Motivation Within A Strength & Conditioning Program: Part 2!

In Part II of this series on Motivation Coach Nemish explains, in detail, how a strength and conditioning coach should use four incentive systems to motivate athletes.
Note: This is part two, click here for part one.

In my previous motivation article, I gave some practical recommendations of what to say to your players at the first team meeting. Using these positive motivational techniques at your first team meeting is crucial in setting the stage for the upcoming year and initially mobilizing effort in the desired direction.

However, as soon as the strength and conditioning program gets started, you will have to deal with athletes who don't put forth the type of effort that is expected, no matter how clear your expectations were communicated at the outset.

As a result, further motivational techniques that build upon the ones that were used at the first team meeting will be required. Never forget, therefore, that motivation of athletes is an ongoing process for a coach. This article will address the motivation of athletes in a strength and conditioning program according to four key incentive systems in sport.

The Major Reasons Why Athletes Participate In Sport

According to a study conducted by Alderman & Wood (1976) and further cited in Canada's Coaching Theory Manual, it was found that there were four key incentives for participation in sport:

  1. Achievement (success)
  2. Affiliation
  3. Sensation
  4. Self-direction

The need to achieve, be successful, or demonstrate competence are things that every athlete is motivated towards, the degree to which, is dependent upon each individual person. If athletes perceive that they are competent in sport, they will be intrinsically motivated to participate. Most athletes relish in the opportunity to improve or give their best effort, provided that their efforts are personally viewed as being important and contributing to the team.

These athletes are often described as "hard working", "prepared", "organized", "disciplined", or "well-coached". athlete Christopher Slatt.

It is also not difficult to see that many athletes become involved in a program and adhere to it in order to be a recognized member of a team. When seniors are interviewed after playing their last game at the collegiate level, they will often remark on the relationships they formed with their teammates and how those friendships are the things that they will remember and cherish the most about their athletic experience. As a result, the importance of athletes getting along with each other and being accepted/respected as a valuable member of the team cannot be understated.

Sensation refers to the sensory stimulation that the sport setting can provide. As soon as athletes feel as though they are no longer enjoying themselves or not having fun, participation usually ceases. This is no more evident than when listening to the retirement speech of an athlete who is still in the prime of his career.

Not as obvious to coaches is an athlete's desire to be in control of his life's outcomes and the environment around him. Once athletes feel as though they have little self-direction, their motivation for putting forth their best effort can fall by the wayside. This is especially true for more senior athletes, since it has been found that as athletes grow older, their need for autonomy increases. As a result, athletes who are given the opportunity to make their own decisions and made to feel responsible for their own actions will be intrinsically motivated.

According to a study conducted by Alderman & Wood (1976) and further cited in Canada's Coaching Theory Manual, it was found that there were four key incentives for participation in sport.

Not as obvious to coaches is an athlete's desire to be in control of his life's outcomes and the environment around him. Once athletes feel as though they have little self-direction, their motivation for putting forth their best effort can fall by the wayside. This is especially true for more senior athletes, since it has been found that as athletes grow older, their need for autonomy increases.

As a result, athletes who are given the opportunity to make their own decisions and made to feel responsible for their own actions will be intrinsically motivated.

Practical Recommendations For The Strength & Conditioning Setting

Achievement [Success]

    In order to foster the desire for athletes to achieve and be successful, it is very important for the strength and conditioning coach to base his evaluation of athletic performance on effort, something that is totally within the athletes' control. Athletes should be constantly reminded that focusing on the day-to-day efforts of training is the most important aspect of their athletic career.

    If an athlete is giving the best effort he can, he should always be praised, regardless of the outcome. As a result, feelings of competence and of being a success will be fostered. In addition, it is important to challenge your athletes to achieve on a daily basis. Instill within them your confidence in their ability to achieve higher and higher goals.

    However, just verbally praising athletes is not enough; you must give additional recognition for your athletes' efforts. At all the universities where I coached, one athlete from each of the athletic teams received an award each week recognizing the disciplined effort that is required to follow my program. Each of these awards was designed with the particular sport in mind.

    For example, the individual award for basketball was called the "Slam Dunk" award while the one for volleyball was the "Kill" training award. It is at the presentation of these awards, which is done in front of all the team members, that a few words should be said in an effort to highlight why that particular individual is being recognized. By putting someone up on the pedestal for a brief moment, you reinforce the positive behaviors that are expected in an attempt that others will strive to model such effort.

    Taking the time to sit down with each athlete to help set realistic goals that progressively increase over the training cycle is another way of fostering intrinsic motivation within achievement oriented individuals. At subsequent meetings, you will then be able to outline individual improvements.

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    In addition, having athletes record their lifts on a daily basis not only inform the strength coach about how well they are progressing, but it also gives the athletes immediate feedback. However, on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, it is important that you analyze the athletes' workout cards and write specific comments of praise or suggestions on how to improve.


    In order to foster positive feelings of affiliation within team members, each athlete must be made to feel as though their role is a valuable one and in some way contributes to the success of the team. With the athletes that I train, I expect a level of effort that is at times excruciatingly painful. Because of this expectation, I will always try to make it a point to interact with each member of the team, conveying to them the importance of training at this level and making them feel that what they are doing is tremendously appreciated.

    It is very important that you interact with every team member and not with just the starters or best players on the team. If you don't, your actions, or lack thereof, will be interpreted as being non-caring. Once this situation develops, these athletes will not be motivated to train, thus resulting in poor effort and diminished gains.

    Since the success of my coaching is, in my opinion, a direct result of the gains I can foster in my athletes, wanting each and every athlete to make the greatest gains possible so as not to contribute to poor test numbers is a priority. In addition, I will directly play upon what roles different athletes have on the team, expressing to them that their own roles are a significant part of the program.

    Freshmen athletes who come into a football program, for example, and automatically redshirt, will first and foremost strive to "fit in" to the program and be accepted by the current players. As a result, I always have these athletes train with someone at every lifting session. You may also want to change the lifting partners around from time to time in order to foster more interactions amongst team members.

    I question whether or not to do this with the veteran players because this practice may be viewed as being too controlling, and as a result, demotivating. Fostering affiliation and thus intrinsic motivation through training with a partner is a focal point of my coaching. Again, if you expect athletes to motivate each other while training in the weightroom, you must somehow recognize this behavior when your athletes demonstrate it.

    In addition to verbally praising certain training teams in front of their teammates, I give out a "Team Rival" award each week. This award is given to the training team who best encourage each other, provides perfect spots, demonstrates great technique, and puts forth the best effort during the previous week of strength training.

Sensation [Having Fun]

    No matter how serious you underscore the training of your athletes, you have to ensure that the athletes are having fun from time to time. Preventing mental burnout from long, monotonous training sessions can be done by varying the workouts on a daily and weekly basis. Workouts should be as brief as possible to achieve the desired results. In addition, the weightroom environment should be very energy provoking or, one that evokes emotion from your athletes.

    For example, I believe in having a powerful sound system in the weightroom and using the wattage it provides to its maximal capacity; in other words, crank it up loud! The only exception to this would be if I am teaching a lot of technique work or providing much needed feedback to my athletes when they are performing Olympic-style lifts. In addition, make it a point of having your athletes rotate the type of music they play because not everyone is going to get "pumped up" with certain types of music.

    When conditioning your athletes, there are a tremendous variety of drills at your disposal. It is not only important to prescribe drills that train the particular energy systems required in the sport, but it is also important to make the drills fun.

    For example, because of the competitive nature of sport, I will often devise drills that pit athletes or groups of athletes against each other. By doing so, athletes will be motivated to do their very best. You must watch, however, that the match ups between various athletes are fair because it will be very demotivating for an athlete to be destroyed in every drill.

    At the University of North Dakota, our offensive linemen participated in a racquetball tournament (hogball) and our defensive linemen played 3-on-3 basketball as part of their conditioning during the post-season. A little competitive, yet productive, fun can go a long way in enhancing an athlete's intrinsic motivation to train.

    Sample Workout Program Using Olympic Lifts:

    Good Mornings - 5 sets of 5 reps
    Upright Rows - 5 sets of 5 reps
    Barbell Squats - 5 sets of 5 reps
    One-Arm Barbell Snatch - 5 sets of 5 reps

    Click here for a printable log of this workout!

Self-Direction [Personal Control]

    Taking specific measures of fostering feelings of self-determinism are extremely important to enhancing intrinsic motivation within your athletes, especially the more senior members of the team. Athletes should be made to feel as though they have ownership within the program, with the success of it dependent on the decisions that they make.

    I always tell my athletes and fellow coaches that I can only provide a framework for success or an environment in which athletes can choose to succeed. Therefore, it is up to each and every athlete to make the correct decisions that are in the best interest of the team.

    Fostering personal control within a strength and conditioning program can be accomplished in a number of ways. First of all, having the senior members of the team set team rules and guidelines for inappropriate behavior is an initial step and one that was talked about in my first article. In addition, when individual meetings are held with athletes to discuss goals, asking the more senior members of the team for their input regarding the strength and conditioning program can be a way of fostering ownership and thus intrinsic motivation.

    At the University of North Dakota, I had the seniors lead in the warm up and stretching of the team. Before giving them this responsibility, I talked to the seniors regarding the importance of their leadership and the various opportunities for them to demonstrate it, be it in the weightroom when strength training or out on the track when conditioning. Expanding the roles of athletes only enhances their feelings of self-worth thus giving them a sense that they are making a valuable contribution to the team.

    Every opportunity I get, I will consult with members of the team when decisions have to be made. This is not to say that I don't make any decisions. I will always make the most important decisions regarding the program. However, when the opportunity arises for other more-minute decisions to be made, such as a change in the time of training, giving athletes a sense of control by involving them in the decision-making process is something of which I will take full advantage.

    And finally, I try to foster a sense of control of my athletes in accordance with my particular training philosophy. For some of my lifts, I subscribe to the philosophy of periodization, which dictates strict control over the training volume (sets x repetitions) and intensity (load). Because athletes adapt differently to training stress, it is very difficult to devise one program that will bring about maximal gains in everyone on the team. As a result, I will often program intensity ranges on particular training days.

    For example, if I want the athlete to perform 3 sets of 3 repetitions with 85% of 1RM, I may provide an intensity range for the athlete to use, i.e. 82.5-87.5% of 1RM. If an athlete is particularly sluggish on that training day, he can choose the lower percentage, 82.5%. Conversely, if an athlete is appearing to positively adapt to the training at a faster rate and feels very strong on that lifting day, then he can choose the heavier load (87.5%) to perform his sets and reps.

Predicting Your One-Rep Max

Weight Lifted

Reps Done (1-10)

One-rep max
50% 1 RM
55% 1 RM
60% 1 RM
65% 1 RM
70% 1 RM
75% 1 RM
80% 1 RM
85% 1 RM
90% 1 RM
95% 1 RM


Enter the amount of weight you lifted and the number of reps you lifted it for (the number of reps must be between 1 and 10 in order for the calculation to work).

Your One Rep Max will appear at the top and all your percentages will appear below it.

    Since the coach demonstrates such control in a periodization program, allowing athletes to decide on the weights they are to use, from time to time, is a welcome change and one which fosters self-direction in the strength training program.


The research findings by Alderman & Wood (1976) can be used to help foster, within athletes, the intrinsic motivation to train with the type of effort expected. Making sure that your athletes are feeling competent or successful in the weightroom is critical in enhancing their motivation to train.

In addition, fostering feelings of belonging to the team within athletes or affiliation within athletic programs through team training and receiving praise/rewards from the strength coach, are other ways of getting athletes to take ownership in the program.

It is also extremely important that the athletes are having fun every now and again by devising interesting and competitive drills when conditioning, listening to loud/motivating music when strength training, or by adding variety to the workouts.

Find 1000's of loud/motivational music:

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However, if the athletes feel as though they have no control over some aspects of their strength and conditioning program, then they will not be nearly as motivated to train than if they perceive some measure of control.