Sport Psych Wednesday with Brian Alexander - Motivation is the Goal

Brian Alexander

Motivation is the Goal

Coaches and athletes try to motivate their team in a variety of ways. Coaches use pep talks, inspirational stories, rewards, and sometimes yelling. Athletes try to motivate teammates through their own hard work in the pool or weight room, by using encouraging “fire up” words, and/or pep talks. Some of these may work for the short-term but the effect tends to wear off especially when athletes are faced with situations where they are stretched outside their comfort zone or they fail.

If the coaches and athletes goal is to motivate their team in an effort for the team to find the drive to pursue their goals then they may find little long-lasting success. The reality is that you cannot motivate anyone beyond a superficial level because each person has their own psychological needs that need to be met (Self-Determination Theory, Deci and Ryan 2002). You can create an environment within your team, where everyone, including coaches and athletes, feel a sense of ownership and empowerment over the direction and success of the team. Within that environment is a culture where the ultimate goal is to promote a sense of vitality and well-being amongst the members through three areas.

  1. The need for autonomy (choice): This doesn’t mean that coaches should just sit back on the bench and let the athletes choose which systems to run or who receives playing time, etc… The word choice means, in this context, that the athletes understand they have a say in how they execute their role in the water. One way to promote this level of choice is to ask the athletes to think through a specific skill or situation in their own terms and then describe how they would execute. The best time to do this may be in team meetings or between practice drills with simple open-ended questions. Once people feel heard then they start to feel ownership especially if their ideas are received in a respectful way that promotes growth.
  2. The need for relatedness or connectedness: The social aspects of a team sport play a huge role in the chemistry of the team. If the culture of the team is one that provides a time and place for open and honest communication, every one thrives. This is great for conflict resolution or even constructive feedback in the form of praising or redirecting. Teammates start to feel they have each other’s best interests in mind. They will want to play for each other, feel connected to their club or school, and even for the coach. A lot of water polo teams focus on a team-bonding experience during their preparation phase for a season, which is a great start but you could continue to have some out of the water team experiences throughout a season or year. They can be as small as team meals and as big as giving back to the community through large organized events.
  3. The need for competence (knowledge): Gaining knowledge about one’s position on the team, their role, and how to play the game all lead to growth in ability, confidence, and intrinsic motivation. Coaches are teachers and most water polo players are student athletes. By virtue of association to their schools, the athletes are learners first. If you think about the underlying reason why people study and practice, it is ultimately to learn and gain knowledge so that when it is test or game time, athletes and coaches feel prepared. If you do not feel prepared, then you will not be as motivated to execute because you do not believe you have the knowledge and skills to do the job. That is why it is extremely important within a team culture to continue to be growth minded as teachers and learners. As thirst for knowledge grows, so does motivation, and that’s the goal!

If you are interested in one on one mental skills coaching or for your team, you can contact Brian Alexander via email: or at Also follow him on Twitter @BA_POS_MIND on Facebook (Athlete Mental Skills Coach) or follow his biweekly blog post on LinkedIn.