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Coaches can use behaviorism to increase athletes' motivation

This is an excerpt from Applying Educational Psychology in Coaching Athletes by Jeffrey Huber.

Behaviorism and Motivation

According to the concept of psychological hedonism and the pain-pleasure principle, people are motivated to obtain pleasure and avoid pain. This simple explanation for human motivation, however, seems incongruous with the picture of the hard-working athlete training through extremely demanding and often painful (not pleasurable) conditions to achieve a long-range goal. How do you account for this type of athlete motivation? According to behaviorism, you would argue that somehow athlete motivation to train under such grueling circumstances is being reinforced. A reinforcer increases the probability that a response will reoccur. When a rat receives a food pellet (reinforcer) for feverishly pressing a lever in the Skinner box, the rat is more likely to press the lever again.

Reinforcement and Praise

When used according to the principles of operant conditioning, reinforcement can have a significant impact on motivation and human behavior. Consider the successful coach who always seems to have upbeat and motivated athletes willing to charge through a brick wall for their coach. Unfortunately, the example of the unsuccessful coach whose athletes always seem to be downcast, downtrodden, and unmotivated also exists. One factor that separates the successful coach from the unsuccessful coach is the use of positive reinforcers, in particular, praise. Although the use of praise is discussed in detail in chapter 10, several rules about the use of praise (pushing the praise button) are worth repeating here.

Praise provides information to athletes not only about performance but also about notion of self. In other words, it tells athletes about the quality of their motor performance, but it often also tells them about their self-worth and competence. For example, when you say, “Jerome, way to think. That's the way to make the correction the first time!” you are letting him know about his improved performance and also, and more important, about his intelligence, effort, and capacity for change. Contrast this coaching comment with the droll and uninspired “Okay. Go on to the next drill.” Often, just a few precisely put words make a significant and long-lasting difference in an athlete's notion of self and motivation.

Praise should be used judiciously. It is easy to use praise too often so that it becomes meaningless to athletes or too infrequently so that it is ineffective in influencing behavior. Young coaches in particular often use praise too frequently. Successful coaches find the right balance for dishing out praise so that when they do use praise, it has real punch and positively affects athlete motivation.

Praise should include specific, constructive encouragement to build self-esteem (Hitz & Driscoll, 1994). Encouraging comments should be clear and specific rather than vague and general. Athletes want to know not only the what but also the why. If they aren't doing something correctly, they want to know why it is wrong and why a different approach is better. At the same time, they also want to be encouraged for their effort and ability to succeed with future attempts. For example, the type of praise in the following statement increases self-esteem and motivation while it concomitantly provides constructive encouragement: “Maria, you took the race out too fast but I admire your determination, adventurousness, and fearlessness! Those are qualities you should be proud of and will serve you well in the future. However, you need to pace yourself and run your own race next time.”

Praise should be sincere. Sincere praise not only provides reinforcement, but it also sends an emotional message that says you genuinely care for your athletes and want to see them succeed. Athletes who perceive that their coaches care for them are motivated to give even greater effort in practice. Conversely, insincere praise, besides being ineffective, communicates to athletes that you have little regard for them and their performances. Sincere praise builds the athlete-coach relationship while insincere praise undermines it. Which type of praise do you give your athletes?

Praising effort is important, particularly for young athletes. Children who are praised for their efforts are more apt to develop a view of ability as something they can control and something that can change (Mueller & Dweck, 1998). Consequently, these athletes are more apt to be motivated to train hard and expect results based on personal effort. In contrast, people who are praised for their talent tend to view ability as fixed and unchanging. Consequently, when these athletes experience failure, they are less motivated to train hard.

External Feedback as Reinforcement

Like praise, external feedback can serve as a reinforcer for athlete behaviors. For example, in the game of hot and cold, people shout out “hotter” and “colder” to express how close the player is to reaching the goal. The hotter game players get (i.e., the closer they get to their achievement goal) the more motivated they become to keep going. In this regard, both knowledge of results (KR) and knowledge of performance (KP) act as reinforcers. Two specific external feedback properties that athletes find motivating are the aptly named motivating feedback and informational feedback.

Motivating feedback is defined as feedback about an individual's progress toward goal achievement that energizes and directs behavior. For example, consider a runner who is on the second to last lap and her coach tells her she is on pace for a personal best time. When athletes believe they are improving and moving toward their goals, they become increasingly motivated in their pursuit of goal achievement.

Informational feedback is defined as feedback that provides performers with error correction information, either descriptive (what happened) or prescriptive (what needs to happen). This type of feedback is motivating to all athletes, but it is particularly motivating for athletes engaged in deliberate practice (i.e., setting specific goals for everything they do in practice). For these athletes, informational feedback is like food to a hungry traveler; they devour it. They want to improve with each practice and informational feedback helps temporarily satisfy their craving for knowledge about their progress toward improved performance.

Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation

Some people engage in specific behaviors because they have extrinsic motivation: They engage in the behaviors because they anticipate certain external rewards. For example, some athletes try out for a team because they anticipate earning a varsity letter, a trophy, a college scholarship, and so on. Other people have intrinsic motivation: They engage in athletics because they respond well to internal sources of reinforcement such as personal satisfaction and sense of accomplishment. These athletes derive internal reinforcement from achievements such as throwing a perfect pass, performing a great gymnastics routine, swishing a 3-point shot, running a perfect race, and so on. The beauty of sport is that this list is virtually endless.

Research suggests that people who respond to intrinsic motives are more committed, enjoy their activities more, and are more persistent when they confront failure (Agbor-Baiyee, 1997). While this research examined student behavior, research examining athletes found similar results (Vallerand & Losier, 1999). Close to intrinsic motivation is a concept called interest (Wigfield, Eccles, & Rodriguez, 1998). People who engage in activities simply for the fact that they like doing it and expect no external reward can be said to have an interest in that activity. A primary objective for all coaches should be to encourage athletes to develop a genuine interest in their sport.

Keep in mind, however, that external rewards can be useful for facilitating interest and intrinsic motivation. For example, when I was learning to dive, our coach purchased gold (it was actually yellow, but it looked like gold to my teammates and me) diving suits like the one reigning Olympic champion Bernie Wrightson wore when he won the gold medal. We all aspired to become gold medalists like Bernie, but we could not buy the suit. We could only acquire the suit by earning it, by learning a full list of high-degree-of-difficulty dives on the 3-meter springboard. We wanted to earn that suit so badly that we would do almost anything, including learning scary and difficult new dives that no one our age was performing back then. The suit became a symbol of courage, effort, determination, and noteworthy accomplishment. We did not remain in the sport simply because of the suit, but it sure captured our interest and ignited our intrinsic motivation.

Conditioned Responses

Athletes who associate positive physiological responses, such as relaxation and appropriate arousal level, and enhancing emotions, such as joy and satisfaction, are more likely to love their sport and come to practice highly motivated to train. Therefore, to increase motivation, coaches need to condition their athletes to respond positively to not only their sport but the many aspects of their sport, such as training, stretching, conditioning, drill and skill work, and competing. For many athletes, especially young ones, a positive conditioned response is what brings them back each day, each week, each month, and each season. Because conditioning is so important to the motor learning process and athlete success, chapter 3 examines it in detail (see The Salivating Athlete).

Applying Behaviorism to Increase Athlete Motivation

Based on the theory of behaviorism, coaches can push a number of “behavioral buttons” to increase athletes' motivation.

Follow the guidelines for the effective use of praise. Although praise is an effective reinforcer, it can be misused. Know when, what, and how to use it. Successful coaches are masters at effectively using praise to motivate their athletes.

Use external feedback as you would other types of reinforcers. External feedback for all athletes, but particularly elite athletes, is highly reinforcing. The more accurate the external feedback, the more reinforcing it becomes for them. Years ago when I first began working with an elite athlete, who already was a NCAA champion and world champion, I learned two things rather quickly: Remember what correction you give him and give him accurate feedback about whether or not he made the correction on the subsequent attempt. If I forgot the correction or my feedback was inaccurate, he kindly let me know about it! Highly effective coaches provide accurate and timely external feedback.

Recognize individual differences. No two athletes are exactly alike. It is important to keep these differences in mind when using reinforcement to influence motivation. What is reinforcing for one athlete might not be reinforcing to another athlete. Knowing how to push their buttons in part means knowing what is reinforcing to them. For example, some athletes hate being pulled aside and lectured while other athletes take it as a compliment and a sign that you care about them and their goals.

Reinforce effort in order to encourage intrinsic motivation. In the long run, athletes train harder and longer and persevere in their sport when they are intrinsically motivated. For this reason, reinforce effort. Athletes who associate ability and achievement with effort are more likely to be motivated to train and maintain their motivation during difficult training cycles.

Condition athletes to have a positive physiological response to their sport. Athletes who have an interest and love for their sport (training and competition) will be engaged and motivated. You can facilitate a positive response by continually pairing positive conditioned stimuli with positive unconditioned stimuli. A significant way to create a positive response is to facilitate success and mastery during practice, make practice and competition fun, and focus on effort.

Use external reinforcers. Sometimes external reinforcers can be effective for kick starting or augmenting an athlete's internal motivation. In the case of the gold diving suit, it is interesting to note that every diver on the team did indeed earn a suit. Most went on to successful high school careers and a number of us went on to compete collegiately and nationally. One athlete even made the U.S. Olympic team, and one stayed around long enough to coach collegiate diving for over 37 years. Sometimes, a seemingly small external reward can go a long way toward intrinsically motivating athletes. It is funny how after all these years grown men still occasionally gather and talk about “the suit” and how they cherish it and have it stored away like a rare artifact, precious and immeasurably valuable, a tangible reminder of the intangible rewards they received from their memorable experience in sport. I am sure that athletes in all sports have similar stories and memories.

Read more from Applying Educational Psychology in Coaching Athletes by Jeffery Huber.

More Excerpts From Applying Educational Psychology in Coaching Athletes