in order to be [admired, accepted, lovable, etc.]
Motivation through love says: I will become a better version of myself out of a desire to see myself succeed. I am not afraid to disappoint myself or others; failure is part of the journey and provides an opportunity for learning and growth. I am already whole, worthy, and lovable and I pursue success because it provides me with enjoyment and meaning.
Motivation through fear is thoroughly baked into Mosley’s motivational strategy (and is a theme of the show more broadly): the ELAC players must fight their way out of the inferno of “juco” (junior college) to save themselves from failure, both a basketball player and a man. This is explicitly echoed over and over again: You should want to get the hell out of here! If you don’t make it out, your life will fall apart! This all may be true. But is it the best strategy for success?
Doing What Works (Not What Doesn’t)
During the series, we watch Mosley struggle to get his team up to snuff. Players struggle to mesh with one other. The team underperforms (based on their unparalleled level of talent). Mosley also struggles to reach some players individually; many threaten to leave the team (several times).
But perhaps the biggest disappointment is Mosley’s inability to develop the talent of his supremely talented players. Some of these players, for example the seven-foot Bryan Penn Johnson (BPJ), appears to stagnate skills-wise. Some star plays don’t get off the bench — surely, due in part, to issues such as attitude and work ethic, but this is exactly why it feels disappointing. The style of coaching doesn’t seem to improve these issues, either, preventing opportunities for their talent to be developed and seen.
Mosley’s strategy when things aren’t working out is to double down on his own tactics. When he sees that his players are not living up to their potential, on- or off-the-court, he believes the problem lies in his players not listening to him, not the system itself. It is true that his players aren’t listening. And it is true that if only they listened, they would succeed more. But the question is, how does someone to listen who isn’t listening?
This is where the skill of coaching comes in. And where a new paradigm may prove to out perform an old one.
I believe there is a ceiling on fear-based motivation; it only gets a player and a team so far.
Elevating a stagnant system and sustaining its success requires something different altogether. The new paradigm is counterintuitive, but may be the secret sauce of success for the highest performing teams.
Motivating Through the Paradigm of Love
The strategy of love is based in the science of behavior change. It has a few different elements. I will outline each of these elements and show how they could be implemented on the ELAC basketball team. The elements (as I see them) are:
- Establishing an alliance and shared goals.
- Using reinforcement over punishment.
- Encouraging autonomy and self-correction.
Establishing an alliance
Here is the number one tip for anybody working with anybody: listen deeply.
Players, just like anyone else, want to feel like they are being fully seen and understood.
Listening is not just a matter of being “nice.” It is tactical.
The first step in raising motivation is to find out what someone’s goals are. You want others to come up with (and say out loud) their own reasons for engaging in a behavior. You don’t want them to be motivated your reasons. The former motivates from love. The latter motivates from fear.
More than likely, the goals of players and coaches are one and the same: win as a team, and get better individually.
These goals may seem obvious and already implied —so why the need to talk about them?
Saying one’s goals out loud, and establishing an alliance around them (i.e., coach and player) builds rapport and trust. It cements a shared vision. That way, when obstacles arise, both parties know what the higher goal is. This makes it easier for players to deal with obstacles that arise in pursuit of those goals, including Mosley’s tough-love style of coaching.
Once the coach and player have firmly established they are in alignment — that they have the same goals — the coach can more easily get his players to buy into his system. He can then communicate that his methodology, painful as it may be, is designed to help you reach your goals (which we explicitly agreed on). Once it is established that we are on journey together (not just cognitively, but from a feeling standpoint), the coach might ask, “do you trust me to help get you there?” An answer of “yes” cements the buy-in. Regardless of how much discomfort arises, then, the player can trust coach has his back. They can come back to feeling motivated by love.
Reinforcement Over Punishment
I may be kind of a squishy guy to begin with, but if you ask me, Mosley’s players would benefit from more positive affirmations.
Behavioral science says that reinforcement is a more powerful tool for creating and sustaining behavior change than punishment: instead of pointing out every time someone is doing something wrong (i.e., what you don’t want them to do), point out each time they do something right (i.e., what you do want them to do). “That’s it! That’s what we’re looking for! Keep doing that!”
You can literally see people’s body language change as Mosley calls out their faults. Their muscles soften up. They put their hands on their knees. They start to melt. All of their energy is zapped. Why? Because it feels like Mosley, the father figure-like character that he embodies, does not love them in that moment. Of course this is not true, but that is the message that players’ brains are receiving. I am bad. He doesn’t love me. I have to be better so that this doesn’t happen again. Motivation to change through fear.
This is not to say that you can’t point out people’s errors and faults — but try to point out more of the good than the bad. Doing so makes people feel good. People are motivated to feel good, not just to not feel bad. This is the essence of fear versus love: one strategy is about being scared of failure, the other is about being excited to pursue the highest version of oneself.
Reflect on these strategies in your own life: think about something you have been trying to change about yourself. How well does the strategy of fear work? If it does work, how long are you able to sustain that change?
Empirical and anecdotal evidence in the highest performing individuals suggest that fear-based strategies can be counterproductive. At best, they work in the short-term. But there is an upper limit on fear.
Autonomy and Self-Correction
The third recommendation is to establish a self-organizing system. This requires deep trust, and I believe is part of the future of organizations. What does this mean?
Right now, motivation on ELAC’s team is inspired from the top-down. Coach Mosley is working quite hard to motivate his team (way harder than his players). The paradox is that, the harder Mosley tries to motivate them, the harder he may have to continue to try. Why? Because he removes intrinsic (or bottom-up) motivation. He robs them of the opportunity to find motivation within themselves.
Indeed, the team seems highly motivated to please their coach (and avoid punishment). Of course, do have intrinsic motivations; they want to win and see themselves succeed. There is not doubt. However, these motivations may be masked by a more immediate motive of wanting to avoid extra sprints during practice (or whatever the punishment is). Their own intrinsic motivation should be drawn out more.
The players might, collaboratively as players, decide what their goals are (without the input of the coach). They can then go to their coach with their goal — let’s say, to win a state championship — and essentially ask, “can you help get us there?” When the goal comes from bottom-up, and not the top-down, it automatically instills a greater sense of commitment and responsibility. The system — in this case the players — is intrinsically versus extrinsically motivated to succeed. Every system needs a good guide, someone who has been there before, and that is the role of the coach. But the coach is sort of a satellite mechanism for motivation, coming in to tune up the system as needed. The coach is a self-correction mechanism for an already self-governed and self-motivated system that contains its own engine and fuel.
Self-correction can also arise internally. When players fall out of line with the expectations they established— they are not practicing hard enough, they are not communicating, they are complaining or having a bad attitude, or whatever it may be— they can be self-correcting: they can call each other out. Since the players have established a common goal — to win a state championship together — they know this correction is coming from a place of caring. They are holding one another to the highest standard because they want the team to succeed. They are motivated by love.