Joe F. is a high school teacher in New York who emailed recently with a pair of interesting questions. In fact, they were so intriguing that I asked Joe if I could present them to Pink Blog readers for their responses.

Here is Joe’s explanation, followed by his questions:

Our school holds an annual holiday volleyball tournament in phys ed class.  Every student participates, and even the athletically uninclined risk dignity and limb diving into bleachers to save a point.  The reward for winning is nothing, yet they care at a near super-human level.

Many JV and some Varsity coaches have complained that their athletes do not care as much about their varsity sport as they do this tournament.

1) Why?

2) What can varsity and JV coaches do to build/foster this measurable effort in their sports?

Okay, folks, what do you think? Offer your answers in the Comments section. I’ll collect the best and include them in a separate post.

53 Responses to “Why do we care about some things and not others?”

  1. It probably has to do mostly with social proofing. The fact that everyone else is doing it is a big pull for most people. Additionally, because there is nothing on the line and no reward, this makes playing in the game less stressful and more fun. They are playing a game, they are not doing their job.

    It is some of these student’s chance to look cool and be part of the tribe without having to practice or commit to a team. Not a bad deal, I’d say.

    Perhaps the varsity and JV coaches could instill some more laid-back games as part of practice. Make practice fun again and curate the camaraderie of a team. Then maybe some of the players on the team will start telling other people how much fun they have playing on the team and maybe being a part of the team will become the “in” thing.

  2. David Belden says:


    Sacrificing dignity (or anything else)is only worth it if the sacrifice is for something greater than one’s self. In other words, community. In “Drive”, you mention this as one of the 3 motivators for conceptual workers. I think it usually is a motivator for anyone. Unfortunately, most organiations, including schools, do not understand group dynamics, and focus only on individual success.

  3. I believe the fact that playing in this tournament is not reserved for an “exclusive” club of athletes makes all the difference in the world. The most non-athletic among us shudder at the thought of trying out for a “formal” team, only to be told we are not good enough.

    In this venue, every student knows that they will participate. It’s not like they are being judged. There is an eclectic group of students (from the super-athletic to the totally non-athletic).

    I believe this event creates camaraderie and a sense of community. That’s the true key for coaches to remember. They need to build more “community” and “family” with their teams. When you love each other and believe in each other, it frees you to do your best for the sake of yourself and your teammates.

    Building community and accountability with the team is key.

  4. Andy says:

    Perhaps it is the exceptional nature of the event.

    Anything that repeats over time — read: season-long drives to championships — runs the risk of becoming routine.

    It’s not unlike the concept of feedback written about in this month’s Wired magazine: “Here Rose grapples with an essential challenge of feedback loops: Make them too passive and you’ll lose your audience as the data blurs into the background of everyday life. Make them too intrusive and the data turns into noise, which is easily ignored.”

  5. Jason Soll says:

    These four ideas came to mind:

    1. When you compete against everyone of all skill levels, you feel more motivated to stand out and perform your best for two reasons: more people have the opportunity to be in awe of your skill and you have a greater chance of being among the better players in the group.

    2. A single tournament is a distilled, more focused version of a season. In other words, it is not like a season where you can lose a game and still be a league champion. You only have one shot at glory. This is likely why teams play so much better March Madness in college basketball.

    3. The tournament likely has more spectators if everyone is competing. The more spectators, the higher your effort levels will be. This might be connected to the coffee shop effect, where people are motivated to work harder when there are at least some people around you passively watching.

    4. There is no coaching. Maybe athletes try harder when they feel like they can take all of the credit for their performance. Athletic autonomy, so to say.

  6. Tom Catalini says:

    My guess is that the attitude at the tournament may be more focused on celebrating effort, and positive contributions. I bet the reaction to ‘mistakes’ are minimal, or that mistakes are actively ignored.

    On the sports teams where more is at stake, and things are more serious, I would guess that mistakes are highlighted and given a fair amount of attention. And while corrective instruction is necessary, I wonder if the way it’s done may make some difference here, and maybe causes the attention of the athlete to linger on more negative thoughts/feelings than on positive thoughts and celebration of accomplishments, leading to some unintended consequences like the perceived lack of effort in some areas/cases.

    Will be curious to see the other comments on this one.


  7. Good questions. Makes me think about my experience with sports as a youth. What I would have to say about participation and enthusiasm in school sports seems simple and obvious to me, but might not be to coaches.

    First off, volleyball is a lot of fun, and, besides physical exertion, exercise, and teamwork, sports should be about enjoying the game. That could be why this volleyball tournament is so popular.

    But more importantly, think about your statement, “even the athletically uninclined risk dignity and limb …” When it comes to school sports, what is the experience of those who are simply not athletically gifted? How much real opportunity is there for those kids to get engaged, to participate, to get some training, to get better?

    Maybe things have changed in the 50 years since I was in school, so maybe what I’m about to say isn’t relevant anymore.

    Those who run youth sports programs have a dilemma: They really would like to have greater participation, to give everyone a chance to play, to create an environment where everyone has a good time, but they have to balance that desire against the mandate to win games. And winning is what gets funding, support, attention, and accolades.

    I came from an athletic family. I loved sports and played all the time with family, friends, and neighborhood kids. In junior high and high school, I tried out for the teams, but honestly I just wasn’t good enough to make the cut. I wanted to play and was willing to work at it, but I just wasn’t naturally coordinated. My experience was that the kids who were talented and made the cut were the ones who got the training and had the chance to get better — and more important, they were the ones that got to play.

    In our school system, there was a second-tier system called intramurals, but even there, just because you were on the team didn’t mean you would get to play. Same for Little League. Problem was, the coaches and captains who made the decisions about who got to play were under pressure to win games. To win games, you have to put your best players in. That’s the case at all levels of competition.

    I understood at the time, and I understand now. Competition is inherent in sports, no way around it. But if you want to understand why those kids at Joe’s school love that volleyball tournament so much, just consider the obvious: Everybody gets to play, and the emphasis is on getting exercise and having fun. I’ll bet that makes it a lot more enjoyable for the better athletes, even though they end up having to play with the kids that aren’t so good.

    Maybe there’s a lesson here that could apply when it comes to the more “serious” sports programs.

    Al B.

  8. Linda Vallin says:

    The holiday tournament is play, playing varsity sports is a job. Varsity sports have a “boss” (the coach). Membership on a varsity sports team is rewarded by certain tangible and intangible “carrots” ( e.g., letter jackets, trophies, and enhanced social status). When we trade our efforts for rewards, we try to get as many rewards as we can for the least amount of effort possible. This isn’t cynicism, it’s sensible and often unconscious; lions don’t chase the fastest prey in the herd.

    How about a varsity sports version of FedEx days? Coachless practices where the players work on the skills and with the people they choose? And, if it could be arranged, exhibition games with similarly inclined teams? That takes a coach with a secure ego, and there are probably limits to student self-direction in a school setting due to liability issues, but definitely movement toward self-direction is needed.

  9. osize says:

    I will attribute some elements of the differences in level of motivation between Varsity and holiday tourney to the differences in the level of penalty for loosing or making a fool of oneself. Competitive sports is quite unforgiving and the consequence of messing up or being the weakest link in the team will be enough to paralyze a B-level sportsman. Since every team member will never be Kobe Bryant or play for the top Varsity team for that matter. It must be tough getting motivated to play for a B team as a B player. The main difference would be the relative skill level of the player and the relative ranking of the Varsity team.
    I assume this phenomenon will be less noticeable in professional sports because the are fewer B-players in a league like the NBA or NHL. I can not say the same for the NFL. The sheer size of the team must increase the probability of having B-players in the team.
    The summer volleyball sets this energy sapping phenomenon to zero.
    I think it will be interesting to see how team size may affect the motivation of team members.

  10. David McDine says:

    I think the tournament offers a somewhat risk-free environment for people that view themselves as “nonathletic” to get involved with school sports. I imagine the school administrator’s goal is not to put together the best team possible, but rather to foster an environment of inclusion. When the pressure is lifted students that might be worried about embarrassing themselves are free to engage with the activity.

    I imagine a similar phenomenon where certain staff members never speak up in meetings because they’re worried about looking stupid. It’s often the case that if you go for a beer or coffee with them after work you realize that they’ve actually got some fairly innovative and interesting things to say about the organization.

    The best thing the Junior Varsity coach (or manager trying to get the best out of his or her staff) can do is to try to minimize the pressure on the players by making sure they know that risk-taking is not only tolerated but encouraged. The old adage “have fun out there” is often missing from both organized sports and the work environment.

    Dan, just finished Drive. As a young worker who is surrounded by many people who hate what they do between 9 and 5 your book served as a welcome reminder that work, with the right organization, can be an engaging and fulfilling experience. Thanks and keep up the interesting work!

  11. Judy Brunner says:

    I suspect there is a strong feeling of community at this school – at least in the weeks preceding and after the tournament. School pride is probably positively impacted, and everyone wants to be a part of the spirit of the event. As a career principal it was always my hope we could experience daily the types of camaraderie the students and staff had after an event that brought us all together – Veteran’s Day assemblies,charity events, etc. Keeping these feelings of ‘family’ alive helped reduce disciplinary issues and increased daily attendance for students and staff. I bet students and staff see this tournament as a ‘win win’…in more ways than one.

  12. Tom Millikin says:

    1) Why? — I believe it’s because in organized JV and Varsity athletics, the pressure for coaches to win today filters down to the student-athletes, who in turn feel pressure to win a game they grew up playing just because they liked it. High schools around the country routinely fire coaches who don’t win, without regard for whether these same coaches are teaching kids the right values, how to plan and strategize for games, how to learn from losses, and how to handle themselves in a public forum. This tournament, in my view, represents what kids love about sports – a fun environment with no pressure to succeed put on them by someone else. That, to me, is key. Every competitive kid in that volleyball tournament wants to win, but it’s because THEY want to win, not because a coach is barking at them for every mistake they make.

    2) What can varsity and JV coaches do to build/foster this measurable effort in their sports?

    — Remind their players that as their coach, their role is to teach the fundamentals of the game. If taught correctly, the game inherently becomes fun. I teach all my teams that there’s a reason the word ‘fundamentals’ begings with the letters ‘f-u-n’- becaue if you focus on just that, the game IS fun. Coaches should: 1) teach the game starting with the fundamentals; 2)remove the pressure to win; 3) accept that high school sports, while very competitive, is an educational event, not a pressure-filled environment that is evaluated simply on who get a college scholarship. Nobody cares about college scholarships in that volleyball tournament – for sure, they care about winning. But it’s a personal desire to win and be competitive, not something forced on them. Coaches need to remember what our role is – to develop kids athletically through fundamentals, and emotionally through guidance and ‘teachable’ moments on the court or field. It’s not rocket science, but we do, unfortunately, deal with a culture where winning is #1 in front of everything else. Vince Lombardi, the famous Green Bay Packers coach once said “Winning isn’t everything – it’s the only thing.” That’s fine for an NFL coach, but too many coaches in H.S. take that literally.

  13. I think the core of this volleyball tournament is centered around purpose. It is my belief that the purpose is fun. Allow me to explain. It is equivalent to the way people watch films. People go to the movies, yes to watch a movie but also to discuss it with friends.

    I think that the shear fun of playing the game is over-arched by the great discussion, laughter and memories of the game for days there-after.

    I think a good way of facilitating that in practice is to run pick-up games with even teams and hold a discussion afterwards about the best moments. In my basketball days I loved the game but did not like practice because it was more of a dictatorship that didn’t allow players to get involved in the feedback.

  14. Brandon Adams says:

    I think that it’s precisely because the stakes are so low that the participants are willing to go out on a limb. Attempt a spectacular play and fail, well, it’s not going to be recorded in a log book, and it’s not going to cost your school a title.

    I’m also surprised that your students are so motivated. When I was playing volleyball in high school PE class the problem was the opposite, only about half of the players would even bother moving their feet to reach the ball.

  15. Robin says:

    An interesting example. A couple of ideas that occurred to me:

    1. A team has a weight of expectation on them. They are performing not only for themselves, but for their coach, school and parents. This creates pressure to perform, and failure to perform carries certain punishments: loss of status in the teenage pecking order, extra practice (or less enjoyable practice activities), disappointment of your coach, parents, peers or even entire school. In some cases, athletic performance gets tied to scholarships and thus their entire future (justified or not), making it less about the joy of the game, and more about working to set yourself up for the rest of your life. Performance is all downside and little upside – if you perform well, that’s expected and thus nothing special (since you’re on the team anyway); if you perform poorly, you’re a disappointment and a failure in a quite public setting.

    2. A team has to practice, and practice isn’t always fun. The coaches that “make” them practice, and the team they practice with are the same people they play with. This can, over time make practice a chore and that can carry over into games.

    3. There is, to a degree a loss of autonomy by being in a formal team and coached. You don’t get to choose who else is on your team, you don’t get to call the play and you don’t even get to choose when you play, and when you sit out on the bench.

    4. On the flip side, in the tournament, there’s all upside and little downside. If you don’t perform, that’s OK, it was all a bit of fun anyway. If you do, you’re a star. That creates an environment where risk taking isn’t so costly, and can have a big payoff.

    In terms of what you can do, I’m not sure. I think coaches and parents and peers can help to form a “firewall” around a team, to create an environment where some of the pressure to perform and negative effects of failure to perform lifted off players, so that it OK to fail sometimes. As well as diminishing the pressure on these kids, it will also help build camaraderie amongst players.

  16. Seamus says:

    I wonder if the participants choose their own teams? If so, I guess this would be a strong factor; playing on a team of your friends.

    Also, it seems that the significance of this tournament goes back a few years. There is some element of tradition to it. Something is special, if you make it special. And the students decided to attach special significance to this tournament a few years back and by now, the tournament is so significant because everyone treats the tournament as being so significant.

    As for building that in other teams, while it won’t be possible to recreate exactly, the principle of defining things as being significant holds. Present team jerseys to those that make the team in a little ceremony, make a video of it, present a limited edition team-MVP hat after each game.

  17. Tom Grey says:

    I am going to offer a less specific, but I believe equally powerful thought. The tournament seems to offer all of the qualities listed above, but then why doesn’t every tournament like this have the same impact upon the community? It’s not as if every holiday Volleyball tournament has the level of enthusiasm that this tournament seems to have.

    I think this is where the question gets more complicated. Maybe this tournament acquired some social significance in the community through a certain person (star player) or event (multiple overtime final match)? I think that the characteristics above make it a more adoptable community event, but there was a trigger somewhere that allowed the tournament to snowball into a community blockbuster event. And perhaps when enough members of the community start passionately caring about the holiday volleyball tournament, then nearly everyone in the community will passionately start caring about the volleyball tournament.

    I would love to hear more thoughts on this.

  18. Easy. One is more focused on relationships than the other. When you bring a team together and they see the connection that they have to one another is important, that is when they will care. People matter.

  19. Donna says:

    Interesting links between motivation and games. I just saw this talk on TED.
    It’s in a gamer context but her findings are very similar to your findings on what motivates people to work.

  20. Daniel K says:

    It’s student driven. So much else for youth is adult-driven.

  21. Ben Simpson says:

    I would argue that the reasons for success transcend the description given above, in that it is very likely there are underlying factors missing that are central to motivating fringe players to take part. Most of those factors, I would assume, are cultural: what is the difference between the culture of the tournament and that of the existing athletic programs? Is playing in the tournament exciting and preferable to team athletics because the duration of the event is shorter? Are the rewards greater? Are there carrots and sticks involved for those who choose to play (or not play)? Can one gain social acceptance by playing in the tournament even if one is not talented, whereas if the same person tried out for the athletic team, they would be ostracized due to clear lack of ability?

    My conclusion would be this: the cultures of the tournament and the athletic programs are vastly different, the risks and rewards are not the same, the type of pride one is playing for is of a different kind, and the emotional investment in one or the other hinges on social reward. Thus, if I wanted to change the culture of athletics in my school, I would seek to adapt what is best within the life of the tournament culture, and make it my own.

  22. It is about what you give, not what you get…that offers the greatest rewards in life – sports, work, money, etc… When you can give to an effort that is bigger than yourself, you become part of something much bigger than yourself. Teams, groups, family, faith-based organizations, charitable organizations, and businesses of many kinds are such opportunities that we too often view from the selfish standpoint of “…whats in it for me…”. An invitational tournament that is open to all invites the spirit of participation…for playing the game for the sake of the game and not just who wins. There is fun, joy, and reward for getting to be a part of the greater effort that is based on community, participating, the game….and not merely who is the best and who wins. As we all can play, participate and become better, we all win by running the race…..thus, the real spirit and another definition of competition.

  23. Mike Leffler says:

    The holiday tournament holds more meaning for the participants than do the usual varsity sports. The fact that everyone is involved means that the recognition is more satisfying to the participants than what varsity athletes get.

  24. Rick Miller says:

    I think it was North Dallas 40 where the quarterback said to the owner, “When we say its a game, you tell us its a business,and when we want to negotiate our contract you tell us its a just a game.” Seems to me this is fun for the athletes because:
    a) they know they can showcase their mastery,
    b) more people show up for this event than most volleyball matches, and
    c) they have increased autonomy as the “player/coaches” of their teams( assume teams are split among other students)
    c) the purpose is greater than the sport

  25. One of the biggest reasons that students would rather play in a less formal event than a jv or varsity sport is that the less structured event offers more choice. The fact that there is no coach around to dissect every move lifts a heavy burden off of students. In fact, one of the problems nowadays is the lack of opportunities like this where students are allowed to enjoy a less-structured activity and just play. It is probably as close to they get as the neighborhood pickup games that I had the chance to take part in as a youngster growing up in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

    I know we hold an event similar at my school and kids get to form their own teams and create their own uniforms and it is one of the highlights of the year. They need a break from adult micro-management of their lives and it sounds like this opportunity provides just that. Kudos! How do we get more of these rare events for our kids?

  26. PK says:

    I’m not sure that I’m going to answer your question, but wanted to comment anyway. Your post and then reading the comments reminded me of playing softball in a community league when I was 29 or 30. I am not very athletic and so I automatically got put in the right field. About 2 weeks into the season our coach had to quit because his job was making him change his hours. We decided to keep playing and coach ourselves. And that is when it got fun for me and I learned things. During our practices we played different spots. I found out that I was a much better 2nd baseman than an outfielder. I even tagged an athletic runner out at 2nd once much to his shock. I learned to hold the bat and even got on base some. And at the end of the season my team surprised me with a “Most Improved Player” trophy.

    How this plays into your story and question is that my teammates did not give up on me. They treated me with respect, and they took the time to show me even obvious things to them. And it was the most fun I ever had playing any sport.

  27. Su T says:

    To build/foster this commitment and improve results: Stop focusing on winning and results. Place more emphasis on being in the moment and finding the joy in the sport. Sounds simple. Our culture has made this way hard to do. xs

  28. Carly says:

    I was a varsity member for high school sports, and what motivated me the most was recognition. I played my absolute best when my coach and teammates acknowledged my great playing (I was goalie for water polo). You can’t force them to care, but you can give them something to care about. Make them feel proud for being a part of the team, whether it’s JV or varsity. Help them realize this is a skill they have, and they should be proud and take full advantage of it. I always did better with teams that felt like family too. It really urges you to help each other out come game time and play for one another as well as yourself. Getting angry at them and forcing them to care is only going to push them away. All you can do as a coach is get them excited about the sport and about each other getting to play together. May sound a little cheesy, but it’s true

  29. I played high school baseball for one of the best high school programs in the country, yet when I was there, even though we had a surplus of talent, very few went on to play in college. So many of the players got so “burned out” that it was no longer a game, but more like a job. Even though baseball is a great job, when play seemingly turns to work it changes your perspective dramatically! You start to moan and groan about going to practice and even though you still like the games, it no longer becomes worth it when you have to go through all the practice time to get there.
    ON THE FLIP SIDE….in the volleyball game there was no practice; it was all fun with no work to get there. There is also no pressure to perform because if you do well then great and if you don’t, so what, you’re not supposed to be good anyway. The pressure to perform in organized sports can be too much for some people and the let-down they feel when their performance is sub-par can be enough to make them quit. Because people have seen the tremendous payoff when someone becomes a professional athlete, it’s no longer a group of kids getting together “for the love of the game.” It’s regular season, summer season, fall season, winter weight, agility, and speed training, camps and clinics, etc. People can get run down by that. But playing volleyball once a year; who doesn’t like that? The competition due to the tremendous rewards of being a professional athlete have led those with the competitive spirit to thrive, while those who really just want to play for pure enjoyment end up resenting how systemized, structured, and pressure filled “organized” sports have become.

  30. Jim Payne says:

    Purpose, risk, reward. The purpose of the structured, official version of volleball is winning–that often comes across despite our proclamations of personal growth, team, etc. (We do see personal growth and team, but the purpose expressed in winning, and winning is the metric. Also, we no nothing about the coach and program, and he/she might be doing all that we propose inthese posts.) While people want to win the unofficial tourney, the purpose for many is likely the exhiliration that comes with recognition/acceptance. People see you doing heroic/reckless/brave things,even if those things fail. I suspect the crowd and the students value a dive into the stands (successful or not) more than they value a succesful but less exciting set on the court. The risk in the official game is high. If you try something extreme and lose, the metric is still winning. If you dive for a ball and fail, you have lost the point. In the unofficial version, your dive for the ball risks very little (skinned elbow) but the reward or social acceptance and recognition for your heroic act is high…even if you go into the bleachers and don’t get the ball. The metric isn’t necessarily the win…the metric becomes acceptance/recognition. The substitution of recognition as the reward instead of winning completes the contrast.

    So the question: What can a varsity/JV coach do to emulate the informal tourney? Broaden the purpose so that it is clear to athletes that winning is not the only metric of success. Reduce risk by elevating the importance of effort. Recognize and reward effort as much as or more than winning. Allow individual athletes to create that heroic image of themselves in service to their team.

    Or not.

  31. Jawwad Karim says:

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  32. The nature of the event helps foster the freedom that resides in all human beings. The nature of the regimented coaching styles of the Varsity and JV coaches, and the shrouded importance placed on the games these teams play, does the exact opposite. In other words, with no goal in sight, imagination and fearless abandon—the freeing mind-set that fuels effort—carry the day.

    What’s also interesting about this mentality is that I would bet there are fewer injuries at this event, compared to what happens in the student’s structured games and pactices. Free mind, free body; bound up mind, bound up body—and injury. Plus, the students at this event rarely get tired; they could play all day. Why? Because when an athlete (or anyone) performs from a countenance of freedom, they naturally conserve energy.

    Lastly and most importantly, teenagers should slow down a bit and allow this lesson to soak in. I wonder: If this game was played every day, would the students remain so motivated? The ability to be passionate shouldn’t reside in the circumstances of the outside world (coaches, varsity team, or fun volleyball event), this ability—over the long haul—can only come from within.

    As you know, my new book, Stillpower covers this topic completely!

  33. Danny K. says:

    The rewards for winning are never nothing. It seems as though these JV and Varsity Volleyball players gain a lot more by performing in this tournament than they do by performing for their formal team. How can we raise the stakes for performance in these teams? Autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

  34. Compared to online gaming environments I would say this motivation is the ‘bragging right’ rule (

    Some events are considered socially above others. Although there is no financial reward, the social recognition of a win is considered the reward in itself.

    Millions of gamers race to be the ‘first’ to clear objectives. There are tonnes of websites dedicated simply to this bragging rights concept in World of Warcraft ( for example).

  35. Steve in Miami says:

    Why do soldiers fight? They fight for their buddies. They fight not to let their friends and team members down and not to be a coward in front of their peers.

    In an intramural type environment, your team is made up of your friends. You don’t want to let them down.

  36. It’s the inclusive short-term ritual of a community rather than the exclusive long-term obligation of a team member.

    I’m not saying you don’t have community with your teammates, but it’s entirely different given the ongoing nature of that relationship and the discipline required for being on a team.

  37. Kent says:

    I believe those universities don’t build a strong why their athletes should care. They don’t have a good reason to care, that’s why they don’t care.

    Find out a strong why is a MUST!

  38. Eric Busch says:

    While I agree with many of the comments explaining motivation of the students, perhaps other factors are influencing Joe’s perception:

    Novice Play – Extraordinary effort is often compensation for prior mistakes. A great catch by a wide receiver is often enabled by a poor throw from the quarterback ( An incredible alley-oop dunk is sometimes necessitated by a bad pass from the point guard ( And an amazing volleyball save might be required due to a careless, yet lucky, return by the opponent (

    There are likely a greater number of opportunities to “risk dignity and limb” during the phys ed tournament than in a typical varsity match. The lesser skilled play and subsequent mistakes send considerably more volleyballs astray. Combine the increased opportunities for extreme saves with inexperienced players (who are unable to discern a salvageable point from a needless waste of effort) and you get numerous teenagers recklessly and unwittingly flying about the gym.

    Expectations – Assessment of another’s effort is often tainted by their perceived abilities and/or knowledge of the subsequent benefit. As the talent and/or reward increases, the amount of praise for effort decreases. Hence why lesser skilled players are often lauded for their “hustle” and “tenacity”, while gifted players may have their effort questioned. Similarly, maximum effort is assumed from professional athletes being paid millions, while amateurs are admired for their love of the game. The energy put forth by the individuals may be the same, but our expectations are different. Case in point: Brian Cardinal ( versus LeBron James ( in the recent NBA Finals.

    Admittedly Joe sees minimal ability (“…athletically uninclined…”) and little incentive for extraordinary effort (“…reward for winning is nothing…”) at the phys ed tournament. The novice play and lowered expectations may be skewing his comparison of individual effort to that of the varsity squad. While there certainly may be an elevated level of effort, the difference may not be as great as initially thought.

  39. Eric Busch says:

    As for what coaches can do to foster effort, I would advocate creating an environment that meets Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs:

    Physiological – This includes the obvious (water and occasional “breathers” during practice) as well as the obscure (allowing a bathroom break during a tennis match –

    Safety – Provide the necessary equipment, ensure a safe playing surface and minimize the risk of injury whenever possible.

    Love and Belonging – Focus on sincerely demonstrating care and concern not only for your athletes’ performance, but for the athletes themselves. Watch Bob Huggins console DaSean Butler (

    Esteem – Create opportunities for every player to experience success, which often requires redefining or reframing expectations and rewarding failed efforts. Watch John Wooden on success (

    Self Actualization – Inspire athletes to play for more than themselves. Establish a reason for individual effort that transcends the purpose of the team. Watch Hoosiers, Miracle, Remember the Titans and Invictus (

  40. Mike Norton says:

    For High School everything boils down to very base emotions. A closed practice or a poorly attended volleyball tournament means nothing to the teen athlete; however, put someone from the opposite sex for whom they are attracted and all bets are off.

    Think about it. If that cheerleader or football qb or (insert high school crush here) attended practice for a sport in which you participated, would you have acted any different?

    Sex sells.

    Mike Norton

  41. Bill says:

    It’s an open-source volleyball tournament, occasioned by the holidays.

    The only set of rules involved describes the game itself, not how to behave “about” the game.

    Diametric opposite of varsity/JV environment.

  42. David says:

    This volleyball tournament has two distinct advantages over a varsity game.
    (1) It is more autonomy supportive, the percieved locus of causality is more internal – participants are playing for the fun of it rather than because they want to help their team or win a trophy. Ever enjoyed a sport and then decided to set yourself a rigorous training schedule or join a team? You may find that some of the free-spirited fun has gone out of that sport with the added structure.
    (2) The risks of failure are less significant. If they try something nuts and it doesn’t come off they might lose a point, they might lose the game but that’s OK. In Varsity, that’s not OK. This comes back to allowing people more creativity, more autonomy.

  43. Bags says:

    When I was in high school, I played on the volleyball team.

    A handful of teammates were also in my gym class. During the volleyball portion of the semester, we stacked our team so that it was nearly entirely comprised of volleyball players.

    I think we played harder in those games than any other because we had the most to prove. I remember in one scenario, we played a team full of basketball players, and the took the lead. Instantly, our reputation was on the line.

    How could we as the volleyball team retain any sense of dignity after practicing together for months, if we lost to a bunch of tall, smack-talking “jocks” who had nothing to prove?

    There was more at stake in gym class than the state tournament. Easy. (Not to mention the number of spectators was greater in gym class… volleyball was not a big spectator sport.)

  44. Josh says:

    As someone who has participated in these sort of tournaments in high school and as a camp counselor, it’s about self worth, popularity, and really detachment.

    Self-worth because it gives the average student the opportunity to prove that he or she is capable of being an athlete and successful. Volleyball is one of those sports that allows one to partner with better players in a strategic way that reduces one’s openness to weakness or failure as an individual, because it’s a team sport at its core.

    Popularity because everything we do in a competitive nature and to appear to some degree at a higher status than someone else is about winning. We are taught at a young age that we have be faster, stronger, smarter, and better than our peers in order to succeed and tear down the status quo. Tournaments build exposure and in the end popularity if your cards are played right.

    And finally, detachment because it is a season/long term sport. It’s a one-off event. You get to essentially put in all of your energy and passion into one event over a short period of time. There is no long-term commitment, it’s just you, your peers, and a tournament. What do you have to lose?

  45. Morgan Rich says:


    As in Playfulness.

    With all the pressure and expectations our teenagers experience, here is an opportunity to laugh, get out some aggression, have fun, and feel like part of the tribe. Those things don’t happen for our teenagers these days.

    Play is important for kids in kindergarten and it’s important for our teens (and us adullts also).

    Lets Play!

  46. Morgan Rich says:

    I have to admit that I’d like to hear from the teenagers. Nice hearing Josh’s comments from HS (& others).

    It strikes me that there are a bunch of adults hypothesizing about what’g going on…

    and a bunch of teenagers being teenagers…

    I’m curious what is going on behind the scenes. I wonder if there are parts of the story that we don’t know, don’t want to know, or wouldn’t be so convenient.

    Maybe there aren’t any, but maybe there are.

  47. nalts says:

    The question comes from a rare and enlightened soul who observes and questions powerful group norms. I used to be embarrassed about my disdain for sports junkies. Why should it bother me when some fatty uses “we” to refer to a team he watches on TV? It’s odd, but ought not be irritating. Then I realized that anger/judgment (my reaction to jock enthusiasts) was an indication of my fear (isn’t that often the case?). So what was my fear? This: what begins as healthy group bonding can SO easily transform to shared identity/co-dependence. The next domino to fall, if space isn’t inserted, is “fierce loyalty” and “courage.” That’s when we see ostracizing those outside the group, and fights… even wars. What begins as love/pride, when not moderated, can turn to hate/war in a… blink.

  48. Sheldon Bouchard says:

    WOW! It is amazing, though not surprising, to see the response the observation and the questions that came from that observation. There are many terrific comments above and I agree with many of them. I think “Drive” and “A Whole New Mind” both really deal with the issue quite well, as documented above.
    Play vs Organized Sport. I am retired physical education teacher and it has truly been an evolution over time. Growing up most of my development and love for sport came through play. Pickup baseball – playing the game, or 21, or just playing catch, or hitting flies if we were 2 kids, or finding a wall to play catch or hitting rocks with the ‘wooden’ bat when by myself. It was the same for football, or hockey (I am Canadian, Eh!. All sorts of games played and invented with virtually no adult involvement, no referees, the rules were at a minimum, the competition (intensity and effort) were great, the will to win was strong. Yet there was Fair Play, before the term had to be invented, ever present. There was a respect that came from playing tackle football with no equipment with a group of people that ranged in age from 8 to 18, because it took them all to have a game and when you were 18 you had been 8 once. And commitment! I can remember day after day, the same group of kids showing up loyally without anyone scheduling any event, the reward for being early was to become the hitter in scrub and the punishment was being at the end of the line. Of course it is true that we did not have technology to grab our attention, but we went because of the freedom (autonomy); we developed some mastery with massive activity and our only coaching coming from our peers; and I think it filled so many needs socially, physiologically, and psychologically.
    I think sport has been industrialized! There is such a battle for the ‘talented athlete’. The club team wants the high school athlete, the soccer coach wants the volleyball player to commit to ‘his’ sport, the hockey coach wants his athlete to give up all other activities and play hockey 12 months a year (which you can do in Canada, not just because of the weather). Watching ‘organized’ sport, I often wonder how many are having fun? I don’t see kids playing on their own much anymore, even though we live very near a large open playground. Yes maybe kids (and adults) have turned to technology – video games and other. Perhaps it offers them what pickup sport offered me.
    I cannot believe, how I have babbled – feels good!

  49. Eddie Deen says:


    The underlying cause for the tournament to bring out the best in everyone, was that there was no fear attached to the idea of the tournament. Too many times in organize sports, the stage is created that you are a loser until you behave in a way that would please the coach. The tournament reduced the idea that you are a loser or that you need to prove that you are ‘right’. When you can feel ‘OK’ with yourself, the neurological representation allows a sense of freedom to take over your being. The kids are not reacting to a volley ball game, but a neurological representataion of the game. Since meaning is the first step in a person’s action, the meaning that the kids put on the volley ball game was more attached to the idea of pleasure, than avoiding pain. The coaches who want more out of the kids, needs to raise their own level of consciousness. You cannot solve your problem at the same level that you created your problem. The kids are screaming out, that they want more meaning and purpose in their life. They want to feel lovable, the idea that they can recieve data without feeling inadequate. In organize sports, when a team is not jelling, the players have a collective fear of not having control triggers. When they were younger, their power was perceived to be taken away, leaving them with a fear of not having power. This could have have been a local cultural influence. The tournament created a situation where the amygdala did not have to be lit up. I would tell the coaches that their job is to train up a child to feel lovable, to set a stage where the kids feel good about themselves. You do this by eliminating the perceived fear or the insanity of believing that your control is outside of you.

    When a person can project meaning and purpose into their lives, then you have a beautiful thing. Where there is a lower level of consciousness, there is little ‘light’ shining on the screen. This consciousness, the projector has little power. The greater the power that is within the projector, the greater the ‘light’ that will shine on the screen. There is no story or image on the screen, the person that understand that, understands that there has to be greater meaning that goes into their effort. The image or story is created or constructed by the fans who came out to see their collective performance. The players are just letting their light shine, the brighter the light the greater their level of consciousness, the greater the performance. The fans will notice the effort and become greater fans, thus creating the story that will be shared on facebook.

    What is the difference between the tournament and the organize sports at this school? The tournament allows a higher level of consciousness to take stage. To compete with the tournament,the coaches would have to raise their level of awareness in how to raise the level of light within the child. The problem is, when the amygdala is a problem, which I see is the problem with many coaches, how do they solve their problem? Said other wise, when you are unaware of your unawareness, how do you become aware?

    You would have to understand two ideas. One: How does the brain work and who owns the brain? And two: Can you recognize the insanity? Coaching the same way, year after year, but getting results that you do not like.

    Teaching the kids how to change early childhood negative self-interpretations and training them how to feel lovable would be a start to see the same behavior that is observed when the volley ball tournament comes to school.

    When we create schools that influences kids to produce more light from within, then you will see a stark change in what happens on the courts and fields of play.


  50. Eric says:

    Bragging rights. We used to kill ourselves to win Greek Week every year for that reason alone (like this event, it meant basically nothing and you were awarded nothing for it but you held the title for the entire year!).

    It sounds like this event really belongs to the school (meaning the student body) and not the Athletic Department or particular coach or sport. Mass interest / mass pride is adopted when the masses take, assume, or feel ownership of the event, the title, the mission, etc. I would imagine there are many schools in Texas, as one example, where JV and Varsity football players show this kind of commitment to their sport because their sport has been adopted by the student body and is a strong source of pride.

    An open opportunity for anyone to participate in an event that is clearly respected among one’s peers creates an amazing opportunity to shine, achieve, and attain that social status, even for a short time, that comes with (icing on the cake) bragging rights!

  51. Bill says:

    Sports has nothing to do with it. It could be a team event building toothpick bridges. It will likely be impossible to replicate this in the organized team setting.

    1. The aura around this ANNUAL event. Everybody looks forward to the break from stressful school work (likely finals at the holidays). It’s a fun break.

    2. No pressure… If I save a point, I’m a hero for a moment, if I screw it up, oh well (nobody will remember next week anyway).

    3. Everybody gets a shot. I’m guessing the teams are chosen randomly. That means that any given team could win. If all the teams competed against the varsity team, it would be discouraging and noone would want to play. We love when there is the possibility.

  52. Clara Griffin says:

    Expectation is a bitch!

    Sounds like FedEx day for that high school phys. ed. department.

    The JV and Varsity are dealing with expectations. Often big time expectations with the added bonus of an audience. There are the overt stated expectations of coaches, teachers, team mates, friends, even parents, and unspoken or imagined expectations. The expectations they either imagine other people have of them and/or their interpretation of other peoples expectations (sometimes the message sent isn’t the message received)

    Those silent internal expectations are often the most motivation stealing and soul killing of all. They just suck the fun out of everything — even something you really truly want to do. A strong attachment to an outcome is a great recipe for disappointment – even “failure”.

    NOW do all that in front of an audience. Even the lucky person whose internal voices of expectation operate at a dull roar, will find that volume knob goes to 11 in front of an audience.

    The annual tournament doesn’t have an expected outcome, therefore failure is not an option. It’s play, pure and simple. Play is fun and we get passionate about fun. Joy is a great pain killer. Those kids that dive into the bleachers probably don’t even feel it. You know how that is? Wake up in the morning and think “Where’d that bruise come from? I must have had a REALLY good time.”

    As for risking dignity or looking ridiculous, it’s harder when the risk of failure and disappointment is also present. When the only expectation is fun and volleyball, then nothing is lost and making a goofy undignified mistake is just funny.

    And finally, since everyone plays, there is no audience only players. Then the roaring internal committee kicks back and takes a break, which makes our physical response that much quicker. We play better when the committee sits back and shuts up.

    Would you rather show up to play or show up to live up to everyone’s expectations (real or imagined)?

  53. Bob says:

    Nobody gets to the very root of “why we care”. Why do we care about anything? What is the origin of this and how is it sustained. It began somewhere, where is the beginning of caring? It began before the mother-child relationship, but where? It began much beyond the simple tournament play of sports, but where?

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