How to Boost Sustainable Motivation In Your Athletes

Only 34% of American workers are engaged in their work, according to a Gallup report published in March 2016. That’s the highest since 2011. A major aspect of engagement is motivation. In sports (the work of athletes), players tend to be more engaged and motivated to play their best than other occupations. Perhaps that is due to more streamlined focus toward winning, clear roles, and interdependence of team sports. However, coaches play a significant role in their team’s daily motivation. 

In interviews, we hear athletes talk about loving the game. But they still don’t like grueling hours in the gym or film sessions. To perform to their potential your team needs sustainable motivation, not fleeting motivation.

The Secret to Motivation

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan are the researchers behind the most widely accepted theory on motivation, Self-Determination Theory (SDT). According to Deci and Ryan’s model, motivators range on a continuum from controlled (more external) to autonomous (more internal).

Control-based motivators rely on an external source like rewards and punishments. In contrast, autonomy-based motivators come from within the individual, like meeting her own expectations and adhering to her personal values.

Implementing control-based motivators is a lot of work for coaches, leaders, and parents. After a while, the reward is good enough or the punishment severe enough to entice the desired behavior. These work well in the short term, but aren’t sustainable.

Autonomy-based motivators, on the other hand, are driven by the athlete taking ownership of the behavior because they want to. The behavior aligns with results he or she desires, how the individual views him/herself, and his or her values.

Coach Athletes To Motivate Themselves

Coaches can increase team members’ motivation by helping them connect their responsibilities to what they care about most. Specifically, help athletes connect behaviors to outcomes, feelings, and values they care about.

1. Connect to Outcomes

Connect behaviors to outcomes your athletes care about. Which of these outcomes do your players care about most?

  • Winning
  • Individual/Team Stats
  • Personal Bests
  • Physique
  • Endurance
  • Sport/Position Abilities
  • Notoriety
  • Respect of Teammates
  • Playing Time

Show athletes how specific behaviors, roles, and decisions help them achieve outcomes they already care most about.

2. Connect to Feelings

Connect behaviors to feelings your athletes care about. Discuss how doing the little things or eating healthy can help increase an athlete’s confidence, pride, and satisfaction.

For example, putting in the time in the film room will give you the confidence to make game time adjustments and make a play.

3. Connect to Values

Connect behaviors to values athletes aspire to.

If a player believes a good teammate should have your back, then you can leverage that to emphasize to a defensive lineman that he should hit his gap to avoid hanging the linebacker out to dry.

For a player who wants to be a leader or captain on the team, encourage them to behave like a captain should. For example, emphasize that a captain holds others accountable for their attitude and effort. This connects the behavior of holding others accountable to the value the player places on being a team captain.

Leverage More Sustainable Motivators

Your team will bring more energy, enthusiasm, and effort when their responsibilities tie to what they care about most. Team members will take personal pride in those actions you want them to do. This boosts motivation. Leveraging autonomous-based motivators connects to internal motivation which are more sustainable fuel for the fire.

Question: How does leveraging autonomy-based motivators make a coach’s job easier? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter.


Please note: I encourage reader discussion, however, I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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