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Motivation and Feedback in Coaching

Dawn Hunter explains why motivation is seen to be an essential aspect for most athletes in enabling them to achieve their goals.

Motivation and Feedback in Coaching The definition of motivation can be divided into two main camps. The first is that of enthusiasm for something; when athletes are highly motivated, they are often enjoying their training and are keen to do their sessions. The other camp is that of the need or reason for doing something, i.e. the motivation behind what is being done. So, an athlete may not be enthusiastic about getting up at 6 am to do a long bike ride in preparation for an Ironman triathlon. Still, they are motivated as they know that if they do the training now, they will be more likely to do better in the race. When planning a season and defining SMARTER goals, the motivation to achieve those goals should be assessed by the coach as it will have a direct impact on the amount and intensity of any training set and the success of any training programme. Knowing any barriers to training and also the athletes' training likes, and dislikes will help in future motivation lapses.

Source of motivation

A motivation that relies solely on something or someone external to the athlete should be noted. An athlete's goals need to be self-governed. Otherwise, the motivation to take steps to achieve those goals may be lacking. For example, an athlete may want to do well at a particular race because friends and family will be watching. This is unlikely to be a good source of motivation as it comes from outside the athlete and when the going gets tough, the athlete may decide that they don't care what anyone else thinks and give up on their goal. Sometimes an athlete can be too motivated - this usually ends in them not taking appropriate rest days, as they want to train all the time. Your athletes must appreciate that rest is as important as training and will allow the body to adapt to the training load.

One aspect of being a successful coach is getting useful feedback from your athletes as to how they find your sessions. Scientific methods of feedback, such as heart rates, etc., are helpful. Still, to assess your athletes' motivation levels, you need to be able to understand how they feel a session went as much as how their body responded physiologically. Based on this feedback, you can alter and adapt their training accordingly. If the aim of your sessions is not being achieved, then you can look for another way to achieve the same aim.

The feedback from your athletes is likely to come in 3 main types - visual, verbal, and written.

Visual Feedback

Visual feedback - beyond the sweat, red faces, and heaving chests, does the athlete look pleased, or do they look a little discouraged? They look as if they could/should have gone that bit harder or paced themselves better. Verbal feedback - athletes frequently talk themselves and their performances up, and to a certain extent, this is to be encouraged. A positive mental attitude will go a long way to help to produce a good performance, but inside they may still feel that things could have gone better. It is essential to listen to what the athlete says and then look for the things they didn't say. For example, "The session went well. I couldn't have done it any better today. Chris was going well today". The athlete does not say why they couldn't have done any better today or why they felt it went well. Was this despite whatever was holding them back or did the session go well, but on a less windy day, it could have gone better? Did Chris do better in some way? Is the athlete concerned that Chris is doing something to make themself faster than the athlete?

Verbal Feedback

If the verbal feedback is given over the phone, it is often difficult to get full and frank answers, as there is no visual feedback available from either coach or athlete. For feedback via phone, both athlete and coach need to be comfortable communicating over the telephone. The difficulty with both visual and verbal feedback is keeping a record of it. Visual feedback can be written down quickly: "the athlete looked pleased with him/ herself at the end of the session".

Verbal feedback is more difficult as you are likely to write down the content of the feedback rather than how it was delivered and phrased.

Written Feedback

Written feedback - where an athlete does sessions without the coach's presence, feedback may be given via email or text. Although expansive, email can frequently hide an athlete's actual view on performance.

Written feedback can vary from a list of what was done, with heart rates and times to a long and involved written piece. The type of email feedback seems to change depending on whether the athlete concerned treats email as another form of verbal communication or a form of written communication. The latter athlete is likely to provide a more formal, data-filled email than the former who will frequently hold a single-sided conversation that can run to several hundred words. It is the more verbose athlete who is more helpful to the coach as you are likely to be able to pick up things they haven't noticed, even themselves.

For example, you may get athletes who have a long winter of colds or injury by the spring and cannot understand why they are not going as well as the previous spring. By going back over their feedback, you can establish and point out to them exactly how much time they have lost through such things. It can be surprising how much training can be missed, which is forgotten by the athlete only a month or so later.


Both great motivation and a lack of motivation can produce lots or no feedback. Athletes who are highly motivated and are just getting on with the training frequently fail to feedback unprompted as it does not occur to them. As long as nothing is going wrong, they will carry on regardless. It is worth trying to pin these athletes down weekly.

Alternatively, an unmotivated athlete will avoid providing feedback as they will see their non-attendance at sessions as a failure. With these athletes, it is worth re-establishing the reasons for their goals and pushing whichever buttons you know will work for them.

For example, for some athletes, it is enough to know that their greatest rival is training to get their motivation back in harness. For others, it may be that other factors, such as moving to a new house, getting married, a new job, etc., take precedence at the moment and it may be that their goals should be reassessed accordingly to allow for some time to address these other aspects.

Ways of dealing with an unmotivated athlete will depend quite a lot on whether their sport is effectively recreational, or they are an age group or elite athlete. For some, pulling out of a race or giving up for a season is not as big a deal as it is for others. Knowing your athletes well and understanding why they do their sport is a crucial factor in helping them to get their motivation back.

Some motivated athletes will provide lots of feedback because they are so enthusiastic about their training and will want to share that with you. The more feedback you receive from an athlete motivated or otherwise, the better you will get to know them and the better the coach-athlete relationship is likely to be. One ideal coach-athlete relationship would be where the athlete and coach come to a consensus about the training rather than the coach 'setting' the training for the athlete. This will not always work, but a highly motivated athlete is likely to have read around the subject of training for their sport and in general and based on their experience of doing the training is likely to have a useful viewpoint on what is likely to work for them.

Unmotivated athletes can also provide lots of feedback, and this is where you can often get to the root of the problem. Email works well for 'baring of the soul' as there is a sense of anonymity despite knowing where the email is going. Sometimes an athlete will start the email not knowing why they are unmotivated, and by the time they get to the end, they will have worked it out for themselves.

Texts are not ideal for feedback as they are relatively short, but for race results and facts and figures regarding a session, they can be useful, particularly if an athlete is racing or training abroad. A text is better than no feedback at all and is another way of having communication with your athletes.

For some athletes, having a coach is helpful for motivation. The fact that there is someone they have to 'report' to can frequently persuade a reluctant athlete to do a session. Unfortunately, it is usually the case that the sessions an athlete dislikes the most are those that work to their weaknesses. Once that weakness is overcome it is likely that those sessions, which were unpopular before, are suddenly a favourite.

The best way to get feedback from an athlete is to allow them to do it in the way that works best for them. If the athlete has chosen, the medium and method they are likely to be much more communicative. I have pages and pages of messenger conversations with one athlete who seemed to communicate well that way. The key thing is to keep good records of the feedback. This will help you to develop training programs and motivate that athlete specifically, but what you learn from it can be applied to other athletes you coach now and in the future.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • HUNTER, D. (2006) Motivation and Feedback in Coaching. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 34/ July-August), p. 1-3

Page Reference

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

  • HUNTER, D. (2006) Motivation and Feedback in Coaching [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Dawn Hunter, a British Triathlon Association Club Coach, has been coaching individual triathletes and a triathlon club for over 3 years. She also competes in triathlons up to half ironman distance.