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Motivating Athletes in the Off Season

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Motivating Athletes in the Off Season

Keeping your players practising on their own during the off season is useful for development, but for the player, this may not be the most interesting way to spend their free time. As a coach, what can you do?


How to keep your players motivated during the off season was the subject of new research from college football in America. Using theories from psychology, this research showed how any programme needs to address issues of competence and control to be truly effective.

The Champions Club

The Champions Club was an attempt to optimise the motivation of the football team at an American college. The non-competitive season was divided into phases, and players had the chance to earn points for a variety of accomplishments (eg setting a personal best in the weights room). The top point scorers were then awarded prizes for each phase, which included a steak dinner for high scorers and hot dogs for everyone else, specially logoed athletic bags or jackets, or an opt-out from penalties levied for negative behaviours. In addition, the top 25 point earners had their pictures featured around the college.

The theory behind the Champions Club

What motivates people to act in certain ways has been a topic that has taxed the brains of academics (and coaches) for many years. Research suggests motivation ranges along a scale from people who are intrinsically motivated (where a player engages in an activity purely for the satisfaction and pleasure it produces) to a motivation (when players have no desire to engage in the behaviour). Along this scale, you will also find players who are influenced by extrinsic motivations such as avoiding punishment, feelings of guilt, to attain a reward, or to follow their personal values.

Self-determination theory is a popular way of understanding motivation in sport, and this formed the basis from which the researchers evaluated the Champions Club. This theory hypothesises that intrinsic and self-determined motivation are likely to happen when an individual’s three basic psychological needs are met. These needs are autonomy (the need to have a choice in executing actions that are in accordance with one’s values), competence (the need to interact effectively with the environment) and relatedness (the need to be securely connected to and understood by others).

Research has found that elite athletes usually display these self-determined types of motivation, and coaches are often encouraged to develop environments that foster this type of motivation.

However, the Champions Club was based on rewards that are more extrinsic, and it may at first seem the programme would reduce the sought-after self-determined motivation (and indeed that is what a lot of the research suggests). The researchers countered this argument by stating that if rewards are properly managed, they can help create an environment that encourages self-determined motivation. They argue that rewards can have either an informational aspect (they communicate that a person is competent in a specific domain) or a controlling aspect (they are perceived as coercive and used to dictate behaviour). An informational reward can contribute to perceptions of competence (a key psychological need) and improve a player’s self-determined motivation. On the other hand, a reward recognised as controlling may have the opposite effect – diminishing a player’s perception of autonomy (another key need).

In evaluating the Champions Club, the researchers wanted to see how far players agreed that a programme based on off-season rewards would meet their needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness.

Did it work?

Sixty players took part in the research, completing surveys and being interviewed by the researchers. What stands out from the results is the idiosyncratic nature of motivation – people reacted very differently to the Champions Club. In particular, when players felt the programme was not meeting their need for autonomy and competence, it was perceived as having little impact.

For many players, the Champions Club came across merely as a way for coaches to control player behaviour. In interviews, a number of players felt it was more about making them conform to certain types of behaviour than giving them information that would develop their football competence. This perception of an overly controlling environment and lack of autonomy led to some players having negative opinions of the Champions Club.

For a player to be motivated, they have to see a connection between the behaviour and the outcome (the competence mentioned in the theory). From the research, it was clear that players often failed to see a link between activities that earned points and their performance on the field. As such, this seemed to diminish the value the players placed on the programme. However, one thing everyone agreed is that it at least avoided a decrease in motivation.

Where the programme did have an impact (on at least half of the players) was in a more social context, through the posting of results each week. Here players were motivated to compete with one another. As one said:

[You] see where you are standing amongst other teammates and your peers. You get a little visualisation, and

[it] gives you a little extra motivation to do better.

This was especially true for those on the cusp of making the list of featured players. As one player said:

The only people really trying are the guys around the top 25. Those are the guys that are fighting for it.

Additionally, with off-season training, there may be a temptation to go easy on yourself. As one player stated:

When you’re only going against yourself, it’s easy to win, but when you compete against everybody else, it’s way harder.

This led the researchers to speculate on whether the Champions Club would work without rewards and could be based purely on standing within the group.

However, this was quickly dismissed by players, as summed up by the comment:

That’s like winning the championship with no trophy.

Learning from the research

Overall, the Champions Club was successful in some areas but less so in others. The social aspect of the programme, which allowed players to compare themselves with their peers, was a key motivational tool, but for many players, the programme did not increase competence and was seen as overly controlling. Therefore, the effect on off-season motivation was not as strong as it could have been.

This was the first time the Champions Club had been tried, and inevitably, there would be teething troubles. However, the research provides valuable ideas that any coach can take away and think about.

These include:

  • Any programme to increase motivation will affect different people in different ways. Do not expect to see improvements across the board.

  • The social context of off-season training programmes may be more valuable than rewards – players like to compare themselves to teammates. But don’t forget the rewards, or the players will have nothing to strive for (the championship without the trophy!).

  • Make sure the programme is not seen as coaches controlling the players in the off season. Involve your athletes in deciding the rewards. If players value the rewards, they are more likely to want to achieve them.

  • Players need to see a link between activities in the off-season programme and their on-field performance. If players can’t see the link between what they are doing and how it will improve their competence, they are less likely to work hard.

Download Research Summary: Motivating Athletes in the Off Season

The original research for this was

Readdy, T., Raabe, J. and Harding, J. (2014) ‘Student athletes’ perceptions of an extrinsic reward program: A mixed-methods exploration of self-determination theory in the context of college football’, Applied Sport Psychology, 26 (2): 157–171.

What do you think of this research post? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

Comments (1)

Very interesting John. I wonder if they just got to play the game in the off season or whether it was all accomplishment type training
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