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How Coaches Can Motivate Their Athletes To Engage In Training

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Using Self-Determination Theory
  3. Using Achievement Goal Theory
  4. Optimising the Coach-created Motivational Climate
  5. Conclusion
  6. References


Motivation is a critical determinant of adherence to a training programme, as well as performance success, within any sport context (Roberts & Treasure, 2018). While motivational antecedents are highly variable between individuals, some consistent trends have been demonstrated in the literature that can be used to guide coaches’ motivational strategies to encourage athletes to engage in training. Additionally, evidence from the literature on motivation has been supported by theories of motivation which can be used to predict training adherence based on athlete characteristics, coach characteristics, and the general team or sport environment (Roberts & Treasure, 2018). The purpose of this paper is to discuss how coaches can motivate their athletes to engage in training using an evidence based approach that is underpinned by validated theoretical models of motivation. Specifically, this paper argues for a multidimensional approach that centres on three theories, including self-determination theory, achievement goal theory, and the coach-created motivational climate. Each of these theories is discussed in more detail and applications to the promotion of training adherence within a general sport context are presented. This paper concludes with a brief summary and outline of key points.

Using Self-Determination Theory

One theory of motivation that has been particularly successful in predicting motivational outcomes and guiding motivational interventions in sport is self-determination theory (Chan et al., 2015; Gillet & Vallerand, 2016). This theory assumes that motivation to adhere to training, or to fulfil any sport-related goal, is stronger when it is more self-determined (Gillet & Vallerand, 2016). Specifically, athletes whose adherence to a goal such as a training programme is more self-determined will be more intrinsically motivated, leading to more consistent performance and resilience in the face of adversity (Gillet & Vallerand, 2016). According to this theory, the level of self-determination associated with a particular goal or pursuit is dependent on three factors, including perceived competence, autonomy, and relatedness (Chan et al., 2016).

Evidence suggests that athletes are more intrinsically motivated for an activity when they perceive themselves to be competent in that activity (Curran, Hill, Ntoumanis, Hall, & Lowett, 2016). Conversely, athletes who perceive themselves to lack competence in a particular activity are more likely to experience amotivation or apathy (Curran et al., 2016). Second, self-determination theory predicts that athletes are more motivated when there is greater autonomy in whether or not the activity is performed, as well as how it is performed (Fenton, Duda, & Barrett, 2016). When athletes perceive themselves to be autonomous in their engagement in an activity, they will experience more intrinsic motivation and consistent adherence to that endeavour (Fenton et al., 2016). Conversely, when athletes engage in an activity because of external pressures like incentives or peer pressure, the activity becomes less self-determined and a decrease in motivation is likely to occur (Van den Berghe, Vansteenkiste, Cardon, Kirk, & Haerens, 2014). Finally, evidence suggests that athletes experience greater levels of motivation when a high perception of relatedness exists (Niven & Markland, 2016). Specifically, athletes will be more motivated to engage in a particular activity when there is a positive team climate and that their participation in the activity increases their opportunity for social support (Niven & Markland, 2016). Conversely, athletes are more likely to suffer a decrease in motivation when there is little or no perception of relatedness and participation in the activity brings no social reward (Van den Berghe et al., 2014).

Coaches can use self-determination theory to motivate their athletes to engage in training by targeting each of the three factors that promote greater self-determination. First, coaches can increase athletes’ perceptions of competence by continually recognising success and highlighting areas where athletes demonstrate competence and broadcasting these successes to others. For example, the coach can publicise results to the team or members of the team environment every time an athlete achieves a training-related goal or sets a new training record. Second, coaches can increase athletes’ perceptions of autonomy by providing more options as to the training regime and allowing athletes to make personal choices that best suit their needs on a given day. For example, athletes can provide several different chest exercise options for athletes to choose from or enable them to perform workouts according to their own personal schedules in order to allow them to perceive that their participation is self-determined and not regulated by external forces or pressures. Finally, coaches can motivate their athletes to engage in training by increasing the sense of relatedness that exists through participation in the training programme. For example, coaches can encourage athletes to train in pairs or groups and also engage in team-building exercises to improve task and social cohesion as a means of increasing athletes’ perceptions of belongingness within a given sport context.

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Using Achievement Goal Theory

A second theory that was presented in course lectures and has been supported by a large body of evidence within the sports sciences for increasing motivation is achievement goal theory (Lochbaum & Gottardy, 2015; Wang, Morin, Liu, & Chian, 2016). According to this theory, goals vary based on their emphasis on task mastery or perception of competence in comparison to others (Wang et al., 2016). Athletes who have mastery goal orientations predominantly set goals that are centred on effort, personal improvement, and general skill development which will increase their overall proficiency in a particular sport (Lochbaum & Gottardy, 2015). Conversely, athletes who are ego-oriented typically set goals that centre on being perceived positively by others and/or confirm their self-beliefs (Jaakkola, Ntoumanis, & Liukkonen, 2016). Evidence suggests that mastery-oriented athletes who set task-related goals demonstrate more stable motivation, more consistency adherence to training, greater resilience in the face of adversity, and a more positive response to challenging tasks and competitive pressures (Jaakkola et al., 2016). However, athletes that are ego oriented and set primarily performance related goals suffer from significant lapses in motivation when tasks become increasingly difficult and there is the opportunity for failure to occur (Isoard-Gautheur, Trouilloud, Gustafsson, & Guillet-Descas, 2016). Athletes who are ego-oriented can quickly develop fear-avoidance and a fear of failure because of their need to protect themselves from appearing incompetent in front of others (Isoard-Gautheur et al., 2016). Such athletes are much more likely than mastery oriented athletes to suffer from burnout and competitive anxiety as well (Isoard-Gautheur et al., 2016).

Coaches can use achievement goal theory to motivate their athletes to engage in training by evaluating the styles of goals they set and ensuring they are more mastery oriented than ego-oriented. Some ego-oriented outcome goals (e.g., winning a championship) can be effective long-term motivators, but must be supplemented with several mastery oriented, task-related, goals in order to prevent amotivation in the event that adversity occurs. Task-related goals are typically measured quantitatively and demonstrate small and progressive increases in proficiency in a particular activity, such as increasing one’s one-repetition maximum bench press by ten percent each month throughout the pre-competitive season. Coaches must also evaluate athletes’ goals to help convert ego-oriented goals into task oriented ones. For example, if an athlete has an ego-oriented goal of being the best athlete on the team, the coach can help this particular athlete frame this goal into small and measurable task-related and controllable goals that are based on metrics which would ensure this ego-oriented goal is achieved.

Optimising the Coach-created Motivational Climate

A final theory of motivation that has been supported by a large body of research within the sports sciences and can be used to help coaches motivate their athletes to engage in training is motivational climate theory (Curran, Hill, Hall, & Jowett, 2015; Vitali, Bortoli, Bertinato, Robazza, & Schena, 2015). While self-determination theory and achievement goal theory are both concerned with modifying athlete behaviours and goal orientations, motivational climate theory is concerned with structing the environment in such a way as to maximise. Substantial evidence suggests that the environment in which athletes train and the types of goals and attitudes that are rewarded by the coach have significant impacts on athletes’ levels and types of motivation (Curran et al., 2015; Vitali et al., 2015). Evidence also suggests that motivational climates significantly impact athletes’ individual goal setting orientations (Curran et al., 2015). According to motivational climate theory, a sport-related context can be either predominantly task or mastery involved, or predominantly ego-involved and performance-related (Vitali et al., 2015). Much like achievement goal theory, motivational climate theory is concerned with the types of goals that are set and how they are rewarded within that particular context or environment. Motivational climates where team related goals are generally task-related and task mastery is rewarded are associated with greater self-determination, higher levels of intrinsic motivation, greater resilience and problem-focused coping in the face of adversity, and more cohesion (Harwood, Keegan, Smith, & Raine, 2015). Motivational climates where ego-involved and performance related goals are set and rewarded are associated with extrinsic motivation, poorer social attitudes, greater fear of failure and fear-avoidant goals, poorer resilience in the face of adversity, and lower levels of social and task cohesion (Harwood et al., 2015).

Coaches can use motivational climate theory to motivate their athletes to engage in training much the same way as with achievement goal theory, although she or he should focus on how team-related goals reflect a mastery versus ego-involved pattern and which types of goals are predominantly being rewarded by the team. When evaluating coach-related goals for the team or goals set by the team, the coach should strive to ensure they are concerned with developing task mastery and skill proficiency and are progressive in nature based on previous benchmarks. Anywhere in which winning, beating teammates, and looking good in front of others, or in which challenging tasks are being avoided due to a fear of failure, the coach should restructure these goals so that they are oriented toward skill development and task mastery on a team level. For example, if the coach’s primary goal for the team is to beat its rival, she or he should divide this into several task-related goals that reflect effort and metrics needed in order to do so, such as having each team member attend 90 percent of training sessions or having all team members increase their sprinting speed by 10 percent.


The purpose of this paper was to critically discuss, using relevant research and theory, how coaches can motivate their athletes to adhere to training schedules. Drawing on research and three theoretical models presented in the course lectures, this paper argued for a multidimensional approach that targets athlete, coach, and motivational climate characteristics. Specifically, a justification for the use of self-determination theory, achievement goal, theory, and the coach-created motivational climate was provided and applications to motivational strategies were presented throughout. Based on the evidence presented in this paper, it is clear that multiple theories can be used to help coaches motivate their athletes to engage in training. Focusing on athlete, coach, and team-related characteristics through a combination of motivational theories is optimal in order to optimise training adherence.


  1. Chan, D. K. C., Dimmock, J. A., Donovan, R. J., Hardcastle, S. A. R. A. H., Lentillon-Kaestner, V., & Hagger, M. S. (2015). Self-determined motivation in sport predicts anti-doping motivation and intention: A perspective from the trans-contextual model. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 18(3), 315-322.
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  6. Harwood, C. G., Keegan, R. J., Smith, J. M., & Raine, A. S. (2015). A systematic review of the intrapersonal correlates of motivational climate perceptions in sport and physical activity. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 18, 9-25.
  7. Isoard-Gautheur, S., Trouilloud, D., Gustafsson, H., & Guillet-Descas, E. (2016). Associations between the perceived quality of the coach–athlete relationship and athlete burnout: An examination of the mediating role of achievement goals. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 22, 210-217.
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