On Monday, Conner Nord, a standout post on the St. Thomas basketball team, walked through the doors to Schoenecker Arena a little after noon.
He wasn’t required to be in the gym until the team’s 2:15 p.m. shootaround. He spent the afternoon traveling to Bethel for an important game in the MIAC. He arrived early to lift weights and take extra shots.
“Conner doesn’t have to be here,” St. Thomas coach John Tauer said, nodding at the court. “That’s a great example of what we talk about with intrinsic motivation.”
After important conference victories this week at Bethel and St. Olaf, the Tommies, 14-1 and ranked No. 3 in the nation in Division III, are building another in a long history of successful seasons. Their story, though, has not remained the same.
Tauer succeeded the highly successful Steve Fritz as the Tommies’ coach in 2011. After playing basketball at Cretin-Derham Hall and St. Thomas, Tauer did his graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin, where he wrote his Ph.D. thesis on intrinsic motivation, before becoming Fritz’s longtime assistant.
The sports world is filled with extrinsic motivation — scholarships, contracts, screaming coaches.
“That’s the carrot-or-stick approach,” Tauer said. “Intrinsic motivation is doing something because you love it.”
From Fritz, Tauer learned major points of emphasis — “taking care of the ball, playing defense and being tough-minded.” He emphasizes four major statistical categories — field-goal percentage, turnovers, free-throw shooting and offensive rebounding.
In a twist, Tauer takes typical coaching points and presents them in terms of motivation and statistical models. He doesn’t merely tell his team to cut down on turnovers, he creates a formula proving that being successful on less than 98.3 percent of passes will lead to failure.
“If you complete 90 percent of your passes — which sounds good — your turnover rate will be unacceptable,” he said. “I want my players thinking that if there isn’t a 98.3 percent chance of getting a pass to a teammate, then it’s too risky.”
Earlier this season, against national power Wis.-Stevens Point, St. Thomas committed only two turnovers. The Tommies rank second in Division III in overall efficiency and No. 1 in offensive efficiency out of 420 teams, under a statistical analysis run by Tomaroonandgold.blogspot.com.
To encourage high-percentage shots, Tauer discourages his best shooters from taking shots they might even be able to make.
“The problem is, if my best shooter makes a difficult shot, then it might encourage lesser shooters to try the same shot,” Tauer said.
He has six players averaging in double figures in points, all of them between 10.3 and 11.9 per game. On Monday at Bethel, senior guard Marcus Alipate scored 30; on Wednesday at St. Olaf, sophomore guard Grant Shaeffer scored 22.
“The unselfishness that our guys display is probably above all,” Tauer said. “We get really good players. A lot of them turn down D-II scholarships to come here. But we never have the leading scorer in the conference. We might be the only team in the country with six guys scoring in double figures.
“When players come here they know they might not score as much as they would have elsewhere, but they look at this as a fun way to play, and they know they’re going to win.”
Tauer said he built his career around three things he loves to do: coaching the Tommies, running basketball camps and teaching psychology.
“He has so much knowledge of not only the game, but human beings,” Nord said. “He has used psychology on me. I used to be kind of a hot head, and he’s helped me control my emotions and channel my energy so it’s a positive thing instead of a negative. He studies every little detail of the game.”
Tauer even plans to publish a book on “WOSPs” — well-intentioned, over-involved sports parents.
“I get to do three things I love,” Tauer said. “Coach, teach psychology and run basketball camps.”
That would be the definition of intrinsic motivation.