Team Motivational Techniques: What Are They and How Do They Work?

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Learning how to motivate athletes is an important part of coaching.

During an average Monday game on February 12, 2018, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr did something unheard of: He turned control of his whiteboard over to a player, effectively giving his players a sense of ownership in how they played that night. They then proceeded to lead themselves to victory against the Phoenix Suns with an incredible margin of 46 points, according to Sam Welker’s article, “Steve Kerr, the Golden State Warriors, and the Art of Sharing Power” in The Wall Street Journal.

Coaches who understand the importance of motivation in sports can lead winning teams, regardless of the outcome of any individual game. Coaching winners is about more than performance on the field. It’s about helping student-athletes develop a sense of honor and a determination to achieve their life goals, even after they move on to careers and other responsibilities.

Students pursuing a master’s in coaching degree are assuming a special responsibility. As coaches, they will influence the personal and athletic growth and development of numerous athletes. Learning how to motivate athletes effectively is an important part of understanding sports coaching and achieving success with their teams.

Motivation Guidelines

Team motivation is something that should take place consistently, not just in the locker room right before the big game. Athletes should already be motivated as a result of practice and training. Coaches should instill a clear sense of teamwork, responsibility and motivation in their athletes before they even play their game and even in between seasons.

“[An athlete-centered] approach starts with the coach and athlete jointly identifying target outcomes,” explains the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) in its “Quality Coaching Framework.”

“Although the coach should have some goals in mind, offering the athlete an opportunity for input in setting the targets will increase the athlete’s motivation and commitment to the goals.”

The Olympic Committee’s athlete-centered, coach-driven approach suggests these steps to ensure maximum enjoyment, motivation, and performance in athletes:

  • Together with the athlete, set challenging, yet realistic, goals in line with the athletes’ age and ability
  • Encourage the athletes’ input and initiative throughout the season
  • Provide a rationale for coaching decisions
  • Recognize and positively reinforce the athletes’ goal progress, as well as, performance achievements
  • Provide supportive, positive, and constructive feedback
  • Not all athletes learn the same way. Deliver coaching that meets each athlete’s particular learning and development style
  • Account for life factors outside of sports that may affect goal attainment.

Rarely do professional sports organizations suggest using negative reinforcement as motivation. All of the USOC’s coaching guidelines feature positive, supportive, and nurturing measures. Although motivation through fear or incentive may work in the short run, the negative emotion can eventually backfire on both the athletes and their coach.

Motivating Athletes from Childhood to Adulthood

Coaches often find that they get better results by motivating through purpose. Developing and cultivating a strong sense of purpose requires changing how athletes see themselves and their roles on the team, according to the Janssen Sports Leadership Center’s Greg Shelley in his Championship Coaches Network article, “5 Keys to Motivating Your Athletes.”

To create an environment that fosters personal growth and encourages athletes to self-motivate, Shelley suggests that coaches take the time to solicit input from athletes, especially team leaders. Coaches also should model the qualities they want to encourage. If coaches want their athletes to be motivated, they themselves should be motivated.

In addition, he notes, coaches should recognize and appreciate their athletes and help them comprehend the “why” behind their training. If coaches give their athletes a reason to work hard and are committed to helping young people achieve their potential, the team will never hurt for motivation.

But coaches can encourage purpose in multiple ways. Researchers Jean Cöté and Wade Gilbert introduce two distinct coaching approaches in their International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching paper, “An Integrative Definition of Coaching Effectiveness and Expertise”: participation approach and the performance approach.

Cöté and Gilbert define participation coaching as a focus on playing a sport where competition is not emphasized, which results in a less intense playing experience for the athletes. This approach is common when coaching children and young adolescents (and even adults in less competitive environments).

Participation coaching aims to include all players (regardless of skill), provide a safe opportunity to discover sports and engage in healthy physical fitness-related activities, and to provide a place where athletes can socialize and form strong bonds.

Performance coaching, on the other hand, focuses on a more rigid training program to enhance performance variables. Cöté and Gilbert highlight the intensiveness of the performance approach and point out that coaches in this environment would offer highly specialized training routines that include both physical conditioning and psychological training.

Performance coaching is almost unheard of with children and would likely be detrimental to their mental health. However, the performance approach is often used with young adolescents, young adults, and adults.

Coaches who focus on the performance aspect of their athletes tend to specialize in a particular competitive sport. They spend more time teaching the fundamentals of the game, physical fitness, mental health, and perceptual elements associated with their teams’ athletic life. Finally, performance coaches also spend a great deal of time on intensive preparation for high-level competitions.

Ohio University’s Online Master of Coaching Education Program

Ohio University excels at preparing coaches for positions ranging from middle school athletics departments to college. Graduates of OHIO’s Master of Coaching Education program learn to increase athletic performance among athletes, as well as the leadership and technical skills required to coach a sports team.

Master of Coaching Education coursework includes leadership, management, and finance for coaches; injury prevention; performance and conditioning; ethics and diversity; and risk management. For more information on Ohio University’s online master’s in coaching education degree program, contact us today.


Recommended Reading:

6 Tips for Motivating Young Athletes

3 Motivation Techniques for Coaches, from Coaches

The Importance of Knowing Your Players



Steve Kerr and the Art of Sharing Power – WSJ

Quality Coaching Framework – USOC

5 Keys to Motivating Your Athletes – Championship Coaches Network

Integrative Definition of Coaching – International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching