Every other week in The Coach’s Box, Timothy Thomas explores the various lessons that can be learned from the world of sports.
Baseball season is officially over, with the Houston Astros capturing their second World Series in six years. The win is a marquee milestone for Dusty Baker, who became the Astros’ manager in 2020. At 73 years old, Baker was finally able to seal a championship after a succession of devastating World Series losses over the past two decades. His presence as an African American baseball manager is also significant to all who are familiar with the racial history of Major League Baseball.
Baker’s will to continue pressing for excellence despite hostility and constant shortfalls can be attributed to what he describes as his father’s “negative motivation.” In an article for The Athletic, Baker mentions what his father, Johnnie Baker, Sr., told him after losing the 2002 World Series after blowing a 5-0 lead in game 6: “Man, after the way (you) lost that one, I don’t know if you’ll ever win another one.” Dusty Baker insists that his dad didn’t mean anything negative by his comment: “Back in the old school, there was no such thing as negative motivation,” he told The Athletic. “In the new school, negative motivation doesn’t work.”
As a former athlete and current coach, I consider myself, like hip hop artist J. Cole, a sort of middle child navigating the new and old schools. I had coaches who lambasted my poor efforts and were hesitant to heap praise on my achievements. Their bluntness motivated me to push for excellence. But I also had coaches who encouraged me and validated my worth as an athlete, which was equally inspiring.
As a coach today, I can testify that what Baker says is true: negative motivation doesn’t work as well in our current social climate. Many (not all) athletes and parents expect positive affirmations to motivate and inspire improvement. But as people, regardless of vocation, is it possible that negative motivation could work in tandem with positivity?
When we look at Jesus’s life, we see him using negative motivation throughout the record of his ministry alongside positive motivation. We see Jesus using what is perceptibly negative to draw people into something more positive than they could’ve imagined.
Take the Samaritan woman by the well as an example. Jesus calls her out on the number of husbands she’s had and affirms the status of the man she’s currently shacking up with to show her who he was and who she should place her faith in (John 4:18-23). Or how about the rich young ruler who did everything according to Jewish traditions and even knew all the right things to say? Jesus praises his efforts but points out the one thing he lacks: trust in God above his riches (Matthew 19:16-22). In these examples, we see optimistic and pessimistic reactions to Jesus’s “negative motivation.” The woman at the well grew excited and was ready to place her faith in Jesus whereas the rich young ruler walked away in sadness at how much he would have to give up to follow Jesus.
In these scenarios, we learn the way of Jesus is not to sacrifice the negative motivations for the positive in order to achieve favorable results. Rather, both can be used for a more freeing outcome. The results may not be what we desire as coaches, teachers, managers, or parents, but it allows us the freedom to lead in truth, and those under our authority the freedom to choose how to respond to those truths—and that’s the way of love.
So when it comes to our work, especially for those responsible for managing and motivating people, this “Jesus way” approach is most beneficial.
As Dusty Baker told The Athletic, “[M]y dad was the kind of dude that I’d score four or five touchdowns, score 30 points, and I would ask him, ‘How did I do tonight in basketball?’ And my dad would tell me, ‘Pretty good.’” Baker confesses he wanted his dad to confirm what he felt: that he did great. Today, however, Baker recognizes his father’s “pretty good” was his way of keeping him motivated.
As a track and field coach, I take a similar approach to my athletes. I don’t focus on pre-season or mid-season achievements. The goal comes at the end of the season when we’re working for a district, area, regional, or state championship. If we’re content with where we are today, we’re susceptible to losing focus on who we have the potential to become. We do celebrate our wins, but only as a marker or stepping stone for where we’re headed.
Many athletes simply can’t handle the criticism when I point out the reality that they’re not as talented or skilled as they need to be yet. As a people pleaser, I used to be inclined to take a strictly positive approach to avoid conflict. However, taking the toxic positivity approach with this kind of athlete is an incorrect response based on my experience—and what I’ve learned studying Jesus’ ministry.
Toxic positivity distorts reality, and it causes more harm than the temporary hurt feelings that come from negatively motivating people with the truth. If Jesus had dismissed the Samaritan woman’s sin, he would’ve robbed her of the opportunity to recognize his prophetic power. If he had patted the rich young ruler on the back and sent him on his way, justified in his performative salvation, Jesus would’ve robbed him of the opportunity to treasure who and what is most valuable in this life: faith in Jesus’ works for our salvation.
So again, we can’t have one without the other. Both positive and negative motivation are beneficial. But if we sacrifice the negativity to have only positivity, we’ll rob ourselves and those around us of experiencing the beauty that comes from removing the comforts of one’s accomplishments. It took Dusty Baker most of his managing career to achieve his ultimate goal, and he would not have achieved it without his father’s “negative motivation.”