Motivation Within A Strength & Conditioning Program: Part 1!

In Part I of this series on motivation Coach Nemish explains, in detail, how a strength and conditioning coach should lay the groundwork for his or her program.

Note: This is part one, click here for part two.

First Impression

The importance of giving a good first impression cannot be understated. This holds true when coaches address their athletes for the first time at the beginning of the year. When speaking to athletes at the first team meeting, the strength and conditioning coach must be prepared to start the year off on a positive note, convey specific information, and leave the athletes with a sense of direction for the upcoming strength and conditioning year.

Nonetheless, athletes are far too often given vague information regarding the training program and unclear expectations. Additionally, the vague and unclear commentary is often conveyed in a negative tone. As a result, the athletes are left to form negative connotations regarding the ensuing training year.

For example, what often happens at the first team meeting is that the strength coach will brag about the few "great" athletes who have gotten their names up on the record board that hangs with pride in the weightroom.

The athletes are told that "discipline" and "hard work" will be demanded of them and if they can't meet these expectations, then running at 06:00 am till they throw up will be the prime demotivator for such insubordinate behavior.

Examples of so called "wimp" athletes are brought to everyone's attention underlying the premise that if they are not going to "get it together" in the weightroom, they'll find themselves off the team. The speech is usually delivered with an abundance of fire and brimstone as the motivational seeds of intimidation and fear are planted deep within the athletes' minds, especially the freshmen.

Far too often, coaches attempt to motivate by intimidation/fear, threats, guilt and criticism. For the short-term, these negative motivational strategies can be effective. However, athletes can only respond favorably to such treatment for so long, especially if other, more positive measures are not taken. In other words, getting athletes fired up with that first 'Knute Rockne' speech is not enough to mobilize efforts in the desired direction for an entire season.

"The morning we left South Bend, every student and professor was out of bed long before breakfast and marched downtown accompanying the team to the railroad station. It was the first time I'd seen anything like this mass hysteria generated on the Notre Dame campus over a football game."
- Knute Rockne

This article is the first in a series of three addressing the motivation of athletes within a strength and conditioning program. The focus of this first article will be on practical ideas of what to convey to your athletes at your first team meeting. This first meeting will be crucial in directing the upcoming strength and conditioning year.

However, the first speech is not the be-all-and-end-all for motivating your athletes. Motivation is a continual process that needs to be addressed at every lift and with individual players.

As a result, the second and third articles in this series on motivation will point to specific things strength coaches can do to maintain or even enhance the level of directed effort and enthusiasm expressed by their athletes in the weightroom. These ideas are not only practically based, that is rooted in my own experiences in motivating both amateur and professional athletes, but also theoretically-grounded in sport psychology research and literature.

What Is Motivation?

Motivation refers to "the tendency for the direction and selectivity of behavior to be controlled by its connection to consequences, and the tendency of this behavior to persist until a goal is achieved" (Alderman, 1974).

The direction of behavior refers to the actual actions or the purpose of behavior while the selectivity of behavior refers to which task is chosen to be performed. If the consequence for missing a weight lifting session is to run at 6:00 a.m., then the behavior of missing the lift is controlled by its connection to consequences.

The aim in motivating athletes is to provide incentive for mobilizing effort in the desired direction so as to meet important goals. Within a strength and conditioning program, these goals may include the enhancement of strength, power, aerobic/anaerobic fitness, etc. How the team and individual players are to meet these goals must be clearly conveyed to the players at the first meeting by the strength and conditioning coach.

The Message

  1. Challenge your athletes. The first thing I do when addressing my athletes is to challenge them to focus on the day-to-day rigors of training and to leave the expectation of results for myself to worry about. Two quotations that I have used in the past to present my point are:

    "One of the biggest obstacles to excellence is not deciding where you want to end up, but in specifying what you are going to do today to get there..."

    - Orlick

    "It doesn't matter whether you live or die, what matters most in life is whether you are living or dying."

    - Botterill

    It is from these quotes, which are written on the board for all to see, that I base much of my first day speech. By challenging my athletes to focus on the day-to-day rigors of school commitments, training, practices, and relationship matters, I instill in them the notion that success is a journey of which they are in total control.

    Additionally, many of your athletes will be achievement-oriented (i.e. they will derive tremendous satisfaction from being successful in achievement situations). For example, success for achievement-oriented athletes would be defined in terms of effort, reaching personal goals, making improvements and helping the team, to name a few.

    These athletes are often described as being hard working, organized, disciplined and prepared. As a result, many of your athletes will respond favorably to being challenged to putting forth their best effort or improving upon past performances. By doing so, you are creating a form of situational goal setting within the athletes' minds based upon process goals and not outcome goals.

  2. Information about the lifting/conditioning program. After challenging my athletes, I make sure to inform them about what they will be doing in the weightroom and why they will be doing it. As a result, you can avoid as many blind spots as possible within athletes' minds regarding the type of training being undertaken and reduce the number of "Why are we doing this?" questions in the succeeding lifting sessions. The lifting plan should have a philosophical basis and a structure consistent with the philosophy.

    This conveys the message to the athletes that there is definitely an intended direction to the lifting program. In addition, if the program is explained in a smooth, confident manner, the strength coach will enhance his/her credibility and thus initial respect in the eyes of the athletes.

    Finally, the program should be explained with a measurable level of enthusiasm and excitement regarding the potential gains to be made. You shouldn't promise the world to your athletes, but showing excitement regarding your training methods enhances your philosophical convictions and beliefs in your athletes' eyes. After your speech, the key will be to deliver results.

  3. Expectations. Next, it is extremely important to explain specific expectations for athletes for the upcoming year or season (pre-season, in-season, post-season, etc.). Telling athletes that you expect them to "work hard" or "be disciplined" in the weightroom is setting yourself up to 50 different interpretations of what "working hard" or "being disciplined" entails.

    With all the athletes that I coach, I expect three things:

    1. Effort,
    2. Being responsible, and
    3. Motivating each other (positive rivalry).

    In communicating what type of effort I expect, I make sure that my athletes know exactly how this effort will be quantified. For example, at times I will want my athletes to train at a level of effort in which the last repetition of a set will have to be completed with the slight aid of their training partner (i.e. concentric failure).

    By conveying the expected effort in this manner, my athletes and I can objectively monitor and evaluate whether or not this type of effort is being put forth at a lifting session.

    In addition, explain to your athletes the "whys" of your expectations because these expectations should be a means to obtaining specific goals that the coaching staff has in mind. The expectations that you set out for your athletes should be based upon your coaching and training philosophies. Remember to express those expectations in a clear and objective manner that allows little room for interpretation.

    There should also be rewards in place for those athletes who meet expectations on a weekly basis. At the various universities that I was a strength and conditioning coach, I give out two awards each week, one recognizing outstanding "team training" (positive rivalry expectation) and one rewarding individual effort (disciplined effort expectation). At the first team meeting, I make sure to highlight the importance of these awards in reference to what each of them symbolize.

  4. Leave athletes with a sense of self-direction/personal control. One of the most important aspects of motivation that should be addressed in your first team meeting is instilling in your athletes the notion that they are in control of their destiny through focusing on day-to-day effort, and nothing else. Some athletes may feel as though they have to perform for others, for example, playing to impress the coach or a parent.

    As a result, they end up putting more pressure on themselves than is warranted. In my first speech, I will always try to take pressure off some of the athletes who subscribe to this notion by reinforcing the fact that they are training for themselves and their teammates and not for me, as a strength coach, or any other coach for that matter.

    "Any type of training gains that they obtain, therefore, will be due to the choices (self-control) they make that are in the best interests of the team and themselves."

    It must be understood that as athletes get older, their need for autonomy increases (Feigley, 1984). As a result, instilling within athletes a sense of independence and responsibility will aid in motivating their efforts in the desired direction. Having your athletes play a pro-active role in establishing team rules and consequences of behavior or setting their own goals, be it team or individual, will aid tremendously in giving your athletes a sense of personal control over their environment and thus enhance motivation.

    1. Guidelines and consequences of behavior. Even though sport psychology research suggests that the use of exercise for punishment is a poor method to control behavior, I believe that within college athletic programs, for example, certain guidelines and consequences of behavior, if these guidelines are broken, should be set when addressing your athletes for the first time.

      The last thing you want is the situation in which the "inmates are running the asylum". A way in which self-direction and a sense of control can be fostered within your athletes is to have the seniors on the team set the guidelines and consequences of behavior. That is, involving them in the decision-making process of setting rules can heighten intrinsic motivation.

      This will give the seniors a greater sense that their input is warranted and their opinions are valued, thus leading to enhanced team-member satisfaction.

    2. Goal setting. Some people believe that the setting of team and/or individual goals is the panacea as far as motivation is concerned. However, goal setting should only be one small slice of the motivational pie. There have been teams that I have coached in which goal setting was used and teams in which it wasn't formally used, with success achieved in both circumstances.

      How Often Do You Set Goals For Your Athletes?
      Each Game / Practice.

      In any event, if goals are set, there are certain guidelines that must be taken into consideration. First of all, the literature suggests that in order to obtain the best results from goal setting, members of the team should have a large say in which goals are to be set, with some tactful direction from the coach. In addition, goals should be performance- or process-based and not based on outcome.

      They should also be realistic, challenging and set for both the short and long term. If time permits at the beginning of the year, sitting down with each athlete and setting individual goals to enhance motivation is also recommended. For a more comprehensive look into goal setting, the reader is encouraged to read Orlick (1986) or Anshel (1994).

  5. Closing In putting the final touches on your first-day speech, I recommend re-challenging your athletes as you did at the beginning of the talk. It is at this time that you can re-state your expectations and leave them with a sense that it is up to them as to how much they want to gain from your program. End on a positive note by expressing how confident you are in their abilities to meet the challenges put forth.


I feel that it is extremely important for the strength and conditioning coach to set the year off on a positive note with his/her first speech with the team. Initially challenging your athletes to meet the expectations, goals and rules set out at the team meeting will set the stage for the rest of the year. Athletes should be informed about the program by explaining exactly how they will be training and why they will be training that way (philosophical base).

Conveying expectations and information about the type of training in a clear, concise and enthusiastic manner is also important. Having the athletes (seniors) establish team rules and consequences of behavior in addition to possibly setting team goals are methods to enhance feelings of self-direction and thus motivation of team members.

However, it must be noted that starting the year off through the use of positive motivational techniques is just that, a start! It provides a clear framework from which to base further motivational techniques.

What is most important is for the strength coach to continually monitor their athletes and be prepared with further positive interventions to keep the athletes motivated in the desired direction. Therefore, parts II and III of this series on the motivation of athletes in a strength and conditioning program will address practical suggestions for keeping your athletes focused on your training goals throughout the year.