15 Ways to Motivate Your Athletes (Backed by Science)
“She’s just not motivated…”
“He could be so good if he was just motivated…”
“I can’t motivate her to work…”
These are sentiments that I know many (if not all) coaches come up against at some point in their career: the unmotivated athlete.
Too often, when a gymnast lacks motivation, the first solution the adults come up with is quitting.
And, while sometimes a lack of motivation is a sign that it is time for a gymnast to move on from the sport, that is not always the best solution.
Motivation is a tricky subject. On one hand, it is a feeling. And no one can make another person feel a certain way. It is up to individuals to find their motivation. However, motivation is also skill, one that can be developed or depressed by the teachers, coaches and parents in an athlete’s life.
The education field conducts terrific studies on how teachers can positively student motivation that we can benefit from incorporating into our gymnasts’ workouts. Essentially, studies show us that motivation is enhanced when one of the following conditions are present:
- when students feel competent to complete the task
- when students see a correlation between their actions and the outcome
- when students have some control over how to complete the task
- when the task has interest or value to the student
- when completing the task brings social approval
So here are some small tweaks in how we as coaches can help boost our gymnasts’ motivation based on educational research.
- Enjoy coaching. According to one educational study, teachers who liked teaching had students who were more focused on mastering and improving their lessons. Be present and focused when you coach. If you are distracted, so are your athletes. Distraction causes a loss of motivation.
- Be confident in your ability to coach. The same study found that teachers who had greater confidence in teaching their subject matter had students who persisted in learning versus less confident teachers whose students gave up on difficult tasks faster.
- Have a strong relationship with your athletes. As social beings, we all thrive on connection. The more connected, the more motivated we are to do well.
- Encourage friendships among the teammates. Yes, as much as many coaches wish the kids would chat less and work more, motivation increases in students who have a strong social connection with their peers.
- Keep a strong positive to negative feedback ratio. When that connection is poor and teachers rely on a “negative reinforcement trap” the relationship is damaged and students’ motivation declines.
- Provide limited choices. Choice is a powerful motivator and one that we don’t use enough in gymnastics. Let athletes choose between two different conditioning exercises that target the same muscle group or decide in which order they want to work their skills. Small tweaks that give the athlete some autonomy may lead to huge gains in motivation. But be careful not to give too many choices so as to avoid choice paralysis.
- Mix up your lessons. Routines are useful but doing the same thing each and everyday is boring. Mix things up a bit from time to time.Work toward athletes’ strengths. Focusing on improving weaknesses is a normal part of training. But focusing on their strengths can really boost an athlete’s motivation.
- Be careful about offering rewards. Rewards can actually increase or decrease motivation depending on the task—know when to use them and when to lose them! For tasks that are dull and repetitive (i.e. conditioning or putting away mats) rewards can actually be a good and motivating thing. But for those requiring persistence (i.e. getting a new skill) rewards can actually decrease motivation.
- Use growth mindset language. Telling a gymnast they are talented seems like a nice thing to say. But when we compliment a child on a trait that is fixed (talent) we are telling them that it is their natural ability (something over which they have no control) is what caused their achievement. Instead, compliment athletes over things that they can control (like attendance, effort and attitude) so they understand that they can persist at a challenge in order to improve.
- Normalize failure. Perfectionism causes a lack of motivation because it can develop a fear of failure that causes them to use less effective learning strategies and even make it more likely they cheat.
- Have high standards and make assignments appropriately challenging. Making things too easy actually decreases students’ motivation. Having high expectations and assignments that are challenging but attainable with reasonable effort is the motivational sweet spot.
- Be clear about goals. When a student does not understand the next step or what is going to happen, it is demotivating. Clear goals are motivating.
- Make what they are doing relevant to something they want to learn. When students understand that what their learning now has a payoff to something they want to be able to do later, their motivation increase. So when your gymnasts are toiling away with a difficult conditioning assignment, remind them that those leg lifts will help them get their kip.
- Stress the importance of rest. An exhausted gymnast will have a hard time being motivated. Sleep is essential.
- Celebrate successes. Marking the small moments on the way to larger goals shows that hard work pays off and increases motivation.
Coaches cannot want a goal on behalf of their gymnasts, but they can tweak their own behaviors and lesson plans to shape the path of motivation.