4 Ways to Develop Intrinsic Motivation in Your Athletes

Ultimately, we want all of our athletes to possess a higher level of intrinsic motivation. There is nothing wrong with being motivated by awards, rewards, or results. However, we want athletes (and people) that will stick around when things get tough. We want athletes (and people) that will perform necessary tasks when there is no external stimulus involved. So, let’s look at developing a higher level of intrinsic motivation in athletes.

If you haven’t read our article about motivation in the athletic department then we would suggest you check it out before you move onto this one. The previous article helps to define many of the terms used in today’s post.

So many athletes in general participate and/or compete in different sports because of extrinsic factors. In order to make these athletes value athletics at your school even more, we need to tap into and appeal to their intrinsic motivation. Here a few ways that you can do that.

Motivation through Enthusiastic Leadership

Leadership style isn’t as big a factor in participation as it is in motivation.

Athletes play for coaches they don’t like if they enjoy the sport or want to win game.

Athletes will play for coaches who are poor motivators or poor strategists if they know being on the team will get them certain opportunities.

Enthusiastic leadership, however, helps extrinsically motivated athletes see that you deeply value what you are doing.

Enthusiasm is contagious.

Think of something that you are enthusiastic about. What drives you to do that thing?

Chances are it is not money, fame, or any other reward.

Chances are it is because you got tapped into the right people. These people showed you the value of the activity because they were enthusiastic about it.

I didn’t start playing basketball until the 8th grade. I began playing for extrinsic factors (every other boy in my class played ball, I didn’t want to be weird). I enjoyed the season and even tried hard. However, it was my first trip to basketball camp that summer where my motivation for the sport became intrinsic. At Tennessee Temple University, I was exposed to a Christian basketball culture that made an impact on me. The enthusiasm that Coach T and his staff had for basketball infected me and changed the way I viewed the game.

All this because of enthusiastic leadership. If you want intrinsically motivated athletes, show them that you have something that is worth doing.


Motivation through Ownership

Simply put, you value what you own and have worked to obtain.

I hesitate to make analogy between sport and war for obvious reasons, but the principle is similar. Those that are fighting to defend will fight longer, harder, and with more resiliency.

Think of ways to develop ownership in your athletic department. Simple things like themes and vision can make a difference.

Promote and associate being a part of your athletic department with ideas that are valuable to people intrinsically.

Ideas like cohesion, family, togetherness, toughness, discipline, and others like them typically offer no external reward, yet they are attractive concepts intrinsically.

Another way to create ownership is to constantly use collective pronouns.

Words like we, our, everybody help program people to think collectively.

If you are constantly using personal possessive pronouns like my and mine, then people will just assume that you own the athletic department and are solely responsible for it.

Little things, like the way we communicate, can do so much to impact the ownership level in our athletes.


Motivation through Athlete Centered Coaching

I’ve been doing a bit of research on this topic lately. The term scares me because I am from the traditional education school of thought. The teacher should be in charge of the classroom and the coach should be charge of the team. So the progressiveness of this concept is intimidating.

However, I realized that this concept goes hand-in-hand with ownership.

Empowering an athlete through choice and decision making will cause a more intrinsic view of the process.

The best two practices that I’ve ever conducted were not planned by me. They were constructed and executed by players.

Every once in a while I select responsible players to plan practice. While I don’t always agree with what drills they select, I am usually impressed with the intensity, enthusiasm, and commitment of the practice.

It’s because the structure of the practice has more value to them. They are motivated because it is something they care about.

You can still be in charge as the coach. Just give your players more say in training. Give them choices. Choose two things that produce the same outcome and let your players decide.

We need to get a three point shot off coming out of this time out. We can run play A or play B.”

We need to work on tracking back on defense after a counter attack. Would we rather run drill 1 or drill 2?”

Our fitness is weak. Should we perform this or that?”

As long as you approve of the options that you give them, then you as the coach have nothing to lose.

You’re the authority; you can overrule and overturn certain decisions. You can also change direction if you don’t like where the players have taken you.

Retain your authority as coach, but outsource the decision making to create intrinsic value.


Motivation through Responsibility

If you want to make someone care about something, make them responsible for it.

Giving them a job is not enough, though.

Homework is a job that our students are responsible for, but how many of them intrinsically value the assignment? Most students complete the assignment to make a certain grade or to avoid discipline: extrinsic motivation.

So how do we create intrinsic value through responsibility?

This is where knowing the individual athlete comes into play. Find a job for them that is interesting to them. Tap into their talents.

If you have an athlete that has a penchant for graphic design, then commission them to do poster or flyers for teams or the athletic department.

Simpler jobs, like cleaning the bleachers or washing practice gear, work too. Just make sure that these are given to kids that possess a higher level of intrinsic motivation to begin with or else you probably won’t be satisfied with the results.


In closing, consider what the intrinsic motivation level of athletes in your program is. Could it be higher? What are you doing as the leader to encourage it? You can’t incentivize intrinsicity. You need to tap into the person and see what makes them tick.

Having intrinsically motivated athletes will lead to higher morale, athlete retention, and participation.

Start finding ways to intrinsically motivate today!


What things do you have in place in your program that help increase intrinsic motivation?

Jeff is the athletic director at Victory Baptist Academy. He is also the founder and administrator of TheAthleticDirectors.com.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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