What are your playing for when there’s nothing to play for?

At some point most of us have a season where eventually there isn’t anything to play for anymore. For the purposes of this discussion I mean for example you have been mathematically eliminated from post-season contention. There are other “nothing to play for” situations, but this is probably the most acute one. It’s the situation where it’s easiest to lose the team and see motivation levels plummet.

So what do you do? How do you keep the players – and yourself – motivated to continue training and playing at 100%?

Performance goals

One answer it to have other things to play for. Let me use the 2017 Midwestern State University (MSU) team as an example.

Unfortunately, we knew going into the final week of the season that we couldn’t make the conference tournament. We were three wins behind with only two conference matches to play. Yet, we still had three matches left – a Tuesday non-conference match, then Thursday and Friday conference fixtures.

Since we couldn’t focus on reaching the tournament, we shifted our attention to some secondary goals we defined earlier. One of them was to not lose any of the non-conference matches we played against teams outside the Top 25. According to the records I could see, we hadn’t done that in any season at least as far back as 2008. We needed to win the Tuesday match to achieve that objective, which we did.

Another objective was to get to 7+ conference wins, which we hadn’t done since 2013. We got on that in our Thursday match.

Unfortunately, a third goal we couldn’t quite achieve. We wanted to end with a winning season. We went into our last match 15-15, but came out 15-16. Still, that kept us fighting right through the last day of the season.

To have performance goals like this, obviously you need to set them up ahead of time. It’s easier to say, “We still have these goals to work toward” if the players were aware of them before, than if you just pull them out once the main goal is out of reach. Sustaining motivation is easier than trying to create it.

Developmental objectives

There are also non-performance things you can work toward. Stuff on the developmental side of things tends to stand out in this regard. Younger players who haven’t gotten much court time can play. You can work on aspects of the game that you want to see get better for the future. Playing a different type of system is an option.

The one plus to not having anything to play for is that you also don’t have anything to lose. You can take some risks. The important thing, though, is you need buy-in from the team. They need to be convinced that it’s worth putting in the time and effort. If not, the motivation just won’t be there.

Emotional motivations

A third potential area of motivation to get through those final matches is the emotional side of things. They can cover a range of possible thought processes.

  • Bragging rights over our big rival
  • Do it for the seniors
  • Playing spoiler
  • Revenge
  • Have fun!

No doubt you can think of others that might fit in here.

The idea in all of this is that you find a way to always have something to play for or that you’re aiming at. This shouldn’t just be something that comes up at the end of the season. If you can set things up from the beginning of the year, it’s much easier to keep a team’s motivation consistently high all through the campaign.

John Forman
About the Author: John Forman

John currently coaches for an NCAA Division II women’s team. This follows a stint as head coach for a women’s professional team in Sweden. Prior to that he was the head coach for the University of Exeter Volleyball Club BUCS teams (roughly the UK version of the NCAA) while working toward a PhD. He previously coached in Division I of NCAA Women’s Volleyball in the US, with additional experience at the Juniors club level, both coaching and managing, among numerous other volleyball adventures. Learn more on his bio page.

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