Author: Arlene Egan

PhD, Sports Psychology 

As a coach have you ever asked; ‘how do I help my athletes to achieve their goals’? Well, if you have spent any time wondering about this, you are not alone. Trying to work-out what drives and motivates an athlete is a tough challenge for coaches and athletes alike.  However, by understanding how an athlete is influenced to perform in training and competition, coaching strategies and athletic performances can be significantly enhanced.

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I was recently working with a young Irish Swim Team and I asked each team member to write down why they give so much time, energy and sacrifice to their sport. In essence, I was asking them to think about, to write and to tell the whole team what motivates them; what drives them? As I listened to the responses from each member of the team, it was clear that different athletes are motivated by different things. Some are focused by the need and desire to become better, faster and stronger swimmers. Others are driven by the will to win and the challenge of beating their own performance times. Still others were being influenced by the expectations of others. As this exercise continued, I did notice that one response was repeated over and over again by the athletes; ‘I swim because I love it’. As coaches it is easy to believe that you understand why your athletes show up religiously to practice and competition, where they put their bodies, minds and often relationships through immense challenges. But have you ever actually asked? Knowing the answer to this question can help coaches to increase their tool-kit with even more strategies to help focus and improve an athlete’s or a team’s performance. Having your athletes answer this question will create an opening for you to develop a clear understanding of how to maximise your athletes’ motivation.

Asking and collecting your athletes’ responses to this question is just the starting point. There is still more work to be done! Often the types of goals set by athletes, their perception of success and the way they focus on and take responsibility for their own performances, will link directly back to their main motivation. To identify the package of motivators which are most responsible for influencing performance, we must dig a little deeper. There are two other questions to ask, and the answers to these will shed a great deal of light on how to identify and understand an athlete’s prime motivators.

  1. What is success? As a coach, what does success; look like, feel like, sound like, smell like, taste like? How do you know when you have success? Success, like motivation is different to every athlete you coach and your athletes may not define success the same way that you do. No need to panic though, we just need to know how your definition and that of your athletes compare. In answering this question, your athletes will refer to their prime motivators in their definition of success. This will help everyone including yourself become more aware of what those motivators are and how they can be used to help focus and improve/maintain performance. Back to my swim team, success for one swimmer, by the end of the season was ‘looking back at the clock and seeing that I can go sub 60 for 100meters freestyle. That would make me feel fantastic and proud inside’. No other swimmer on the team had that particular goal or vision of success – this is why we need to ask and build our understanding.
  2. Who or what is driving? We know from years of research on this topic that there are two main approaches to motivation that an athlete can use to drive performance. One of these approaches is called intrinsic motivation; this means that an athlete can drive their own performance.  Athletes who use this form of motivation are able to use their own ideas, skills and mind-set to focus on goal attainment and are not greatly influenced by the expectations, plans or desires of those around them. Athletes, who are intrinsically motivated, perform for the emotional, psychological and physical rewards rather than the tangible prize. The second approach is called extrinsic motivation; this means that an athlete’s focus and performance is influence to a greater degree by outside factors. These factors include the expectations and reactions of others, the values that others will place on their performances and tangible rewards. As a coach, it is important to understand whether your athletes primarily use intrinsic or extrinsic approaches to motivation. This information can help you as a coach to use their primary motivators to help them to set goals to realize success and ultimately maximize motivation to perform.