How Coaches Can Optimize Motivation Using Research

While athletics and organized sports have become more inclusive, with an ever-increasing diversity of participants, coaching and training techniques have tended to stagnate and generalize the motivation for all athletes — thus leading to diminished motivation for many minorities.

The existence of cultural barriers can also greatly affect individual motivation, especially for the African American athlete.

This evolution in the team dynamic requires a change in coaching tactics.

Using Self-Determination Theory

In the article “Motivation Is Not Always Black and White: Attending to African American Athletes’ Psychological Needs for Sport Involvement,” which I coauthored with Tsz Lun (Alan) Chu for the March/April issue of Strategies, coaches can find insights relating to the psychological needs of athletes.

According to self-determination theory (SDT), all athletes have three universal psychological needs: autonomy, relatedness, and competence. However, the ways to satisfy these needs differ across cultures and ethnicities, especially for African Americans.


Autonomy is identified by self-determination theory as an internal feeling of personal control of one’s decisions and achievements. For African American athletes, negative stereotypes in society can lead to negatively affected self-perceptions, self-esteem and feelings of control.

Coaches can implement these simple changes into practice sessions to improve athletes’ feelings of autonomy and promote overall motivation:

  • Collaborative Goal Setting: Coaches should ask each individual athlete what specific goals they want to achieve. Allowing athletes to express their goals supports their sense of autonomy and overall self-esteem, especially for the African American athlete.
  • Dedicated Individualized Training: In conjunction with the personalized goal setting, coaches can use a portion of training time to allow athletes to work specifically on their own goals. Having this dedicated time can change the feeling of practice being purely about winning the next game to that of self-improvement. The improvement will still benefit the team overall, while also boosting athletes’ self-esteem, motivation, and an increased sense of autonomy.


Self-determination theory describes relatedness as the sense of being cared for by others and social connection. All athletes experience relatedness though external encouragement, which can be identified as receiving social support through both family and non-kin members, including coaches and teachers.

However, African American athletes perceive external encouragement significantly greater than their counterparts, especially from non-kin sources such as coaches and peers. Increasing each athlete’s sense of relatedness will benefit the overall team composition, motivation, and retention of team members.

Here are some tips for coaches:

  • Coach/Athlete Interaction: Coaches are encouraged to be aware of how they are perceived by their African American athletes. Coaches may be seen not only as a role model, but as a “father figure” at times. Additionally, building rapport and strengthening deep meaningful connections is beneficial. Simple one-on-one, formal, or informal meetings to discuss the athlete’s well-being can boost the athlete’s sense of relatedness and motivation.   
  • Team-Building Exercises: Building connections with peers is a positive source of motivation and relatedness, especially for African American athletes. As a coach, implementing athletic and non-athletic team-building exercises in practices will increase team cohesion along with a sense of relatedness among team members.

Other social gatherings, such as dinners or casual parties, are encouraged outside of the athletic setting for a more relaxed atmosphere allowing athletes to build stronger relationships with their teammates.


The last aspect described in self-determination theory is competency/mastery, which is described as the feeling of effectiveness and desire to become a better athlete within a specific sport. For African American athletes, cultural and stereotypical beliefs held by society tend to negatively affect their personal beliefs of competency and overall motivation in their sport.

This is especially prevalent in stereotypical “white sports” such as swimming or rugby where African American athletes express having to work harder than their counterparts to obtain the same achievements and accolades. Thus, in turn their sense of competency/mastery and motivation is significantly lower.

Here are some changes that coaches can make to reverse this trend:

  • Self-Assessments/Reflections: In conjunction with goal setting, coaches can encourage periodic self-assessments to help highlight the progress made by the African American athlete. Coaches can track certain sport-related values such as lap times, sprint times, or core lift increases which give the athletes a physical representation of their progress.
  • Personalized Positive Encouragement: Coaches can promote an African American athlete’s feeling of competency through simple personalized positive encouragement. By specifically highlighting the progress made by the individual athlete, the coach will emphasize their achievements and promote motivation through the feeling of competency.

Closing Notes

It is important to remember, for the optimal outcome and benefit for African American athletes, all three aspects of self-determination theory must be met. Each aspect alone may benefit the athlete, but not to the full extent of all three in unison. For more details, read the complete article in Strategies.

Additional Resources

Featured image by Philippa Rose-Tite on Unsplash.

Adam Ahrens

Adam Ahrens graduated from the University of Wisconsin Green Bay in May 2020 with a B.S. in psychology. He is currently working for two organizations providing supervision and support to adolescents and adults with mental health concerns.