Brian Hite, Ph.D.

Phone No: 818-430-4182
Email: Brian@BeginAgain

Motivation is essential for athletes to realize their potential; however, at times their motivation appears extremely elusive and can fluctuate seemingly without warning. The goals of this article are to describe two theoretical frameworks that may be useful for understanding as well as preventing motivational decline; describe several coaching behaviors that can positively influence athlete motivation; and present some practical motivation-enhancing techniques.

Self-Determination Theory

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) posits that motivation should be viewed as a continuum and that intrinsic motivation (i.e. participating in a behavior purely out of enjoyment of the activity) is directly related to the perceived satisfaction of three basic human needs: autonomy (the belief that our behaviors are consciously chosen), competence (the feeling that our efforts are effective), and relatedness (the sense that we are an accepted member of a group) (Deci & Ryan, 1985). That is, intrinsic motivation occurs when we believe that we are in control of our own destinies, that our behaviors are effective, and that we are accepted by our peers.

Achievement Goal Theory

Another theoretical framework that has been used to evaluate and predict motivation is achievement goal theory (Nicholls, 1989). Whereas SDT emphasizes the perceived satisfaction of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, achievement goal theory addresses how these perceptions, particularly of competence, come to exist. Achievement goal theory posits that there are two primary ways in which competence is determined by an individual in a given situation. Athletes utilizing a task-mastery goal orientation tend to evaluate their competence in terms of factors over which they have control, such as individual improvement, effort, perseverance, and new skill acquisition. Athletes with an ego-centered goal orientation, on the other hand, tend to evaluate their competence in terms of how their performances compare to those of their peers. That is, beating other people, outperforming their peers, and achieving better results with less effort are indicative of success to individuals with an ego goal orientation. Though some sport psychology professionals have advocated the use of both task-mastery and ego oriented goals (Steinberg, et al., 2000), the majority of the literature suggests that task-mastery goals are more effective than ego-oriented goals and that, unless competence levels are high, an athlete’s focus on ego oriented goals can have a detrimental effect on her levels of motivation, effort, performance, persistence, and confidence (Burton, et al., 2001; Duda & Hall, 2001).

Coaching Behaviors That Increase Autonomy and Competence

Developing and nurturing athletes’ perceptions of autonomy, competence, and relatedness as well as understanding athletes’ goal orientations has been shown to play a key role in the development and maintenance of intrinsic motivation, and as coaches our behavior has a significant impact on whether or not our athletes perceive their basic needs to be satisfied as well as the type of goal orientation they adopt (Gagne, et al., 2003; Hollembeak & Amorose, 2005). In an excellent review of the impact that coaching philosophies and behaviors have on athletes’ motivation, Mageau and Vallerand (2003) suggest seven general coaching behaviors that promote need satisfaction and thus, intrinsic motivation.

Provide athletes with choices within a structured environment. Choices allow athletes to feel a valuable sense of control and have been empirically demonstrated to strengthen intrinsic motivation (Lutz, et al., 2003).

Provide athletes with reasons for rules and activities. When athletes understand the rationale behind the limitations or activities to which they are subjected, they tend to internalize these aspects of their environment making the activities more meaningful and increasing their levels of commitment, effort, and persistence.

Acknowledge the athlete's feelings and point of view. This behavior demonstrates to athletes that their coaches view them as thinking and feeling individuals rather than as anonymous athletes over which the coach has absolute power and influence. Validating athletes' thoughts and feelings helps them feel as though their opinions and feelings are being respected and taken into consideration.

Provide athletes with opportunities to take initiative and to work independently. When athletes participate in an activity because they choose to rather than because they are told to, activities become more personally meaningful thus contributing to perceived levels of autonomy and competence.

Provide athletes with non-controlling feedback . Feedback should focus on conveying positive, useful information and realistic and appropriate expectations rather than on prompting the athlete to perform the activity again or on vague, too low, or unrealistically high expectations. The former enhances intrinsic motivation by fostering autonomy and competence while the controlling aspects of the latter may decrease motivation as well as hinder performance.

"Having some sort of motto or gesture that identifies an individual as an accepted member of the team is a powerful way to foster a sense of belonging."

Avoid controlling behaviors. Three types of controlling behaviors are physical (i .e. controlling the physical environment and/ or materials to which the individual has access), psychological (i.e. statements or actions that elicit guilt, make acceptance contingent on certain behaviors, belittle, or embarrass), and reward-based (i.e. offering rewards for desired behaviors). Though it is believed to be a valuable tool by many coaches, the promise of material rewards for desired behavior should be used sparingly as a motivational tool, since it has been shown to decrease intrinsic motivation by sending the message that an activity is not interesting or enjoyable in and of itself, limiting behaviors to those specifically required to earn the reward, and fostering an ego-centered goal orientation. Unfortunately, like material rewards, psychologically controlling behaviors are also common occurrences. Many coaches believe that yelling at, withdrawing affection from, belittling, and/ or embarrassing their athletes will positively motivate these athletes when research in parenting, educational, and athletic settings has clearly shown time and again that the opposite is true (see Mageau & Vallerand, 2003). These types of controlling behaviors serve no purpose but to increase fear and anxiety and decrease self-esteem, confidence, motivation, and performance. Because of the deleterious effect that these behaviors may have on an athlete's overall well-being, coaches should maintain a vigilant watch for any behaviors, either their own or their colleagues', that fall into this category.

Provide athletes with a task-mastery environment. As mentioned before, ego-centered climates, or those that encourage athletes to evaluate their competence in terms of the performances of their peers, can result in lower levels of effort, commitment, persistence, motivation, and performance. In order to maximize the perceptions of autonomy and competence that lead to intrinsic motivation, task-oriented aspects of performance directly under the athlete's control, such as effort, improvement, and attitude should be emphasized and comparisons between athletes should be abandoned.

Enhancing Task-Mastery, Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness in the Gym

Warm-up chosen and led by athletes. Obviously this should be done with the guidance of the coach, but the choice of activity and the conversations between teammates that produce the ultimate decisions can give the athletes a sense of choice and belonging.

Allowing athletes freedom to work on skills of their choice. Again, this should be done within the framework of the overall team goals; however, allowing the athlete to choose what skills they spend a given amount of time on fosters autonomy by communicating to the athletes that they are responsible for their own improvement and fosters competence by allowing them to perform any skills that either need work or help them feel as though they are good at what they are doing.

Encouraging athletes to attempt brand new skills. Encouraging kids to confront their fears and to come out of their comfort zone, even just a little, helps promote competence. Furthermore, allowing them to choose when or if they attempt these new skills contributes to perceived autonomy.
Create games during practice rotations and conditioning that require teamwork to succeed- An example of this would be a casting game on bars where casts to a certain height earn a given number of points, and the team works together to achieve a pre-determined number of points in a specified amount of time; or an obstacle course for conditioning that is the result of each member of the team suggesting one element a piece.

Creating a team slogan, motto, handshake, etc. Having some sort of motto or gesture that identifies an individual as an accepted member of the team is a powerful way to foster a sense of belonging.

Organize field trips outside of the gym- This allows athletes to interact about different things in a different setting, t hereby strengthening the friendships of team members.

Encourage goal-setting for practice and competition- This is important, and while the athletes definitely need to choose their own goals, the coach should review these goals and help the athlete modify t hem so that the goals are positive, realistic, and task (as opposed to ego) oriented.

Reinforce effort, attitude, and improvement rather than scores. When possible, it is preferable to avoid making a big deal about outcomes that are due to external sources. For example, while a score or where athletes place at a meet are, to some extent, the result of their effort and performance, they are also the result of forces completely out of the athletes’ control (i.e. cranky judge, tough age group, phenomenal performances by other athletes, etc.). Reinforcing task-oriented behavior increases the chances that the athletes will perceive that their performances were effective.

Visualization. Visualization has been shown to positively affect motivation by enhancing athletes’ perceptions of autonomy and competence. Motivation is absolutely essential for athletes to realize their potential and with a conscious effort on our part as coaches to avoid controlling behaviors; foster autonomy, competence, and relatedness; and emphasize task-mastery goal orientations we can significantly impact not only our athletes’ levels of motivation and performance but their overall well-being as well.


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