When Patrick McHugh read the book The Energy Bus, he felt inspired. Patrick is an excellent High School Coach. He’s meticulous in his planning, always trying to learn, and willing to reach out to others to help perfect his craft. In other words, he’s the perfect guy to energetically transfer his lessons from a book to the team. Upon reading the book, he gave it to his top runners to read, knowing that they’d get the message and come together.

The book hit like a dud. Sure, kids might have picked up a message here or there, but it didn’t have the same profound impact it did with Patrick. The kids couldn’t relate.

When an athletic director handed the same book out to his department, about half of the people bought in, glowing with excitement, while others slugged through the words. Despite a large group of pretty successful people, all significantly older than Mr. McHugh’s High School protégé’s, the book didn’t have the same profound impact that the AD hoped. Certain employees were gung-ho, discussing the contents over the proverbial water-cooler, while others lamented it as a High Schooler assigned to read during his precious summer vacation would.

Was the problem the people? Was it the message of the book itself?

Though I have not read it, by all accounts, The Energy Bus  is a fine book. The author champions simple concepts that elaborate on a concept that my high school coach, Gerald Stewart, used to explain to his team of misfit teenagers. “You’re either on the boat or you’re off. We know where we are headed and we’ve got full steam ahead in that direction. We’re only going to pick up momentum. Either get on the boat or you’ll be left on the dock.”

But why can Patrick McHugh read a book and have it resonate completely, while someone else, just as enthusiastic about improving their performance, take nothing away, tossing it to the side?

Connection and Framework:

If you want to motivate a bunch of skinny teenage boys about what the life of a real runner is, you don’t pick up a historical biography of Emil Zatopek as their introduction. It’s too real. You wait to tell them the heroics of Zatopek once they have an appreciation for running and are drawn to exploring its history. If you want to ingrain the right mindset, you don’t hand them a pop psychology book about mindsets, unless you want to bore them death. Instead, you hand them Once a Runner.

In Once A Runner, you get a fictional novel that captures the essence of what it means to be a runner. You get a clear picture of the dedication, sacrifice, loneliness, and the mind-numbing and daunting work required; Off the track, you get the pranks, the relationship woes, the quirky side of running. In other words, all the emotion that a High School or college runner goes through are present, available, and tied into an entertaining story. There is no grand deep lesson that the reader’s supposed to grasp, instead, the reader leaves wanting to live the lifestyle of Quentin Cassidy.

One of my athletes is an elementary school teacher in addition to running pretty fast post-collegiately. When picking out books for her students to read, she reaches for Dr. Seuss books first. The reason for picking them isn’t because they have a colorful set of characters or that they are classics with movies tie-ins. Instead, she chooses Dr. Seuss because they have lessons and themes hidden in them that are invaluable for children to learn. The lessons are presented in such a way that they are seen as entertainment first. In other words, the young kids can relate and connect with it.

As adults, we tend to assume that if we find something interesting or mind-blowing, everyone will experience that same gut reaction. We connect the positive, inspirational emotion from reading the book to the book itself. The larger the emotional response, the ‘aha moment’ of inspiration, the greater the connection. We then make the assumption that everyone will have that same emotional response.

The reality is they don’t. We all bring different perspectives and form our own psychological framework. In order for us to get that “aha!” feeling, we need to be able to connect what we are reading to something that matters in our life. If someone would have handed me a Marcus Aurelius’ book called Meditations at the age of 21, I would have laughed and thrown it on the shelf never to be seen again. I had nothing to connect it too. I wasn’t in the state of mind to appreciate the lessons thrown my way. Now, a decade later, I connect the ancient wisdom to our modern problems of controlling ego, encouraging resilience, and a host of other lessons which relate to how I coach and live my life.

Instead of lamenting and saying “these kids just don’t get it” or “these employees are just lazy and don’t want to succeed as much as management does”, we need to step back and ask where are these individuals coming from? What’s their mindset and how do they see the world?

Will a book like The Energy Bus seem like self-help sappy motivation to a teenager? It’s up to you to decide. There are no hard and fast rules. Some teens are ready to delve into exercise physiology texts for understanding; others won’t pick up a book if you forced them to.

The key isn’t to force a particular view of the world upon anyone; instead, it’s to approach the communication problem from multiple directions, hoping to get the message across that you want. It’s the message that matters. The way it gets conveyed is dependent on what the athlete, employee, or coach brings to the table.

The magic isn’t in the book, movie, blog, or speech. The magic is in the message relating to the athlete or employee. On an individual level, that means understanding what makes an athlete tick, while on a global or team level, that means providing multiple options or methods to get the message across. It’s why, as a coach, I tend to send the same message from multiple different angles. Sometimes I might describe a research study, other times I might tell a personal story of a situation I was in, or perhaps bring someone in who they admire to tell a similar story, or maybe I send out an article or two to read on the subject. It might seem like a shotgun approach, but the varied information means that I’m increasing each individual’s chance at connecting with one of those delivery methods.

In the end, it’s not that Mr. McHugh’s athletes were uninspired. It’s not that the Athletic Departments employees were ignorant if they couldn’t relate. Instead, it’s simply that the message delivered in that specific manner did not connect. The students and employees, who got little out of it, simply could not relate.

Whether it’s in the utilization of a coaching cue or in motivating an athlete through a workout, it’s our job to design the right message to deliver to ensure connection.

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