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Secrets to building and sustaining high-level motivation

By John F. Eliot

This is an excerpt from The Sport Psych Handbook, edited by Shane Murphy.


By now you’re armed with a thorough psychological conceptualization of motivation. But how do you put these principles to work, practically and effectively?

First, discard the notion of a pregame pep talk. Immediately before the gun, kickoff, first pitch, or puck drop is not the time to address motivation. The potential performance enhancement that comes from being in a state of flow clues us in to the need for decreased self-consciousness at game time. That means trusting oneself, not thinking about motivational issues. If a coach plans on a pregame locker-room session, he or she should use the time to help athletes clarify goals, reduce self-awareness, generate a sense of control, get absorbed in the task at hand, and leave rewards behind. And he or she should do so in a manner that gives each athlete responsibility for his or her own motivational state as he or she enters competition. Instructions to the team as a whole should be minimized in favor of providing resources that allow each athlete to execute an individualized game plan (such as narrowing focus, listening to rhythmic music, or absorbing themselves in film).

The proper time to work on sustaining motivation is outside of competition. Again, a unilateral approach will fail to do the job. Assessment of individual differences is mandatory since motivation is perceptual, the result of interaction between an athlete and his or her training environment. It is a must to create multifaceted performance climates that promote individualized, personally meaningful feedback and rewards.

A great leader is someone who knows his or her charges distinctively and takes the time to get to know them one on one. In the same vein, a great team motivator will know the following about each player:

  • Remember, motivation starts with a sense of purpose. If you ask “Why?” often enough, you should be able to get to athletes’ inner values, past what they want to have hanging on the wall.
  • Do they get excited to flat-out beat another competitor, or are they elated to make personal improvements? If you have trouble gleaning goal orientation from conversation and observation, chapter 2 provides useful suggestions. A sport psychology consultant can also help you assess athlete goal orientations.
  • Naturally, individual-sport athletes and team-sport athletes have different perspectives on group work. However, even within a squad, some members are juiced by the team’s performance while others are concerned with their individual contribution. Knowing which athlete sees it which way will aid in short-term motivation as well as long-term efforts to develop a healthy balance of both.
  • When giving feedback, distinguish between information (critiques, statistics) and rewards (pats on the back, verbal praise). Motivation will become hamstrung if an athlete’s primary reason for hard work becomes extrinsic rewards. Coaches or parents should know what each athlete values and frame their feedback to be informative with respect to those values. Further, if an athlete feels his or her behavior is being controlled, motivation will suffer drastically.

If this seems like too much to remember, especially for large teams (such as a football lineup of 65 players), keep a detailed chart that lists each athlete’s internal motivators and motivational orientations. Laminate it on the back of your clipboard so you can refer to it in the middle of practice. The intrinsic reward of getting to know your athletes this well makes it surprisingly easy, before long, to recall individual motivation styles and provide cues, feedback, and expectations accordingly.




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