Regardless of the sport or level of play, it is in a coach’s job criteria to motivate his players. Aside from drawing up the X’s and O’s, coaches must prepare the heart and mind of a player heading into a game. A great motivator can make all the difference for a team on game day.
San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh is not the first coach in history to fuel his players using motivational tactics, however, he does have a unique take. His methods have been innovate and thought-provoking to say the least.
While other coaches may favor an effective speech, Harbaugh has employed tangible, in-your-face devices that are unique and meaningful on multiple levels.
This week, Sam Farmer of the L.A. Times broke the story on Harbaugh’s most recent idea to get his squad juiced up for the postseason. After a meeting during Wild Card Weekend, the 49ers coach surprised his players when they returned to the locker room.
Above the cubby of all 53 players hung a photograph of them from high school, along with their ranking—national and state—heading to college.
And besides reminiscing on their teenage years, it was intriguing to see where certain guys were ranked.
For instance, linebacker Patrick Willis was not ranked nationally, or in his home state of Tennessee. However, Willis went on to receive a scholarship to Ole Miss, was then drafted 11th overall and is now a six-time Pro Bowler and five-time first-team All-Pro.
Then there are others like Randy Moss, whose scouting reports had him ranked No. 1 in nearly every category as the nation’s top recruit. Ahmad Brooks was a top recruit coming out of high school, but entered the league through the supplemental draft and was claimed off waivers by the 49ers.
One of the fundamental points here is there is no one way to succeed. Each individual has a different story, but they’re all here now with the same goal in mind.
Harbaugh was relatively hush on the reason behind the photos, but 49ers PR Director Bob Lange spoke on his behalf, saying the coach “wants the players to be able to interpret the reason for it in anyway they want.”
49ers strong safety Donte Whitner had this to say:
Coach really wants us to tap into what we wanted to be at that time. When you look at this picture, it's like, 'At this moment, what did I want to be?' We all look at this and we understand what we wanted to be, and where we are now.
This is not the first time Harbaugh employed an upbeat motivational tool. He's been able to reach his players and really stimulate their spirit.
The coach is a noted proponent of positive reinforcement. He is loyal to his players and never shies from giving them credit. After a touchdown, he can be seen celebrating as enthusiastically as anyone else, as the first one to greet his offense as they come off the field.
He puts forth a great effort in that regard, doing little things like having individual conversations, giving his first-class seat to a random player when the team travels or boasting his players in front of the media.
One of the more well documented instants when Harbaugh tapped into this team in such a manner is when he distributed blue-collar work shirts among the players and staff in 2011. This was one of Harbaugh’s first motions with San Francisco, as he preached work ethic to establish a team identity.
This year, Harbaugh had a street sign erected on the premises in Santa Clara. A sign that reads, "Forty Niner Way," stands tall for players to see on their walk back-and-forth between the locker room and practice field. It is meant to be a reminder of the way they approach things in the Bay Area.
Every now and then, when the time is appropriate, Harbaugh breathes confidence into this team. These ideas have typically come organically, but their impact has resonated.
And after it's all said and done, a good motivational device can often be traced to a strong postseason run. We know the 49ers have the pieces in place to accomplish their goal, but their mental state of being is a completely different story altogether.
With this recent ploy, just about every member of the 53-man squad will remember why they first put on pads in the first place. And for many of them, it was to one day get to the NFL and win a Super Bowl. Now that the moment is within reach, can they seize it?
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