January 07, 2015

Top 5 Tips For Motivating Teams

Top 5 Tips For Motivating Teams

Motivation is a key characteristic of successful athletes. Coaches and parents often try to help athletes increase or maintain motivation. Some “old-school” ways of increasing motivation can be viewed as punishment (running three miles because you were late to practice) and some “new-school” motivational techniques can appear to be coddly (“Don’t worry, everyone gets a trophy just for showing up!”). It is important to find a balance between internal motivation and external motivation to help athletes succeed in sport. This is helpful for individual athletes and is especially true for teams.

Motivation is athletes’ ability to begin tasks with the purpose of achieving a goal and seeing the task through to the end. 

In other words, motivation provides direction and energy to start and maintain a behavior (Anshel, 2012). For example, an athlete who wishes to improve her batting average might spend extra time in the cages, work with a hitting coach and sport psychology consultant, increase strength training, and analyze her tapes more frequently. Others would observe her behavior and think, “Wow, she is really motivated to improve!” The reasons why she is motivated can be complex, but the fact that she dedicated extra time to the mentioned activities are action steps fueled by motivation because she believes the action steps will help her reach her goal (better batting average).

It is easier to maintain motivation when athletes are succeeding in sports – the challenges to maintain motivation often arise when athletes face tough times. So why is it that some athletes can increase motivation during times of adversity (injury recovery, after a bad play, after a loss, after several losses) and others cannot? Knowing about the types of motivation, extrinsic and intrinsic, will help athletes, coaches, and parents understand how to help athletes remain focused on their short-term and long-term goals.

Extrinsic Motivation is when athletes need encouragement from others to succeed. These outside sources can include encouraging words from coaches, the roar of a home field crowd, or the promises of endorsements. Extrinsic motivational factors might provide positive short-term behavioral changes, like increased drive to succeed in one game, but often lack the continued encouragement needed to help athletes maintain long-term behaviors that will result in the ultimate goal. For example, if an athlete is only motivated to succeed when he hears the home field cheers from his fans, he is unlikely to be as successful during away games.

Intrinsic Motivation is when athletes are driven to succeed based on their own desire to excel.  Intrinsic motivation tends to have longer-term lasting positive effects and can result in consistent behaviors in practices and games, the ability to manage emotions effectively, and overall feelings of accomplishment. Athletes who are intrinsically motivated draw energy from within themselves to find the dedication to repeat specific behaviors (showing up early to practice, extra time in the weight room, going above and beyond in practice) that ultimately result in success.

Coaches are faced with challenges when learning the communication style and motivational trends of their athletes. It is more feasible to understand these aspects of an individual athlete than to learn about communication and motivation of an entire team (think about getting to know one athlete versus a team of 50!). Additional effort must be taken by coaches who work with teams to find ways to motivate their athletes.

In his book Sport Psychology From Theory To Practice, Mark Anshel provides recommendations for motivating athletes. My favorite 5 recommendations are listed below with specific ways to apply the recommendations to groups of athletes.

  1. Build a relationship with each athlete. Get to know each athlete by name and work to develop a trusting relationship with every member of your team. Try to learn non-sport related information about your athletes (academic status, hobbies, strengths) and engage them in discussions about current events. This shows your athletes that you are truly interested in them as people, not just as sports participants, and demonstrates genuine caring.
  2. Develop athletes’ skills. If athletes are expected to excel on the field they must have the skills needed to succeed. Therefore, coaches should know their athletes’ strengths and weaknesses and teach skills and strategies with effort and determination. Use positive and strengths-based language to help your athletes develop the confidence to keep trying new skills until they master the task. For example, when teaching a new skill, do not scold an athlete who doesn’t perform the new skill well. This will likely deter the athlete and result in resentment instead of motivation. Instead, point out what the athlete is doing well with the new skill and provide pointers for improvement.
  3. Recognize each athletes’ efforts. It is easy to recognize your star athletes’ efforts on and off the field, but remember that all athletes need recognition. A simple pat on the back to acknowledge the effort lesser talented athletes can provide them with the motivation to keep trying. Athletes definitely recognize when they do not receive attention from their coaches. In my experience, this is the number one factor that has affected individual athletes on a team. I encourage athletes to talk to their coaches to let them know what they need (communication styles) and also encourage coaches to pay attention to the entire team, not just the starters.
  4. Consistency with rules and discipline. It is important for coaches to stick to the rules they set. Being lax on certain rules with some athletes sends the message that other athletes are not as important or that the coach does not care. Athletes might test boundaries (like showing up 5 minutes late to practice) to see how lenient a coach will be. I encourage coaches to enforce rules in healthy ways. Making an athlete run as punishment for being late (or playing poorly) is a punitive way to acknowledge the behavior.  Instead, take a few minutes to explain the importance of punctuality and respect for other peoples’ time. Yelling at an athlete or forcing additional physical work is not motivational and will not result in a mutually respectful relationship.
  5. Winning is not everything. Coaches give me strange looks when I bring this up.  Of course teams and coaches want to win, however, there are many circumstances within sport that are worth examining that do not include winning. Centering goals on winning (an outcome goal that teams cannot control – think weather conditions, officials’ calls, injuries, or mismatched talent) takes the focus off of what you as a coach and your athletes can control. Your athletes can control their behavior and effort on the field during games and practice. Providing support in both successful and unsuccessful outcomes helps you build the base of learning for the team. Yelling at a team after a loss or poor performance does not encourage athletes to want to try harder next time. Providing constructive feedback and encouraging words can increase their motivation to work together as a team.

Living an athletic lifestyle results in emotional ups and downs. The key to success is managing the ups and downs in a healthy way and learning from both successes and disappointments. Learning how to help athletes and coaches examine extrinsic and intrinsic motivation is a way to improve and maintain motivation in team settings.


Dr. Michele Kerulis, LCPC, CC-AASP is the Director of Sport Psychology & Athletic Enhancement. For more information on motivation please contact IAE Sport Psych.


Reference. Anshel, M. H. (2010). Sport psychology from theory to practice (5th ed). Benjamin Cummings/Pearson, San Francisco, CA. 


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