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Create the Right Motivational Climate and Culture

This is an excerpt from Coach Education Essentials.

By Charles H. Wilson Jr. and Trey Burdette


How can coaches improve the motivational climate of their teams? Nichols' (1984) Achievement Goal Theory (AGT) provides a blueprint. AGT focused on two terms, task involvement and ego involvement. Task involvement refers to individuals seeking mastery by improvement. Ego-involved individuals interpret ability by how it compares to others. In a sport context, a task-involved coach or athlete would be concerned with learning new skills independent of winning or placing ahead of other athletes. Ego involvement in sport would be reflected in an athlete or coach seeking validation about performance only if winning or placing ahead of a competitor occurs. For our purpose, ego-involved coaches would utilize the win-at-all-cost mentality, whereas the task-involved coach would display a more athlete-centered and holistic view. Let's dispel the notion that holistic, athlete-centered coaches do not want to win. They want to win just as much as every other coach or athlete. The difference is the holistic coach's primary focus is the development of the athlete.


Possibly the single best expression of a holistic, athlete-centered coaching philosophy, and arguably the most crucial part of the process, is developing an appropriate motivational climate or culture. Many benefits, including intrinsic motivation, self-confidence, and moral sport behavior seem to be connected to a supportive climate (see chapter 2). If coaches can cultivate the appropriate motivational climate, athletes will benefit more from sport participation. The holistic coach uses task orientation, thereby increasing intrinsic motivation, self-confidence, and self-esteem, and athletes feel competent because self-improvement is the goal rather than winning or high rankings. The question for coach developers: How do I help coaches create the right motivational climate?

  • Redefine success. Success should not be defined by whether one wins or loses. It should be evaluated on self-improvement. Self-improvement, mastery, and competence, all tenets of task orientation, motivate athletes for the long term and increase confidence. Self-referenced improvement also allows the athlete to feel a sense of autonomy; they have control over their development. Smoll and colleagues (1993) examined youth athletes' self-esteem using a social support training intervention for youth sport coaches. The training intervention aimed to teach coaches to redefine success to maximum effort (holistic approach), use positive approaches, and increase relationships within the team. They found that players rated trained coaches as better teachers, had more fun playing the sport, and were attracted to the relationships on the team. For more on this research, see chapter 6.
  • Set proper goals.Focus on performance and process goals rather than outcome goals. Performance goals are associated with achieving a performance objective such as running a certain time or making a certain free throw percentage in basketball. Process goals are ones that focus on execution of a skill or performance such as keeping the elbow high when throwing a ball or rotating the hips when swinging a golf club. Kingston and Hardy (1997) and Pierce and Burton (1998) both found in their respective experiments that focusing on performance and process goals improved the performance of the competitive athletes. Outcome goals, or goals associated with winning, are valid and should be in your program. However, conquest coaches only value outcome goals. Winning and losing is a function of many factors: your performance, your opponents' performance, luck, etc. Performing well and not winning a game or contest should not be deemed a failure. Therefore, the focus should remain on goals that you can control. Performance and process goals are the focus of holistic coaches.
  • Include democratic processes. Holistic coaches will allow athletes to have some decision-making responsibilities. Self-Determination Theory (SDT) was developed by Ryan and colleagues (1997) and examined self-regulation and autonomy as a piece of intrinsic motivation. They developed three psychological needs, Relatedness, Competency, and (relative to this section, most important) Autonomy. Autonomy can be simply described as an individual having some ownership over their course of action. Ryan and Deci (2000) state that this ownership or autonomy enhances intrinsic motivation. Enter the democratic process: the ownership element can be manifested in numerous ways. For example, athletes may have a say in the rules and consequences of a program. Athletes might choose the uniform for a given game or lead warm ups. Using a democratic process gives the athlete autonomy, teaches responsibility, and reinforces accountability. Mallett (2005) concurred, concluding a paper on enhancing quality coaching by stating coaches should create an autonomy-supportive environment because of the resulting increased sport performance.

    Democratic Processes Increased Autonomy Enhanced and Sustained Intrinsic Motivation
  • Provide proper feedback. Coaches are teachers. This means that coaches must provide appropriate feedback in order for athletes to grow to their potential.
    • Use a positive approach. Utilize a positive approach with your athletes. All too often, coaches only recognize athletes when they make a mistake. A positive coach makes an effort to reinforce the good things athletes do and by default, encourage athletes. An example is, “Virginia, excellent throw. This time, open your hips to have more velocity on the throw. Keep up the great work!” In this example, not only is the coach correcting points of performance, but also reinforcing the great effort being shown by the athlete. Negative coaches affect motivation, confidence, and performance. Positive coaches not only increase these, but athletes like playing for positive coaches.
    • Focus on informational feedback. The feedback holistic coaches provide is high in information. They do not ignore mistakes and they sparingly give only general praise such as “good job” or “nice.” Great teachers give informational feedback such as, “Way to shuffle your feet, Mia” or “Lila, excellent job keeping your elbow tucked.” Smith and colleagues (2005) found that perceived encouragement and positive feedback from coaches were interpreted by athletes as creating a task-oriented culture, and Weiss and colleagues (2009) found that positive and informational feedback increased athletes' competence, enjoyment, and intrinsic motivation. Therefore, provide informational cues to create a task-oriented environment and increase the quality of feedback.