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Skills to Motivate and Develop your Athletes

Brian Mackenzie examines the skills required by coaches to motivate and develop their athletes.

The United Kingdom Coaching Strategy describes the role of the coach as one which "enables the athlete to achieve levels of performance to the degree that may not have been possible if left to their endeavours". At the 19th session of the International Olympic Academy, Greece 1979, Dyson widened the horizon to "the wise coach develops not only the fullest physical potential in his charges but also those capacities and habits of mind and body which will enrich and ennoble their later years".

The role of the coach could be quite daunting since the above implies what could be construed as a quite awesome responsibility, especially for the part-time non-professional. I believe the role of the coach is to create the right conditions for learning to happen and to find ways of motivating the athletes. Most athletes are highly motivated, and therefore the task is to maintain that motivation and generate excitement and enthusiasm.

Coaching Skills

To be successful as a coach, you will need to develop many personal and interpersonal skills. These include:

  • knowing how to communicate effectively with your athletes
  • understanding the learning process and training principles
  • understanding and implementing appropriate teaching methods
  • understanding the various coaching styles
  • understanding the capabilities of growing children
  • advising athletes on track safety
  • understanding the causes and recognise the symptoms of over-training
  • understanding how to reduce the risk of injury to your athletes
  • preparing training programs to meet the needs of each athlete
  • assisting athletes in developing new skills
  • using evaluation tests to monitor training progress and predict performance
  • advising athletes on their nutritional needs
  • understanding and knowing how to develop the athlete's energy systems
  • advise athletes on relaxation and mental imagery skills
  • advise athletes on the use of legal supplements
  • evaluate the athlete's competition performance
  • evaluate athlete/training and athlete/coach performance

I will not go into any depth here on these above skills as these will topics will be addressed in future Successful Coaching Newsletters.

Coaching Roles

Many people will consider the role of a coach to be one of teaching the athlete the appropriate skills to succeed in their chosen sport or event. The roles that you will find you undertake as a coach will be many and varied, and you may find at some stage in your coaching career that you will be: instructor, assessor, friend, mentor, facilitator, researcher, and many more.

Trust and Respect

Each athlete's training requirements are unique, and so a one-to-one relationship develops between the coach and athlete. As a coach, I believe there are two things that you need to grow in your athletes to have a good working relationship/partnership which will enable your athletes to develop to their full potential, and they are: Trust and Respect.

In working with an athlete, you are a team, and you should consider the athlete's partner, or parents in the case of young athletes, as being part of that team. They can provide valuable support to your athlete, which in turn can be very beneficial to you in your coaching role. Remember, you also need to trust and respect the athlete as well as the partner/parents. The roles of the coach and athlete in determining training requirements will change over the time an athlete is with a coach.

  • When an athlete first starts in a sport/event the coach's role is to direct the athlete in all aspects of training (autocratic coaching role)
  • As the athlete develops and demonstrates a sound technical understanding of the sport/event then gradually the coach's role changes to one where the coach and athlete discuss and agree on appropriate training requirements (democratic coaching role)
  • As the athlete matures and demonstrates a sound understanding of training principles then the athlete will determine the training requirements. The coach's role becomes one of a mentor providing advice and support as and when required.

Styles of Coaching

There are perhaps two coaching styles - autocratic (do as I say) and democratic (involve the athletes in decision making). The autocratic style could be broken into two types - telling and selling and the democratic style into sharing and allowing. Coaches will use a variety of styles/types, depending on the coaching situation.

Autocratic Style - Telling

  • The coach decides on what is to be done
  • The athletes are not involved in the decision making
  • The coach defines what to do and how to do it

e.g. in a circuit training session, the athletes are told the exercises to be completed.

Autocratic Style - Selling

  • The coach decides on what is to be done
  • The coach explains what is required and the objectives
  • The athletes are encouraged to ask questions to confirm understanding
  • The coach defines what to do and how to do it

e.g. in a circuit training session, the athletes are informed of the exercises in the circuit. The coach explains the object of circuit training and the purpose of each exercise. Athletes can ask questions to clarify any points.

Democratic Style - Sharing

  • The coach outlines the training requirements to the athletes
  • The coach invites ideas/suggestions from the athletes
  • The coach makes the decision based on the athletes' suggestions
  • The coach defines what to do and how to do it

e.g. the coach identifies a circuit training session. Athletes identify possible exercises for the circuit. The coach selects from the suggestions a set of exercises.

Democratic Style - Allowing

  • The coach outlines the training requirements to the athletes
  • The coach defines the training conditions
  • The athletes brainstorm to explore possible solutions
  • The athletes make the decision
  • The athletes define what to do and how to do it

e.g. the coach identifies a circuit training session. The coach defines the conditions of the circuit to ensure it is safe and meets the overall objectives of the session. Athletes identify possible exercises for the circuit and then select a set of exercises that meet the coach's conditions.

Alternative styles

B. Woods (Applying psychology to Sport, Hodder & Stoughton, 1998) identified four styles of coaching:

  • Command style - direct instruction, coach dictates
  • Reciprocal style - athlete takes some responsibility for their development, monitored by the coach
  • Problem-solving style - athlete solves problems set by the coach
  • Guided discovery - athlete, has the freedom to explore various options

Is Coaching an Art or a Science?

To support the coach, there is a wealth of scientific information based on research conducted with athletes. Information is available to support the coach and athlete in all areas of training and development including nutrition, biomechanics, psychology, physiology & medicine. There are several scientific methods to measure and analyse the athlete's performance, e.g. computer-aided analysis of VO2 max, lactate levels, running technique, etc.

The art of coaching comes when the coach has to analyse the scientific data and convert it into coaching and training programs to help develop the athlete. This analysis process relies heavily on the coach's experience and knowledge of the event/sport and the athlete concerned. By understanding the science, which is the foundation of training, a well-designed training program can be developed that will help an athlete reach their full potential. Art is understanding the science and then applying it.

Successful Athletes

As coaches, we would all like to develop the next Olympic champion, so how do we initially identify a potential successful athlete. Thomas Tutko and Bruce Ogilvie believe that the following characteristics form part of a successful athlete: Aggression, Coachability, Conscientiousness, Determination, Drive, Emotional Control, Guilt Proneness, Leadership, Mental Toughness, Self Confidence, and Trust. I look for four characteristics: Concentration, Confidence, Control (emotional), and Commitment. Of these four C's the primary one I focus on to develop in any athlete is Confidence. If an athlete has a high level of self-confidence, then commitment, control, and concentration will also be increased. Likewise, a low level of self-confidence will negatively impact the other three C's.

Legal Responsibilities

Coaches need to be aware of their legal responsibilities, especially concerning the advice they give their athletes and the way they manage and supervise them. Coaches have a legal obligation to their athletes and should:

  • provide appropriate advice and guidance
  • not offer advice beyond their level of qualification

Health and Safety

Coaches are responsible for the health and safety of the athletes in their charge. Coaches should have access to first aid facilities and how to contact emergency services.

Protection from Abuse

Coaches also have a responsibility to protect children from all forms of abuse. There are four main kinds of abuse:

  • Neglect (providing inadequate food)
  • Emotional abuse (being threatened or taunted)
  • Sexual abuse
  • Physical abuse (hitting)

Coaches should be able to recognise indicators, which may signify abuse, and take appropriate action if concerned. All organisations (e.g. sports governing bodies, local authorities, clubs) should have a policy statement and guidelines regarding child abuse.


Coaches should have appropriate insurance, which covers both public liability and personal accidents. Many governing bodies include insurance as part of their affiliation fee.


It is recommended that coaches do not use their vehicles for transporting athletes to venues. If coaches do use their cars, then they should ensure they are correctly licensed and insured. With young athletes, coaches should seek the assistance of the parents/guardians.


Coaches have an ethical and legal responsibility to:

  • educate their athletes about the drug (supplement) use and abuse
  • provide general and appropriate nutritional advise

Ethical Responsibilities

A coach is required to comply with their National Governing Body's code of ethics and conduct. The following is a summary of the code of ethics for coaches as supplied by the National Governing Body for Athletics in the UK to its registered coaches. The coach's primary role is to facilitate the process of individual development through the achievement of athletic potential. This role accepts the athletes' long-term interests as of greater importance than short-term athletic considerations. To fulfill this role, the coach must behave in an ethical manner respecting the following points:

  • Coaches must respect basic human rights. Coaches should operate without discrimination on the grounds of gender, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinions, national or social origin, association with a national minority, birth, or another status
  • Coaches must respect the dignity and recognise the contribution of each individual. This includes respecting the right to freedom from physical or sexual harassment and advances
  • Coaches must ensure that the practice environment is safe and appropriate. This must take into consideration the age, maturity, and skill level of the athlete. This is particularly important in the case of younger or less developed athletes
  • Coaches must acknowledge and respect the Rules of Competition. This respect should extend to the spirit as well as to the letter of the rules, in both training and competition, to ensure the fairness of competitive opportunity between all athletes
  • Coaches must exhibit active respect for officials, by accepting the ability of the officials to ensure that competitions are conducted fairly and according to the established rules
  • Coaches have a responsibility to influence the performance and conduct of the athletes they coach while encouraging the independence and self-determination of each athlete by their acceptance of responsibility for their decisions, conduct, and performance
  • Coaches must assert a positive and active leadership role to prevent any use of prohibited drugs or other disallowed performance-enhancing substances or practices. This leadership by coaches includes education of the athletes on the harmful effects of prohibited substances and practices
  • The coach must acknowledge that all coaches have an equal right to desire the success of the athletes they coach - competing within the rules. Observation, recommendations, and criticism of coaching practice should be directed to the appropriate person outside the view or hearing of the public
  • Coaches should never solicit, either overtly or covertly, athletes who are already receiving coaching to join their squad
  • Coaches should hold recognised coaching qualifications. Coaches should respect that the gaining coaching qualifications is an ongoing commitment achieved through the upgrading of their knowledge by attendance at accredited courses and practical coaching experience. Coaches also have a responsibility to share the knowledge and practical experience they gain
  • Coaches must respect the image of the coach and continuously maintain the highest standard of personal conduct, reflected in both the manner of appearance and behaviour

Coaches should seek out and fully co-operate with all individuals and agencies that could play a role in the development of the athletes they coach. This includes working openly with other coaches, using the expertise of sports scientists and sports physicians, and displaying active support of the National Governing Body.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (2003) Skills to motivate and develop your athletes. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 1 / May ), p. 1-4

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (2003) To motivate and develop your athletes you need these skills [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Brian Mackenzie is a British Athletics level 4 performance coach and a coach tutor/assessor. He has been coaching sprint, middle distance, and combined event athletes for the past 30+ years and has 45+ years of experience as an endurance athlete.