Motivation – It’s all in your mindset

Motivation – It’s all in your mindset

Jeff Mitchell – Community Coach Advisor – Sport Auckland / GACU

Think about a time when you felt really motivated. When you were energised and couldn’t wait to tackle a project, or to get underway with something you wanted to achieve. Maybe you were coaching a new team, or wanting to put into action something you had learnt on a course or read in an article. How did you feel? What was the impact on how you acted? How did it help you to achieve?

Motivation is a critical component for player development. To build your understanding of motivation we will look at the direction of motivation, the sources of motivation, and the two mindsets that players can have regarding their ability. Following on from this we will look at your role as coach in fostering an appropriate motivational environment.

Motivationman on fire

Motivation is the driving force that gets people to act. It can be thought of in two ways: direction (what you want) and intensity (how much you want it). Motivation determines where you will spend your energy (your goals) and how much energy you will spend to achieve them. Your players’ level of motivation will determine how much effort they put in, what goals they try to achieve, and how likely they are to achieve them.

Players that are motivated will enjoy their sport more. They will continue even when things are difficult, and the extra effort that they are putting in will result in greater development. When players are motivated they are driven to achieve their goals, resulting in greater performances. As a coach, your goal is to create a motivating environment for your players. To do this you need an understanding of what motivation is and how you develop it.

Goal orientationMotivation 1

A player’s goal orientation is where they direct their motivation towards and what drives them. In sport there are two goal orientations: mastery and performance. A player with a mastery orientation is driven to learn and to improve their ability. They want to be good at their sport and to improve their skills, without necessarily having to be better than other people. A player with a performance orientation is more concerned with demonstrating their abilities to others. They want to be seen as being the best; however, they are not as concerned with developing their skills to actually be better.

The following table summarises the characteristics of mastery and performance orientations:

Motivation 2
Table 1: Goal orientation characteristics

With a mastery orientation, the focus is on learning and improvement. The player wants to become good at a specific task. By contrast, with a performance orientation, a player wants to show others how good they are. They are looking for praise and approval; they are not as interested in improving a skill just for the sake of being better at it. With a mastery orientation, a player will compare their current performance to what they have done previously: have they improved? With a performance orientation, a player will look to see how they compare to others: are they better?

You can have a large influence on the direction of your players’ motivation. Which orientation do you want to encourage in them? If you coach to develop players and instil in them the idea of continuous improvement, then it should be clear that a mastery orientation is the best approach. Players with this orientation are more resilient, as they will work to overcome the challenges that they face. They take responsibility for their performance, as they are focused on making it better. And they are continuously trying to improve, to be better than they were yesterday. The performance oriented player is more motivated to be seen to be good than they are to actually be good, and will only try and improve if the people they compare themselves to are improving.

Let’s have a look at the two goal orientations in action. We will use two football players, Tommy and Sarah, to see how the goal orientations look in a coaching context. From the example below, who do you think has a mastery orientation?

Motivation 3

Reflect on the following questions to help you to understand the impact of goal orientations:

  • What is motivating Tommy and what is motivating Sarah?
  • Which player is likely to develop their skills to a higher level? Why?
  • How would you coach each of these players?

Clearly Sarah has a mastery orientation, as her focus is directed towards improving her skills – to mastering her ability to play football. Tommy, on the other hand, is more concerned with being seen to be good, so he is displaying a performance orientation. If you were coaching Tommy you would want to help him to develop a mastery orientation. To do this you would need to help him to focus on an appropriate source of motivation.

Sources of motivation

A player’s motivation can come from something that is internal to them (something that they choose) or external (something that comes from outside of the player). There can be several sources of motivation for a player; the strength of each will influence the direction of their motivation and how likely they are to continue pursuing their goal.

Internal motivators include the goals that a player has set, the desire to improve a skill, the enjoyment they get out of participating in their sport, or their intention to challenge themselves. External motivators could be the coach, parents, friends, rewards (trophies, certificates, money etc.) or the fear of punishment.

A player that is internally motivated is more likely to adopt a mastery approach (think of Sarah trying to improve her skill). They believe that their results are within their control, and that with effort they can achieve them. A player that is motivated by rewards or by someone else, however, is more likely to adopt a performance approach (think about Tommy looking for praise and approval from an outside source).

motivation 4

While both internal and external sources can provide strong motivation to begin with, the intensity provided by external sources often does not last as long as for an internal one. If they fail initially, players with an external source of motivation are more likely to give up as they aren’t able to reach the standard set by someone else. An external source of motivation can actually make a player less motivated, as the player does not have control, and therefore ownership, over their achievement. It can also influence how they play in a negative way. Think about the following example:

motivation 5

The lack of control over the goal can also lead to problems when the source is external. Consider what happens to Tommy in the second half:

motivation 6

Having an external source of motivation does not allow the player to modify it to suit the situation. If Tommy had determined the goal for himself, he may have been able to modify it to focus on the number of saves he made. As he did not have control, he was unable to make the goal appropriate.

Consider the difference for Sarah, who has used an internal source of motivation:

Motivation 7

Goals that are unachievable do not motivate players. Tommy’s motivation has reduced as his father has directed his motivation towards a performance that he is unlikely to achieve. Tommy has realised that he is unlikely to score and get his $5, causing him to lose his motivation for the game. As the source of his motivation was external, he is unable to modify it to suit the situation. As Tommy is not in control of the source of his motivation it does not hold its strength, and his interest and effort in the game slides as a result.

Internally-sourced goals are motivating as the player has control over them. As Sarah has an internal source of motivation (to improve a skill she has decided on) she is in control of the goal. Being in control of the goal, she is able to modify the goal if necessary to make it realistic. Sarah did this as she changed when she was going to try to achieve the goal. By modifying it to suit her situation, the source maintains its motivation for her, and she continues to put her best effort into the game.  If a player does not have control over the goal (when it is external and therefore provided by someone else) they are unable to modify the goal so that it is still motivating.

Players will often face setbacks when participating in sport. How players deal with setbacks has a lot to do with how they view their ability. This view has important implications for a player’s motivation and how far they will progress in their sport. As a coach, you are trying to help each of your players to reach their potential. How close a player will get towards their potential is often determined by their mindset.


A player’s ‘mindset’ refers to the set of beliefs and assumptions they have towards situations. You can think of it as their usual attitude or mind state, and how they look at something. For sport, as in many other human endeavours, the greatest influence on an athlete’s development is how they view ability. This mindset can be termed either fixed or growth. Each mindset will set up completely different motivational systems and influence the player’s development in different ways.

Fixed mindset

Players with a fixed mindset believe that you are born with certain abilities and characteristics, and that there isn’t much you can do about it. Either you are good at something or you are not. People with this mindset place a lot of emphasis on talent and believe that you ‘either have it or you don’t’.

Growth mindset

People with a growth mindset believe that you can change your abilities through effort. While some people may be born more gifted than others, everyone can improve their own ability through effort and deliberate practice.

motivation 8

A player with a fixed mindset will have a very different motivation from someone with a growth mindset. These differences can be illustrated through three rules covering motivation, effort and mistakes.

motivation 9
With Rule #1 we can see two different orientations: a performance orientation for a fixed mindset and a mastery orientation for a growth mindset. Players with a fixed mindset are concerned with looking good and showing their ability. They are worried about how other people will judge them, and feel the need to continuously prove themselves. They are motivated to be seen as having ability, and will try to avoid situations that could cause their ability to come into question (i.e. playing against a better opponent).

A growth mindset motivates players to keep improving. They have a mastery orientation as they are driven to develop their skills. They are more concerned with learning than they are with being seen to have ability. A growth mindset is all about reaching your potential, rather than showing people what your potential is.

motivation 10

Players with a fixed mindset believe that ability should come naturally; if you have to work at it then that is a sign that you aren’t talented. Effort, therefore, suggests that you lack ability. And given their belief that abilities are fixed, they don’t want to show others their lack of ability.

For a player with a growth mindset, effort is seen as a normal and necessary step in getting better. They believe that the harder you work the better you will be. A growth mindset motivates players to work hard, while a fixed mindset discourages players from any activities where they need to put in effort.

A player’s effort is tied to Rule #1. A player with a fixed mindset will work hard if this is what is needed for them to be seen as having ability, e.g. when the coach is watching. If the effort won’t contribute to them looking good, however, then they won’t put it in. For a player with a growth mindset, the motivation to keep improving will drive them to maintain a high level of effort.

motivation 11

People with a fixed mindset see themselves as being a finished product, with little room for growth. This means that they feel the need to show how good they are (Rule #1) to prove that they are talented. As a ‘finished product’, the fixed mindset views mistakes as failures: something that tells them and others that they are not competent. Mistakes need to be avoided or covered up, as they are a threat to the image of the player.

Players with a growth mindset will take a different view of mistakes. They see mistakes as part of the learning process. When they make a mistake, they work harder and try to see what they can do to learn. Mistakes provide them with information on how to be better going forward. Even when they fail, they can still see the value in what they are doing, as long as they are learning.

How players view mistakes has a big impact on how they will approach challenges. With a growth mindset, players welcome the chance to stretch themselves and learn something new. As each challenge presents the opportunity to improve, they do not look at them as an opportunity to fail, but rather as an opportunity to grow. By contrast, a player with a fixed mindset will see the risk of failure and shy away from challenging situations. This stunts their growth and limits their ability to develop within their sport.

Developing a growth mindset

As you are the coach, you have an important role to play in helping your players to adopt a growth mindset. You do this through the motivational climate that you create, which should encourage players to achieve their goals. This means creating an appropriate environment for the adoption of a mastery orientation and emphasising internal sources of motivation. It is your responsibility to create an environment in which your players can thrive, which requires them to adopt a growth mindset.

There are a number of factors that go into creating an appropriate motivational climate. Here we will look at how you can use praise, feedback, goal setting, mistakes and questioning to create this environment.


Praise is used to reinforce the specific behaviours you are looking for. The use of praise is important when you are trying to create a positive environment; if you only criticise your players and pull them up on their errors, the overall climate will be very negative. Players should enjoy their participation in sport, and a positive environment is best for motivating players to achieve their best.

Praise can be used to reinforce either a fixed or growth mindset. You want your players to view ability as being able to be improved through effort, rather than think that their abilities are set. To do this you need to use praise in a way that fosters this belief.

Say you praise a player for their traits or natural ability. You may comment that they are “really good at shooting”, a “natural when it comes to tackling”, or “one of the fastest people on the team”. With each of these statements you are praising the player for being good at something. In order to continue to get praised, the player will feel that they need to continue to appear to be good. This is because the focus is on how they compare to others rather than the improvements they are making.

Rather than praising a player’s ability, it is better to praise their effort. This reinforces the notion that the player is able to improve, and feeds their internal motivation to master a skill. The player has control over their effort, and this reinforces what you are really after: that the player continues to work hard so that they keep getting better. Remember, as a coach you are more concerned with creating a motivational environment where players grow towards their potential than you are with how “good” your players are.


In addition to providing praise, it is also important that you provide your athletes with quality feedback. Players need accurate information about their own abilities in order to grow. They also need to know what to work on, and how, so that they can direct their effort in a purposeful direction. Accurate feedback on what a player is doing well, and what they could improve on, will help motivate them to continue to develop.

It is important that your feedback encourages the player to continue to work hard, and is not seen as reflecting their personal traits. One way to do this is to use “yet” if they have failed to achieve a certain standard. For example, if a player is failing to use a soft enough touch to control the ball, you could say that “You are not using a soft enough touch yet to bring the ball under control”. The use of “yet” indicates that it is something the player can work on, and that it is not final (i.e. fixed).

Goal setting

Goal setting should be a central part of your coaching practice. Having teams and individuals set goals creates a motivational climate where everyone is trying to improve. You should use these goals to shape the training sessions and how you approach your match days. Having players set goals focusing on the improvement of their skills is a great way to foster a mastery orientation.

To assist your players to use goal setting effectively your role is to:

  • Support and encourage individuals and the team to set goals
  • Focus on the development of process goals rather than setting mostly performance and outcome goals
  • Take the players’ goals into consideration when planning training sessions
  • Monitor your players’ progress towards their goals
  • Direct your players to focus on their goals
  • Ensure that the goals your players set are SMART and that they have a clear plan for how they will achieve them.

Encourage learning from mistakes

Players with a growth mindset look at mistakes as an opportunity to learn. To encourage this you need to make it safe for players to make mistakes. If they are berated each time they make an error in a game, they will just stick to what they know they are capable of. The result? They don’t grow and they don’t take the risks that are required in order to progress towards their potential.

Positive mistakes are those where a player has stretched themselves outside of their comfort zone, or when they have tried something new. It is important that your players learn from their mistakes and do not dwell on the outcome of them. This means looking specifically at what happened and what you can learn from this. It is important that you understand why mistakes occur. Mistakes that occur due to laziness or a lack of focus are not the sort of mistakes we are talking about.

Tell your players that it is ok to make mistakes, and follow this up by not criticising them when the inevitable errors occur – even when they result in lost matches. Explain to your players the role of mistakes, and stress that it is ok to make mistakes if you are stretching yourself or trying something new. You will need to tell your players’ parents the same things, so that they understand and are also contributing to a positive motivational climate.

To help your players to learn from their mistakes you should ask them questions that will assist them to draw the learning out of the situations.


If you just tell your players what to do and make their decisions for them, their focus will be external. To get them to focus on their own goals and to motivate themselves internally, take a questioning approach. This could include:

  • Asking them to set their own goals
  • Asking them to assess their own performance
  • Getting them to correct their own technique (by asking them what they could do differently)
  • Directing your questions at their use of a skill rather than on the outcome or result.

Use your questions to direct the player to things that are in their control and to things that they can improve. When addressing errors you will need to think about how you phrase the questions to ensure that the players do not get defensive. Some areas you could ask questions about include:

  • What it was that they were trying to do
  • What actually happened
  • Why the error occurred
  • What else they could have tried
  • What this tells them about what they were trying to do (the learning).

From these questions it is always a good idea to have the players identify what they will do differently in future and what they will do to improve in the area. Keep reinforcing the idea that they can improve: mistakes are only temporary and not a reflection of their final state.

Motivation is crucial for players to reach their potential. A growth mindset will enable players to work towards their potential, as they will challenge themselves and learn from their mistakes. Your role as their coach is to provide an environment that encourages a growth mindset, that is based on internal sources of motivation, and that supports players in the achievement of their goals.

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