How to create internally motivated athletes

As coaches, leaders, or trainers; the actions we inspire from those around us form the basis of our effectiveness. This article looks to cast a spotlight on that puzzle that is motivation, discussing a framework to view human behavior within, and proposing strategies for the creation of internally motivated athletes.

Motivation, simply put, is the driving force behind action. It’s the reason we undertake tasks, find stimulation, and persist despite of challenge. Motivation is a key indicator of achievement, success, and wellbeing across a wide range of populations.

We can break motivation down into three distinct forms. A handy graphic is included below, showing the continuum between these forms of motivation.

Motivation Continuum.fw.png

Amotivation is the absence of motivation. It’s a state reached when a task seems pointless, or nonsensical. As a result of amotivation, we often see a lack of action, or no willingness to change and grow.

External motivation comes from a source outside of a person’s self, and can further be divided into four main forms.

The most external, and arguably most common, of these is that of reward and punishment. Examples of this would be financial bonuses for winning games, or running sprints at practice for each goal the team concedes.

Next along the continuum, we have that of self-preservation. This form of external motivation is where action is undertaken in an attempt to increase perceptions of ability, or to avoid public humiliation. Training hard to not be beaten by your siblings in this year’s family 5k is an example of this form of motivation.

Moving on, we have outcome driven motivation. This is where an athlete consciously values an outcome goal enough, that they can sustain motivation in pursuit of this. An athlete who suffers through 5am pre-season practice sessions with the aim of making the starting lineup come game 1 would be motivated in this way.

The most automatic form of external motivation is that of personal value. This form of motivation occurs when actions take place out of habit, or because an individual has formed their identity around their craft. If an athlete arrives early to shoot free-throws, not out of enjoyment but because of personal accountability, they could be displaying this form of motivation.

Internal motivation is the creation of action, for no other reason than because doing so is of interest in itself. This is a powerful motivational state where athletes feel empowered to self-govern their behaviors. Further, they don’t require the accountability or validation of others to undertake tasks which may otherwise be viewed as difficult, tedious, or uncomfortable - so long as these activities will help them get closer to fulfilling their potential.

We hopefully can all agree that humans show a general tendency towards growth and development. As coaches, we can harness this curiosity to promote increasingly internal forms of motivation. Satisfying three distinct needs has been identified as an an effective method coaches can use when considering how to shift athletes along this motivation continuum.

The first of these is autonomy. Autonomy is the desire to have control and agency over the direction in which life is flowing. It’s related to the choices that are permitted, and the degree to which free will is perceived.

Coaches can increase the satisfaction of this need through integrating small controlled options into athlete’s sessions. Listing warmup activities on the board and allowing athletes to complete them in the order that they see fit, or asking your team if they’d rather extra serving reps or more time to stretch and reflect during the last few minutes of practice, are both easy to incorporate examples of providing this support. If we believe that our athletes are there to be the best they can be, then providing choices within the constraints of our expertise will only serve to empower them to become more internally motivated.

Secondly, we have competence. Competence is the pursuit of mastery, and the want to see a clear structure for why today’s actions will become tomorrow’s successes.

The need for competence can be satisfied in two main ways. The first is by providing opportunities to celebrate success within our sessions. This can be easy to do with novice athletes, but when working with elite performers it’s possible for mastery to slip by unacknowledged. By offering small opportunities for success, such as scheduling exercises or drills which athletes are already competent at the beginning of sessions, we create a platform for mastery to be experienced. The other way in which competence can be satisfied is by providing a clear structure for why you are asking an athlete to undertake a task or exercise. Too often we tell athletes to trust the process, suggesting that we, as the coach, hold the secrets to success. We can more effectively promote internal forms of motivation by walking athletes through the plan for their development, and coupling with the above need for autonomy, even letting them collaborate on that plan with us.

Finally, relatedness is the need for the connection to, closeness of, and respect for those around us. This need for belonging gives purpose to action, and puts achievement into perspective.

To help satisfy the need for relatedness, consider the opportunities that coaches have to help athletes form social connections and experience closeness. Having athletes spend periods of time training in peer groups, or forming mentorship opportunities within your program, are examples of how teams can intentionally satisfy this need. For individually trained athletes, coaches can help support relatedness through leveling power-imbalances when practical, or providing appropriate disclosure about their own athletic history.

We are privileged to be trusted with supporting the journey an athlete takes to fulfil their potential. An athlete who is further along the continuum towards internal motivation is more likely to be diligent and disciplined in their practice, to prioritize their craft, and to display effective decision making. The role that coaching staff plays in creating internally motivated athletes cannot be overlooked, and we should challenge our peers to be intentional and purposeful when helping those around us pursue their dreams.

Mzk Performance also conducts consultations and workshops where we guide coaches, trainers, and leaders along this path of professional development. For more information, please see our services page, or get in contact. Thanks for reading!