3 ways coaches can improve athletes' motivation

I have noticed that when I talk with coaches about mental performance training, there are two topics that always come: confidence and motivation. These two topic seem to be the hardest to coach as well as can have an enormous impact on performance. We'll leave confidence for a later blog, but in this blog post, let's talk about motivation and how you, as a coach, can increase your athlete's motivation by using the science and principles behind the Self-Determination Theory. However, before I want to talk about that, I feel like I need to explain why I am personally very interested in motivation. That is all due to a story that one of my professors told me back in university:


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Two children like to play outside in front of the house of an old man. Every day, they come and play soccer outside together. However, the old man does not like the children playing in front of his home (I guess he is just old and bitter) so he comes up with a plan. One day, while the children are playing, he walks over to them and gives both of them 1 dollar and tells them: "I like it so much when both of you play here, here is a dollar for playing in front of my house. If you come back tomorrow, you will get another one". The kids are delighted, they can play outside and get money. The next day, the two kids come back and knock on the old man's door: "we are going to play outside know, can we have our dollar?". The old man replies: "absolutely, here you go!" and hands them each one dollar. Several days continue like this, the children come to the door, receive their dollar and play outside. Until one day, after knocking on the door the old man says: "I won't pay you to play in front of my house anymore". To which the children reply: "well then we won't play outside anymore!"

This story captures the sometimes counter intuitive nature of motivation. Very often, motivation works in the exact opposite way of what you would expect, and can therefore be really confusing. If you look at the story, you might think that the old man would increase the motivation to play soccer outside by adding the incentive of the dollar. This might be true for a certain amount of time, but it turns out that it is almost impossible to have multiple sources of motivation competing with each other. On top of that, the human brain is designed to do things the easy way, so being motivation by the dollar is easier (less internal energy has to be spend) than being motivated by fun. The result is that over time, the children's motivation to play outside shifts from having fun to earning a dollar. This is not a problem, the result is the same, until the dollar disappears. The motivation is now suddenly gone, and therefore the children disengage from the activity.

What happened in this story is closely related to a theory regarding motivation called the Self-Determination Theory or SDT (Ryan & Deci, 2000). In essence, this is a theory about internal and external motivation (playing for fun vs playing for the dollar). It places different types, or sources, of motivation on a scale based on how self determined (internal) the behaviour is. All the way on the left of this scale is amotivation, or no motivation at all. In this case, the person would never start doing this activity. Right next to amotivation is a type of motivation called external regulation: you are engaging in a behaviour to achieve an external reward or avoid external punishment. An example of this would be the dollar in the story. With this kind or motivation, the individual will only engage in the activity if he or she would receive the reward, the motivation is completely external. External regulation explains why the children stopped playing soccer when the dollar was removed. As you start to move further to the right, the chance that someone will engage in a certain behaviour based on internal reasons increases, with intrinsic motivation (doing things because they are fun) being a completely internal motivation. In other words, someone who is intrinsically motivated does not need any outside help to start an activity.

That is the basic idea of the SDT, but how does this apply to coaching? I think that most coaches can agree on two things regarding the SDT: (1) Most athletes probably started playing for intrinsic reasons. (2) The more internal the motivation of my athletes, the better because they will work harder on their own. Overall, I think coaches can agree that we are striving for internal motivation within our athletes. Now think back to the story I told you earlier, and ask yourself: who am I, the coach, in this story and who are the athletes? This is where the role of the coach in their athletes' motivation becomes critical: they are the old man and therefore they decide whether the motivation is internal, or whether it is external. Another lesson we can learn from the story is what the dollar is in terms of coaching: reward and punishment. If a coach uses things like running suicides when practice isn't intense enough, or playing fun games if the practice is going well, he or she is creating external motivation to practice hard and when the coach isn't there or the rewards and punishments are removed, the athletes' motivation is gone.

This creates a bit of a difficult situation for a coach, because it is basically saying that you cannot intervene with the athletes' internal motivation without risking to destroy it. However, what do you do when practice isn't going well? Do you just let the athletes continue and waste training time? This is a difficult balancing act that coaches have to learn how to deal with. Luckily, the Self-Determination Theory has a second part that provides real world advice on how to foster and strengthen internal motivation, allowing coaches to both push their athletes when things aren't going the way they want without threatening to diminish their internal motivation. This part of the SDT states that in order to be internally motivated, athletes need to experience 3 things: autonomy, relatedness and competence. Each one of these three needs, offer great practical points that coaches can use to increase their athletes motivation in a sustainable way.


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The need for autonomy means that athletes need to feel like they are in control of their own actions and behaviour. For instance, an athlete that can do a warm-up at their own pace will feel more autonomy compared to an athlete that is forced to do a team warm-up. In the research on these three needs, autonomy is consistently marked as the most important one out of the three, and therefore coaches should focus on fulfilling this need first. Some great examples of ways to create autonomy for your athletes could be:

  • Offering a choice of multiple different warm-up drills

  • Allowing athletes to pick their own teams or partners for drills and work-outs

  • Letting athletes set their own performance targets for practice and games

What is important to understand as a coach, is that autonomy does not mean that the athlete should be allowed to do whatever they want. Rather, it is about the perception of choice. If you provide several good options, each of which reaches your drill target, to an athlete they will feel that their need of autonomy is fulfilled.


The second need that is described in the SDT is relatedness, or the feeling of being part of a bigger unit. This need explains why it is easier for people to feel motivation to go run in a running group compared to being motivated to run on their own. The coach can play a huge impact on the feeling of relatedness by creating an environment that promotes teamwork and a sense of belonging. There are several ways for coaches to increase the feeling of relatedness in athletes: