Motivation can be defined as the direction and intensity of one’s efforts. Direction refers to why a person is involved in certain situations and why a person avoids other situations. Intensity is concerned with how much effort a person gives toward reaching a certain goal. 1 Questions around motivation include: why people participate; why do people discontinue participation; what intrinsic and extrinsic factors influence participation; and what goals influence participation. Many times when someone decides to participate in tennis, they may appear to be motivated. Initially they hire as a coach and they sign up for the club but then the coach finds out that they aren’t motivated to practice or follow the training program designed for them. Why don’t they practice? It’s probably because your player is not mentally prepared to play the game. Having some knowledge of your coaching philosophy and how that’s tied to a player’s motivation will help you be able to understand certain behaviors and help motivate those who seem to be struggling.

Your challenge as a coach is not to help players acquire motivation but to understand how your coaching affects it and to avoid destroying their intrinsic motivation. 3 This article is going to provide some background information on motivation and how to a coach who helps build intrinsic motivation in your players.

Views of motivation

To have an understanding of motivation it’s important to know the common views of motivation. Most people fit into one of the three views of motivation: trait-centered, situation-centered, or the interactional view.

  • The trait-centered view of motivation contends that motivation is primarily a function of individual characteristics: personality, needs and goals. Some people have attributes that seem to predispose them to success and high levels of motivation while others are lacking in those areas. The trait-centered view is deemed narrow since it is thought many situations should also include environmental factors. Ignoring environmental influences on motivation is a little unrealistic.
  • The situation-centered view of motivation states that motivation is determined by the situation. For example, a player might be motivated to practice but unmotivated to play in games. A player’s feeling of self-efficacy (success) may be high in practice. In competitive game situations a player may have a lower sense of self-efficacy. Situation-centered motivation is also deemed narrow since not all negative situations make us respond negatively.
  • The interactional view is the most widely endorsed view of motivation because it incorporates both trait and situational factors.

Intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation

Not only is it important to have an understanding of how you view motivation but it’s also important to have an understanding of how the two types of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, impact players motivation. Some players participate in tennis for the sheer fun, pleasure and enjoyment of it. They are motivated by skill improvement, the inherent challenge of the sport and the achievement of personal performance goals. These athletes are motivated intrinsically (internally). They are involved because they love it. Alternatively, athletes who are extrinsically (externally) motivated may participate for social approval, material rewards and social status.

In intrinsic motivation, a person participates in tennis because they love participating. People are intrinsically motivated if they are doing something they like and even more intrinsically motivated to participate in experiences that provide fun. For example, if someone really likes playing doubles they will be more intrinsically motivated to play doubles. In extrinsic motivation the theory is, rewarding a behavior increases the probability that the behavior will be repeated and punishing a behavior decreases the possibility that it will be repeated. However, once a need is satisfied, it is no longer a goal and loses its power to reward. The more extrinsic rewards a person gets, the less need there is for the same type of reward. It’s always best for people to participate in activities they enjoy to ensure that they are intrinsically motivated. If your players don’t have an intrinsic orientation then it can be helpful to use extrinsic rewards to develop it, but the rewards can not be excessive, controlling or manipulative and should not be contingent on accomplishment. 2 This will likely undermine any chance a player has in developing intrinsic motivation.

Developing a motivational coaching philosophy

Coaches motivate in different ways but it’s important to know why you do what do. How do you view motivation? What’s your coaching philosophy? Are you a command or cooperative style coach? A coach’s philosopher and style has a huge impact on player’s motivation and partly determines how successful a player will become.

In order to develop your coaching philosophy you’ll need to develop some deeper self awareness. You can do this by asking yourself some or all of the following questions:

  • Who am I?
  • What do I want in life?
  • Where am I going?
  • What are my goals?
  • Why do I coach?
  • Am I coaching for the right reasons?
  • Am I a good coach?
  • What would make me a better coach?
  • What are my goals as a coach?
  • Which is more important, winning or the athlete?
  • Am I a command or cooperative coach?
  • Two main styles: command and cooperative

Your philosophy helps determine what kind of a coach you will be. It is the foundation for who you are and what you value about coaching and value in your players. Your philosophy helps determine whether you will be a command or cooperative style coach.

The command style of coaching uses the win first philosophy. These coaches favor extrinsic motivation, they feel responsible for directing, motivating, controlling and persuading players and they use rewards and punishments. Some reasons explained for why command style coaches coach in this manner is because they have low self esteem, they’ve played for a similar style coach and they are low in empathy.

Cooperative style coaches on the other hand, have an athlete’s first philosophy. They favor intrinsic motivation and feel that motivation, potential for development, capacity for assuming responsibility, the ability to work toward individual and team goals are present or can be developed and that it’s the coaches responsibility to help athletes develop these qualities through sport. Some reasons explained for why cooperative style coaches coach in this manner is because they have high self esteem, they’ve played for a similar style coach and they are high in empathy.

‘If I can supply you with a thought you may remember it or not, but if I can make you think a thought for yourself, I have indeed added to your stature- Elbert Hubbard’. What does this mean? It’s basically saying that as a coach you can tell your players what to do (command) or you can help support them to figure it out (cooperative).Which coach do you want to be?

Communication skills

At the core of your philosophy and style is your ability to communicate. The most important skill for coaches is the ability to communicate effectively. Communication is what separates successful coaches from less successful coaches. Communication skills should be aligned with your coaching philosophy and coaching style and is another important element in supporting a player’s

intrinsic motivation.

Much of the time communication is confusing and frustrating because no one truly understands what anyone else is saying. Here is an example of what makes the process of communication between a coach and player complicated.

  • What the coach means-the coach might not always be clear what he wants to say , choosing words that are not terribly accurate.
  • What the coach says-the way coaches say things can be highly varied in terms of our tone, inflection and enunciation which are confusing for a player.
  • What the player hears-the player may hear some, all, or very little of what the coach intended to say.
  • What the player thinks the coach means-the way in which the player then interprets those words may be very different than the way the coach meant it.

The result is that what the player thinks the coach means may be very different from what the coach actually means.1 Fortunately, fairly simple communication strategies can be effective in helping players feel supported, understood, and comfortable forming a relationship with you. These same simple communication strategies also minimize frustration on the part of the player and the coach.


Listening suggests that you are paying attention. It lets your players know that you respect, care for and that you want to form collaborative relationships with them.

Open ended questions

Open ended questions are very important for building collaborative relationships with your players because they invite discussion. They invite the player to express personal fears, barriers, failures, and successes.


Reflections are an opportunity for you to make sure that you accurately understand what your player has said. Reflections are powerful because they show that you are listening.


Affirmations show appreciation for your players and their strengths. As a coach you must listen carefully to know what to affirm. If you are going to affirm anything it is important to genuinely affirm something the player personally values. Generally, people will feel more validated by positive comments about their thoughts, plans or execution of skill.

Building motivation

Now that you have an understanding of the theories of motivation and a sense of who you want to be as a coach, why you coach and the important motivational elements of communication, you have a foundation for helping your players build motivation. When attempting to enhance motivation it’s important to consider personal and environmental factors because both of these play a large role in determining a player’s motivation or lack of it. It’s easier to change the situation than the needs and personalities of the participants. 1

The following is a list of some things to consider while working on motivation:

  • Build respectful, open and honest relationships with your players.
  • Understand why people are participating.
  • Help your players set realistic goals. Goals provide opportunities for success.
  • Realize that as a coach you do influence motivation.
  • Learn to use positive reinforcement appropriately.
  • When applicable allow your players to be a part of the process of decision making.
  • Incorporate a variety of drills and workouts that your players will enjoy.
  • Place emphasize on the process rather than the outcome.
  • Monitor and alter the way feedback is provided.
  • Assess and correct athlete’s inappropriate perception of themselves.
  • Enhance feelings of competence and control. 1,3


One of the major goals of coaching tennis players is to determine what factors maximize participation and performance. This is important to help promote the probability that a person will sustain their participation in tennis and lead an active lifestyle throughout their life. A person’s performance hinges on the motivational views discussed but also includes other factors such as, biomechanical, physiological, sociological, medical and technical. It’s important to be able to clarify what are motivational issues versus other issues particularly since many other factors appear to look like motivational factors.

In my many conversations with coaches I am often asked, ‘how do I help my tennis player who is unmotivated and lazy’? I suggest the coach look beyond what they see. What’s behind it? In general, tennis players do not lack motivation because they want to be. There is usually something getting in the way of it. Once you help them figure that out, you can help them deal with the real issue.

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