Sports Training & Conditioning Zone!

How to Help Athletes Develop Intrinsic Motivation

By Nick Winkelman, Director of Education at EXOS

As coaches, we're often infatuated with the idea that motivation must come from us. We motivate athletes to do things. That's why people come to us, right?

Yes and no. While it's true that coaches play key roles in an athlete's development, effective motivation is more often intrinsic than extrinsic. That's especially true during the summer months when there are fewer games and we tend to deal more with off-season and pre-season conditioning. That can require more motivation than having the carrot of an upcoming game or competition.

As a coach, you can help an athlete develop this internal motivation by encouraging autonomy, self-efficacy, and relatedness.


Autonomy is crucial. If you, the athlete, don't feel you have a choice, then you're not going to identify that the results of the actions are because of you. Coaches tend to get scared by the notion of autonomy. Am I giving up control? No, it's about selected, guided choice.

If I'm working with a group of football players in medicine ball drills, I might give them a choice of using balls of different weights. If we're doing hurdles, I could let them choose the heights depending on how they're feeling that day. I could also, for instance, give them a choice between kettlebell swings or dumbbell snatches. In all three instances, we're not giving them a choice of workout but rather one aspect of the workout. Still, it provides autonomy.

We also can look at providing autonomy as it relates to feedback. When someone gets done with a drill, ask a question. Did you feel lighter when you were running or stronger at the bottom of the squat? They'll stop and consider things rather than just wait for feedback and, after a while, they'll start to coach themselves. This is most effective after you've established a coaching relationship and they let you know when they want feedback. Obviously you'll let them know if you see a major flaw, but otherwise you'll let them come to own the process. It's a powerful way of showing the athlete, "I trust you. You've come this far."


Studies show that when people are asked if they want feedback on actions performed well or poorly, they inevitably want feedback on what they did well. This seems counterintuitive since presumably most of us want to improve upon our weaknesses.

Actually, what's happening is that when people learn a new skill, they want reinforcement on what they're doing right since it provides a powerful feedback loop. After all, at this stage, they're not entirely sure what should feel right. When you're doing it wrong and you know it, you're still not sure what right feels like.

This doesn't mean you should not provide feedback when the athlete is wrong, but rather consider how you give it. Instead of saying, "Hey, you didn't get your knees up high enough that time," you might say, "Great job driving the knees forward, but let's focus on getting them higher the next time."

The message is the same, but you're putting a more positive spin on it by making a bigger deal about the part the athlete got right. This creates confidence, which ultimately will contribute to that internal motivation.


Small group training has become a popular business model and not just because it can be a profitable one for trainers. It also helps build motivation. For starters, athletes know they have to show up since their absence will be noted by not just a coach but by teammates. This sense of community creates purpose and accountability, which adds to the motivational fire.

By having a training partner, athletes have an opportunity to observe and learn what to do, and what not to do. This provides athletes with valuable feedback that's relatable and can be applied back to them. Partnering also cultivates an opportunity for athletes to support one another's success and provide positive reinforcement during their failures. And it helps motivation transcend a single person, as the group takes on a motivational quality. The success of one person will lead to others believing, "If they can do it, so can I."

Ultimately, we need to give athletes a voice to help them create this intrinsic motivation through autonomy, self-efficacy, and relatedness. Our athletes and clients don't want a boss; they want a business partner. When we can help them develop this internal motivation, we've done our job as coaches.

To learn more about cultivating a performance mindset in your clients, check out EXOS' on-site mindset mentorship and online certification.

(July 2015)

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