Building Motivation: Give Up Control, Get Better Results


You can lead a horse to water, but he might kill you if you try to make him drink.

You know what that stupid horse needs: to drink. And you’ve given him just that. You brought him to the trough, full of sweet, somewhat clean H2O. But he just doesn’t want it, and if we try to shove his head in there, it ain’t gonna end well.

You know those athletes who just drive you crazy? Yeah, you do - they don’t try as hard as their peers, and they don’t really seem to care about what you want them to care about. They won’t take advantage of all your expertise and the wonderful training environment you’ve provided.

These are your Stubborn Horses. 

You thrive off the team’s success, and they need to succeed so the team can succeed. You may even love them. But at times, they definitely get on your nerves and make you question your sanity and life choices. Do you want to know how to make those “horses” crave “water” and take to it like you want them to?


Well, you won’t always be able to, but you can up their investment and engagement! How? Let’s rewind to Psych 101 for a second. It was Spring of 1893, and I had this Really Stupid Horse...

It's All About Motivation

You probably know there are two main brands of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic.

1. Intrinsic Motivation

You do something independently of any external reward. You do it because you like it. Nothing has to make you do it. 

This is probably how you are with training. Yeah, you probably like the outcomes from lifting weights - being stronger, more muscular, healthier. But coaches also tend to enjoy the process of training itself. It’s something that’s just part of you, and it fits into your deeply-held values. That’s intrinsic motivation.

This is one way you might differ from your athletes: you actually like training, while some of them either don’t get it, or do it for reasons outside of the training itself.

2. Extrinsic Motivation

You do something for an external reward. You do it for some reason other than the activity itself.

As you may recall, it’s a bad plan to lean hard on extrinsic motivation in the long run. It tends to undermine intrinsic reasons for doing things. Rewards for compliance fall into this category. So does getting them to do what you want “just because you say so.”

The good news:

You don’t have to love training to feel good about doing it

They don’t have to love training for the sake of training. Extrinsic motivation isn’t all bad - what’s important isn’t whether or not the athlete likes training, but that they choose to do it because they value the outcome. That is, the athlete maintains self-determination. 

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Remember - athletes sign up to compete in their sport. To some, training is a necessary evil that goes along with playing the game. Particularly when the training doesn’t look or feel like the sport (say resistance training for volleyball), it may not be something they actually want to do. And that’s ok. 

Self-determined extrinsic motivation looks and behaves very much like intrinsic motivation! In passing, you might even equate the two, but we like this model because it points out that some types of extrinsic motivation can be necessary and quite productive.

For more information on this model, this article goes very in depth.

How To Encourage Self-Determined Extrinsic Motivation

Coaches love training more than just about anyone else. If we can’t get our athletes to love it like we do, we can at least get them to buy in and choose to do it.

One thing to watch out for is controlling behavior. We want to do the opposite of this, which is supporting athlete autonomy. We want to let them be their own people.

I know - it sounds totally backward! You have a team to manage and a session to run, and this one athlete is just a Big Dumb Donkey. So, you might reach for your quickest, easiest, seemingly most productive tool - controlling them by flexing your power and barking some command. And, that might get them to do something that looks like what you want.

It totally makes sense. It feels natural, appears to get results, and it’s the way American culture expects leaders to act (to say nothing of what we expect of coaches, specifically).

BUT you can be sure their effort will be subpar, and their motivation hindered in the long-term.

What would be preferable is to encourage the athlete to make the choice to put effort toward what you want them to do.

Here are some practices that support athlete autonomy (vs. controlling them) and will give you the best shot at enhancing their motivation.

1. Provide Rationales for What You’re Having Them Do

A good rationale makes you look competent and puts training (which they may not care about) into outcomes they can identify with (things they probably actually want).

Which is more compelling?

  • “We’re squatting to make your legs stronger.”
  • “Squats make your legs stronger, so you can jump higher.”
  • “We have heavy triples today - this max strength cycle is going to have you jumping higher. So instead of getting blocked, you’re smashing it down the other girl’s throat.”

I know what grabs me. And not just because I wrote it. 


Also viable - making it personal.

“Ugh. Nordic hamstring curls again? What’s even the point?”

“Remember how you felt when you missed those games with a hamstring strain? We really missed you on defense, and these will help keep you healthy and kicking ass."

2. Set Specific Goals, and Remind Your Athletes of Them

One thing about teaching and mentoring is you “forget how much you know.” You’ve invested years of your life into understanding training and athletic success. Your athletes know so much less than you that it’s hard to even comprehend sometimes.

To that point: things are probably crystal clear in your mind. You know fully well that your plan will add inches to their verticals, but they likely only see what’s right in front of them. If what’s in front of them is a heavy barbell, it may be daunting, and it may be something they hate. They can’t zoom out like you can and see the gradual progression of weights, the weightlifting variations, and the plyometrics and jump practice that all add up to a beautiful result: higher jumps, and better performance.

As the experts, we have to help them connect the dots as much as possible.

The ultimate goal is always “more wins,” but that’s distant, and connecting what they’re doing today with winning can be hard. Winning often isn’t really under the control of a single athlete. In sport psychology, these types of goals are called outcome goalsPerformance goals are under the athlete’s control and are, therefore, more immediate and more motivating.

I may not be able to guarantee that I’ll win a race in three months, but I can set an achievable goal time and have a goal I am in control of.

In team or group settings, it can be difficult to do so, but do you assess your athletes and set goals for them individually? For example, assuming you’re having your team back squat, does everyone have a personal, individualized goal they can strive for? Or are they just arbitrarily trying to “get stronger"?

Does every athlete know what they’re trying to achieve, and will they know whether or not they’ve succeeded?

3. Offer Choices, Where Practical

This one’s a win-win.

Choices make athletes feel like they have control and a voice in the process.

You’ve programmed 3 x 10 on an accessory lift. Let’s say it’s Dumbbell Bench Press. What if someone did 3 x 8? 3 x 12? Would it mess things up? Would it even matter? If not, you could offer the option of going a little heavier and doing 3 x 8 instead?

Another example: if you have two similar sets of drills planned on different days of the week, ask which they want to do today. They’ll still do both sets of drills this week, but giving the choice makes them feel involved and heard.

We’ve done both of these, and this strategy can work really well. Regardless of what the athletes choose to do, they get the benefit of the training AND feel like they were “opted in” and were good team citizens.

4. Expect the Best from Everyone

Did you notice the disdain in my voice for the Stubborn Horse throughout this article? That was intentional. What happens when people frustrate us is we ascribe their behaviors to fixed attributes like intelligence or work ethic - we paint them as the “other” and assume they can’t/won’t learn or develop skills and attributes like work ethic.


If you stop and think, you know that motivation is certainly a fluid property that can be fostered. So, rather than talking about those Big Stupid Slobbering Stubborn Horses, we should be thinking of our athletes as individuals with unique makeups. We should be seeking to understand them, and to get the best out of them. It’s a lofty, difficult goal, I know.

There’s a self-fulfilling prophecy in expecting bad things from your least motivated athletes. In any setting - workplaces, classrooms, weightrooms... if you expect someone to perform poorly, it’s likely they will. When we expect an athlete to do poorly, that gets communicated via changes in tone, slips into controlling language, and lowered expectations.

What this communicates:

  • “Coach doesn’t like me.”
  • “Coach doesn’t think I’m good.”
  • “Coach doesn’t believe I can succeed.”
  • “Coach doesn’t care about me.”

Athletes are no longer autonomous, their behaviors no longer self-determined, and they no longer believe that you are invested in their success. They’re just going through the motions, being made to do something they increasingly resent.

That’s no fun for anyone, and you’re not going to get the best effort or performance out of that person.

Coaching Is a Hard Job, but You CAN Get the Most out of Your Athletes.

At the end of the day, you’re in the business of getting the best out of people who just happen to be athletes.

While you may not be able to do everything recommended right here right away, we’re sure you can take something from this article and immediately improve your relationships with your athletes.  

About The Author

Adam Dawdy is a Product Manager at TrainHeroic. Before that, he coached in various settings, taught, and studied biomechanics and exercise physiology. Adam is a converted endurance athlete who enjoys the pursuit of strength.