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Motivation Strategies in Sports

By Craig Berman

Athletes may have both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations for success. Intrinsic motivation refers to internal goals, such as individual improvement and skill development. Extrinsic motivation is the desire for external recognition, like making an all-conference team or winning a championship. These require different motivational strategies depending on how an individual measures success.

Make Them Believe

Motivation may require convincing a star player that he's more talented than he thinks. Someone who has been a role player, for example, may not see himself as a star, even if he's talented enough to be one and will need to take on that role in the future. Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, for example, called forward Shane Battier after the 1999 season and asked him to imagine himself as the conference player of the year and averaging 30 points a game. Battier later was named his conference's player of the year and led the Blue Devils to the 2001 national championship.

Focus on the Team

Playing on a sports team comes with a built-in source of motivation -- the desire not to let teammates down. To aid in this, coaches may select team captains based on the example they set for other players, counting on their actions to motivate the rest of the squad to follow in their footsteps. Picking the players committed to helping teammates improve and showing respect for the sport in general can be a better choice for team captain than the leading scorer or a returning all-conference player. Because your captain helps set your team culture, he can be a powerful motivator.

Set Attainable Goals

Regardless of whether an athlete is motivated by intrinsic or extrinsic motivations, it’s key to set goals that serve as reasonable targets. Such goals should be challenging but not impossible. Progress can be measured in terms of time spent on improving the necessary skills or specific achievements reached. Expressing commitment to these goals, such as writing and signing a commitment contract detailing what you'll do to achieve them, can help turn this exercise into an effective motivational strategy. Goals may be reassessed when they are reached, or when circumstances mean they are unlikely to be fulfilled. A position change, for example, would likely require a change in goals to reflect the new responsibilities.

Keep Score

The final score of the game isn’t the only number that can motivate a team. You also can score individual efforts based on an established set of criteria, and recognize those who score the best. A basketball team that’s been struggling to stop opposing teams, for example, might grade players on the number of steals, passes deflected, charges taken and defensive rebounds. Professional teams grade their players after watching film, and even a team of grade schoolers can do something similar based on what they witness on the field.

Beware of Fear

Athletes may be motivated by fear, but this isn’t a great strategy to use for your team. Those motivated by fear may get discouraged easier or resent the coach who is making them fearful. That said, fear may be an effective approach with some athletes. A quarterback who suddenly has reason to fear for his starting job may spend more time studying game film, for example. But beware. A pitcher who’s afraid he'll lose his spot in the starting rotation if he says he isn’t ready to pitch may hide an injury from his manager, pitch while hurt, cost his team games and give himself a more serious injury.

Show You Care

Athletes can find motivation when they know their coaches care about them. Former Baltimore Orioles manager and baseball Hall of Famer Earl Weaver, for example, tried to make sure he got players enough at-bats or innings pitched to reach attainable bonuses in their contracts. This meant that when he asked a lot of his team, players knew their manager was prepared to make sacrifices for them in return. For youth or prep coaches, this caring might come in the form of making sure a player gets to start when she has a lot of family members in the crowd.

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