Motivating student athletes: The who, what, why and how


What motivates student athletes to be successful? We discuss. (Photo by Nick Falzerano)

Motivating athletes is a very tough task for any coach.  Not all players will be willing to ‘run through a brick wall’ or come to practices and games and give their best effort every time.  Why are some people motivated and some are not?  How can coaches be sure they are effectively motivating their players?  Motivating players could potentially be the most difficult area of coaching. 

Motivating athletes is a very tough task for any coach.  Not all players will be willing to ‘run through a brick wall’ or come to practices and games and give their best effort every time.  Why are some people motivated and some are not?  How can coaches be sure they are effectively motivating their players?  Motivating players could potentially be the most difficult area of coaching.  This article will assist coaches in understanding the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation and Vroom’s Expectancy Theory.  Additionally, recommendations based on these theories will be presented for coaches that wish to utilize new methods to motivate their players.

Motivation is “a complex set of internal and external forces that induce one to behave in a certain way.” (Vealey, 2005, p. 24)  Some individuals inherently want to be the best and are willing to do just about anything to achieve that status.  However, not all athletes come to the playing field with this type of desire; these athletes need motivation to become their best. Therefore, coaches must be prepared to delve deeper into players to learn what is driving or motivating them to be a part of the program and to succeed.  This process can be difficult as there is no one-size-fits-all motivation for people, as each individual is different.


In order to determine why some people are motivated and some are not, it is helpful to understand that motivation can be broken down into two distinct areas: extrinsic and intrinsic.  Extrinsic motivation is “a behavior that is engaged in as a means to an end.” (Vealey, 2005, p. 37)   In contrast, intrinsic motivation deals with the internal feelings of being successful and competent in a skilled area.(Chelladurai, 2005, p. 263)

With extrinsic motivation, a person’s behavior is based on external rewards such as awards, public recognition or being noticed in school as an athlete by wearing a jersey on game days.   This is not a self-applied motivation, but rather a motivation from outside sources.  Over time, this type of motivation may wear off.  Athletes can be extrinsically motivated for a period of time, but if a shift in motivation does not occur for them to be intrinsically motivated they may fall short of accomplishing their goals.

Therefore, intrinsic motivation will be the best motivator over the long term because athletes “will voluntarily engage in a behavior in the absence of material rewards or external constraints.” (Vealey, 2005, p. 36)   Intrinsically motivated athletes are the ones that love all aspects of the sport regardless of the recognition they receive.

Knowing that players are driven by many different things, a coach can look at these two key areas to assist the players to reach their goals. Knowing what motivates each person will give coaches a tool to be able to challenge their athletes at practice and in games and to create drills for the athletes’ needs and give them the necessary tools to make them better.  Extrinsically motivated players may prefer drills that showcase how many times a drill was done successfully because they will achieve satisfaction from the praise of the other team members.  Intrinsically motivated players may prefer drills that allow the player to work one on one with another teammate or coach; they don’t strive for the recognition of others. If a player is motivated extrinsically, coaches could create a team practice award such as “Mr. Hustle”.  Intrinsically motivated team members will strive to do their best in practice regardless of whether they are publically recognized for those efforts.

There are many theories related to the motivation of individuals.  Vroom’s theory of motivation incorporates the ideas of extrinsic and intrinsic motivators.  Vroom’s Theory evaluates the impact of external motivators, such as praise from another individual, on employees.  This theory also examines how an individual’s improved effort correlates to improved performance.  Understanding Vroom’s Theory from a coach’s perspective is valuable as the theory provides insight for improving the motivation of individuals.


In order to more fully understand the concept of motivation, one can review Vroom’s Theory of Motivation to obtain an understanding of why people are motivated.  Vroom investigated the relationship between employees and their supervisors. He states that if you provide praise to the employee he or she will be more motivated for the task.

Vroom believes that if a person has a reward or incentive, his or her goals will be reached.  He also believes that the higher the effort, the higher the increased performance.  Vroom’s Theory and experimental evidence suggest that “extensive changes in satisfaction follow changes in supervision.” (Vroom, 2005, p. 123)

Therefore, it can be inferred from Vroom’s theory that a coach has the ability to influence a player’s satisfaction with the program.


Applying motivational theories to the field of coaching is an important component of a successful athletic program.  Vroom’s Theory suggests that in order for a coach to increase the performance of his or her players, a coach should increase both the knowledge and skills of the players and provide appropriate rewards.  (Vroom, 2005)

Increasing the knowledge and skills of the athletes will assist them to have intrinsically driven motivation; they will want to succeed because they enjoy being part of a successful program.

A coach can increase the knowledge and skills of team members in several ways.  If coaches expect athletes to trust and follow their guidance, they must show that they are competent in their given sport.  Being incompetent will lead to distrust and the athletes will not be willing to listen.  Maintaining competence includes being willing to stay current on their sport by researching, going to clinics, and seeking help from other veteran coaches.  Not only must a coach stay current, he or she must be willing to implement new techniques and change or vary the drills of the team.  If players are experiencing the same drills and experiences day after day, their satisfaction with the program may decline.  The old drills may have been exciting the first year they were implemented, but “the repetition of an activity results in deterioration characterized by efforts to vary the activity, followed by a complete intolerance for the activity.” (Vroom, 2005, p. 161)  Coaches can encourage athletes to become intrinsically motivated for success by constantly providing them with updated information about their sport, which can include the newest drills or strategies.  If athletes do not think their coach has the knowledge to improve their skills, they will stop listening and become unmotivated to succeed.  Mike Krzyzewski, Duke basketball coach, emphasized this theory when he said, “continual learning is a key to effective leadership…because when you stop growing, you start to decay.” (Daley and Janssen, 2006, p. 96)

According to Vroom, providing and withholding rewards “is a necessary component of effective leadership.” (Vroom, 2005, p. 254)  Rewards are extrinsic motivators that can be significant factors in a team’s success because they are important to the players.

These rewards should be athlete-appropriate as well as team-appropriate. A championship is a reward that a team can strive towards and it unites the team toward that goal by allowing each individual player to make choices that benefit the team.

Playing time is another reward that a coach provides to athletes.  If the athlete’s playing time correlates to the effort and dedication of the athlete, the athlete will be motivated to do their best every time he/she is on the field.  The players see their input and in return are getting the output of playing time.  In some situations the hard work (input) is resulting in a championship (output).


Coaches vary in ways they motivate athletes.  Knowing how to apply motivational theories to the field of coaching can have a positive influence on the success of the program.  The first step to successfully motivate individuals is to determine whether the individuals tend to be extrinsically or intrinsically motivated.  A coach can then utilize appropriate motivational tools that directly correlate to the intrinsic or extrinsic tendencies of the players. For example, a coach that realizes his or her players perform well in order to win a championship rather than keep their spot on the team will be more successful in motivating the players. Vroom’s Theory suggests that a coach can more successfully motivate athletes if he or she provides appropriate rewards and increases both the knowledge and skills of the athletes.

Coaches are in a great position to impact young lives.  A positive relationship between a player and coach will assist the players to become intrinsically motivated; they will enjoy being a part of the team and will strive to improve that relationship. Many successful coaches believe that their success of motivating athletes comes from the “quality of the relationship [they] develop with your athletes.” (Daley, 2006, p. 11)

Coaches need to encourage athletes to take ownership of their participation and become intrinsically motivated to succeed in the sport for the long term success of the program. 


Chelladurai, P.  (2005).  Managing organizations for sport and physical activity: a     systems perspective.  Scottsdale, AZ: Holcomb Hathaway.

Daley, G. and Janssen, J.  (2006).  The seven secrets of successful coaches: How to     unlock and unleash your team’s full potential.  Cary, NC: Winning the mental     game.

Vealey, R.  (2005).  Coaching for the inner edge.  Morgantown, WV: Sheridan books.

Vroom, V.  (1995).  Work and motivation.  San Francisco, Ca: Jossey-Bass.

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