Sport Motivation

To create a positive motivational climate you need more carrot than stick

The motivation for participating in sport and striving for improvement is likely to vary considerably from person to person. Indeed, most people have multiple motives rather than single reasons. For example, a tennis player might be attending individual coaching sessions to improve her ranking in order to demonstrate competence, repay the support of her parents and qualify for more prestigious tournaments offering more prize money! Sometimes these multiple motives reinforce each other, but at other times they can cause internal conflicts – as with the young athlete who feels pulled between his athletic career and his academic studies – and then something has to give! Lee Crust.

One of the major difficulties for coaches working with groups of athletes with diverse motives and goals is to create a motivational climate that facilitates the development of all these motives – or at least as many as possible. If anyone tells you this is easy, they are lying. As well as being flexible, you will need to have a good grasp of some of the fundamental principles of motivation and knowledge of how to apply them.

Motivation has been defined as ‘the direction and intensity of ones efforts’ (1). Direction refers to the decision to commit and to turn up to training on a regular basis. The intensity dimension is about how much people are prepared to give in each training session. In sport, these dimensions are often related, with committed individuals attending training on a regular basis and working hard during their sessions.

Some coaches believe that motivation is a fixed personality trait or characteristic – that you either are or aren’t a motivated athlete. In fact, though, motivation is not quite that cut and dried since the motivational climate created by the coach will impact on the motivation of the athletes under his or her guidance.

In many ways it’s a matter of fit. For example, when I was a teenager I harboured dreams of being a professional football player. However, the main reasons I played football were because I enjoyed it and because I wanted to master my chosen position of goalkeeper. I remember playing for two clubs during this period, under coaches whose approach to training and motivation could not have been more different.

The first coach acted like a drill sergeant in training, continually shouting instructions and berating players for the smallest of mistakes. His motivational climate was one of fear and intimidation, in which players became afraid to make mistakes. Feedback would usually focus on what had gone wrong and praise was rarely offered.

As a group we quickly came to understand that when the coach stopped shouting he was satisfied. Here was a coach determined to remain in control and achieving his aims by intimidation. Although he was reasonably successful, most players disliked him and I soon felt it was time to move on.

This example demonstrates the negative approach to coaching and motivation, which relies on negative reinforcement to shape behaviour, so that players do exactly what the coach requires in order to avoid punishment and/or humiliation.

I enjoyed my training much more and, more importantly, played much better football when I went on to work with a coach whose approach was primarily positive. Rather than using negative reinforcement and punishment, the positive approach focuses on using rewards (such as praise) to reinforce the behaviour desired by the coach.

Reinforcement and punishment
It is important to understand the principles that underlie these two polarised approaches to coaching. The work of the psychologist BF Skinner has led to a more complete understanding of what is termed operant conditioning, whereby behaviour becomes either more or less likely depending on its consequences (2). The theory is that if you reward or reinforce behaviours they are more likely to occur again, while punishment is more likely to reduce the chances of that behaviour occurring in future. Both rewards and punishments can be used as motivators.

Now here’s the part where people get confused, because the carrot-and-stick approach is less straightforward than you might think. Reinforcements and punishments can be either positive or negative. However, to avoid confusion, you must think of positive and negative in this case in terms of either adding something or taking something away, not in terms of good or bad (see box and table below).

How operant conditioning works(5)
Whereas classical conditioning works by forming an association between two stimuli (eg a ‘clicker’ and a treat in dog training), operant conditioning forms an association between a behaviour and a consequence.

There are four possible consequences to any behaviour, as follows:

Something good can start or be presented;
Something good can end or be taken away;
Something bad can start or be presented;
Something bad can end or be taken away.
Anything that increases a behaviour – makes it occur more frequently, makes it stronger or makes it more likely to occur – is termed a reinforcer. Normally a person will perceive ‘starting something good’ (positive reinforcement) or ‘ending something bad’ (negative reinforcement) as worth pursuing and will repeat the behaviours that seem to cause these consequences.

Anything that decreases a behaviour – makes it occur less frequently, makes it weaker, or makes it less likely to occur – is termed a punisher. Normally a person will perceive ‘ending something good’ (negative punishment) or ‘starting something bad’ (positive punishment) as worth avoiding and will not repeat the behaviours that seem to cause these consequences.

Note that these definitions are based on their actual effect on the behaviour in question – ie they must reduce or strengthen the behaviour to be defined as punishment or reinforcement. Pleasures meant as rewards that do not strengthen a behaviour are indulgences, not reinforcers; would-be punishments that do not weaken a behaviour are classified as abuse.

These processes are illustrated in graphic form in the table below.

types of reinforcement and punishment

From these examples it is evident that there are positive and negative ways to coach. Whereas the negative approach focuses primarily on punishing unwanted behaviours, often by creating a climate of fear, the positive approach centres on looking for things that are done well and rewarding them with positive reinforcement (3). Depending on the approach used, players are motivated either to avoid making mistakes or to repeat desired responses. As you might expect, most coaches will use both reinforcements and punishments to encourage optimal motivation and shape desired behaviours.

Sport psychology research evidence overwhelmingly supports the use of a predominantly (80-90%) positive approach (4), with punishment kept to a minimum (5). Behavioural modification techniques based on positive reinforcements have been successfully used to increase output during training sessions (6), improve performance (7), and reduce errors (8).

It’s at this point in my lectures that some students tell me that they prefer a more authoritarian coach, even one who shouts. That way they know what is expected of them – and that there will be negative consequences if they fail to live up to those expectations.

However, it is important to point out that a positive approach doesn’t mean being ‘laid-back’, having few rules and even fewer expectations of your athletes: far from it. A positive approach is as demanding as a negative one, except that rewards tend to predominate over punishments as the route to better performance.

I have met a few athletes who feel motivated by punishment. However, I have yet to meet an athlete who doesn’t enjoy being on the receiving end of praise, a positive gesture – like a pat on the back – or a positive non-verbal signal, like a smile or an approving nod of the head.

A predominantly positive approach to coaching will sometimes involve punishment. If, for example, one of your athletes has been late for training a number of times you might need to criticise them in order to ensure better timekeeping in future. Letting someone know you are unhappy is perfectly justified – as long as you limit your criticism to the particular behaviour that has made you unhappy rather than indulging in more general character assassination.

Taking a positive approach to coaching is not about praising athletes continuously, regardless of success or failure, but about giving praise when it is merited. That means recognising and rewarding not just successful overall outcomes – ie winning – but also performance improvements, improved approximations (like a more technically correct forehand in tennis) and effort. One study showed that children who were praised for their efforts following failure were more persistent, enjoyed the task more and performed better than children praised for having high ability (9).

The scheduling of positive reinforcement is also an important factor. Continuous praise is actually a bad thing – unless you are working with novices – as it devalues the reward, which is seen as too- easily obtained (3). In this kind of climate, players essentially switch off.

You also need to be aware of how your behaviour may be perceived by others. If, for example, you adopt a predominantly positive approach, using positive reinforcements, but for some reason remain fairly quiet during a session, your behaviour may be interpreted as a withdrawal of the normal praise and hence a punishment.

Giving constructive feedback
One problem I have noticed when working with novice coaches is that they tend to ignore signs of real progress and focus only on what is wrong. Successful feedback is a matter of balance. If you are constantly focusing on people’s mistakes, there is a risk that their confidence will be eroded and their motivation damaged. A little praise can go a long way to sustaining someone’s motivation. If you feel it necessary to be critical or corrective in your feedback, I suggest using the ‘sandwich approach’ (see box below) to help sustain motivation.

The sandwich approach(10)
At times coaches need to be critical, but this can lead to defensive behaviour on the part of the athlete, as criticism can be perceived as a threat to self-esteem. One way to avoid this is to ‘sandwich’ your corrective feedback between two positive statements. Let’s take an example of a football coach being critical of a striker who has missed a relatively simple chance to score. Rather than berate the player, the coach might consider something along the lines of the following feedback sandwich:

‘That was a great run you made to create space…
‘… but it was a poor finish. You were leaning back on contact and that’s why the ball lifted over the bar. Next time try to keep your head over the ball.
‘Keep going because you are stretching their defence.’ When presented in this way, the feedback becomes more constructive by balancing praise and criticism while also providing instruction.
Why should a negative approach to coaching, using more punishment and criticism than positive reinforcement, be discouraged when there is evidence to show that punishment can help to eliminate some unwanted behaviours?(4) There are three serious drawbacks to incorporating punishment into your coaching style:

The predominant use of punishment normally works by creating a fear of failure, and this can often lead to performance decrements as athletes focus on the consequences of losing or making mistakes rather than on what needs to be done to be successful. Fear of failure can promote indecision, with consequent tentative responses and a tendency to choke in high-pressure situations. In hockey, for example, a winger needs to take risks by running at the full backs and committing his opponents; this will not always be successful but it only has to work once for a match- winning goal to occur. However, if the player fears a backlash from his coach if he loses the ball, he might become tentative and avoid responsibility by passing to a team mate. ‘Playing it safe’ is often a counterproductive tactic which has been linked to poorer performances. Fear of failure has also been linked to less enjoyable experiences in sport and increased drop-out rates (11).
If you are working with athletes who are attention seekers, making an example of them by punishing them in front of others can actually reinforce the behaviour you want to eliminate. Poor behaviour, such as constantly turning up late for practice, is sometimes designed to provoke a response. The best way to deal with such behaviour is on a one-to-one basis in a private setting; otherwise it is likely to recur as it gives the attention seeker exactly what he craves.
The predominant use of punishment as an approach to coaching doesn’t promote good relations between coach and athlete. It can lead to the build-up of hostility, resentment and discouragement, resulting in loss of motivation.
If you want an example of how not to do it then look no further than heptathlete Kelly Sotherton’s former coach, Charles van Commenee. After Sotherton had achieved a Bronze medal in the Olympic Heptathlon in Athens she was blasted by her coach, who described most of her performances as ‘mediocre’ and criticised her for not tapping into her reserves. Maybe Kelly was capable of a silver medal, and Commenee’s comments might have been designed to motivate her to perform better in future. But I would question whether such negative comments, given in public, were helpful following her best international performance to date. Surely this achievement was worthy of some praise? Kelly has recently defended Commenee’s tough approach, but the two have parted company.

There are times when students point out (quite correctly) that coaches who use a predominantly negative approach have often achieved great success. However, it sometimes goes unnoticed that these same coaches are exceptional tacticians or have great technical expertise. In such cases it is highly likely that their success is attributable to these qualities rather than their negative approach to coaching (3).

Knowing your athletes
There are some players for whom a negative approach to coaching might be effective, but you really need to know your athlete before employing such tactics.

Creating the most productive motivational climate depends on many inter-related factors, including the characteristics of the group and individuals, their preferred style of coaching, the qualities of the coach (knowledge, expertise etc), situational factors (eg the dangers involved in a given activity) and, of course, the coaching style favoured by the coach (12).

There are many coaches I have seen and talked to who have adopted a coaching style based on their own experiences of being coached (eg the style of their old PE teacher). My advice is to think about what you are trying to achieve and whether your adopted style best suits the individuals or group you are working with.

In my experience, the best coaches are flexible and able to adapt to the requirements of different situations. This will nearly always involve criticism or punishment as well as praise, but will rely primarily on a positive approach in order to motivate players to perform at their best.

Lee Crust, PhD, BSc, PGCE is a lecturer and researcher in sport and exercise psychology at York St John College of Higher Education

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