Motivating Athletes Across the Lifespan

By Janice Hutton and Peter Twist

Success in sports and in life is founded in motivation. Ever wonder what motivates an elite masters athlete who is 70 years old or an aspiring 12 year old?

The best athletes are backed by coaches who know just the right buttons to push to get results. Uncovering the mysteries of motivation can help conditioning coaches and trainers to push athletes of all ages to perform.

Motivation is a powerful internal energy force that fuels behaviour.  Essential to high performance sport success and long term success in business, fitness and the pursuit of weekend warrior status, motivation must be stimulated to harness an intense effort regardless of age.  “Motivation is the art of getting people to do what you want them to do because they want to to it”  (US President Dwight Eisenhower).    Dynamic and complex, mastering motivational strategies for ourselves and others is an essential skill that helps all athletes direct effort to reach their full potential.

Types of Motivation

Numerous theories on methods to impact motivation have been studied including positive / negative reinforcement (Pavlov’s dog), developing mastery (Bandura) along with a more contemporary approach that focuses on the role of individual choice (Deci + Ryan) known as the self-determination theory.  Are athletes self motivated and readily make choices to engage in sports and sport conditioning because they value the activity and derive intense enjoyment from participation?  Athletes want to win, to achieve and to excel due to Intrinsic Motivation that focuses on mastery of new skills, valuing competitive challenges, and social cohesion with teammates.   The drive to succeed can also be powered by Extrinsic Motivation using rewards of prize money, scholarships, professional contracts, trophies, medals and enhanced status.  The simultaneous presence of high extrinsic and intrinsic motivation appears to produce superior results. It is thought that extrinsic motivation is short term and over emphasis can detract from the effectiveness of intrinsic drivers. Intrinsic values offer more long term motivation and can continue well past peak elite competitive years into lifelong recreational sport pursuits, fueling a positive healthful lifestyle. Understanding both sides of the motivation equation, the role of the coach / trainer is to provide a system of behaviours for athletes / clients that constantly stimulates improvement.    Success achieved with athletes in sport can provide great insight and useful motivational strategies for conditioning coaches, personal trainers and fitness professionals that can enhance personal motivation and help motivate others effectively.

Build a Better Athlete

Attitude forms the foundation of motivation.  Athletes who are receptive to instruction, like to be challenged and have an urge to participate and succeed possess the ingredients to excel.  Children initially exposed to sport and fitness need instruction to develop body mastery and coordination.  Exposure to multiple sports skills and gross motor patterns (running, jumping, kicking, throwing) creates strong neuromuscular pathways for the mind to command movement resulting in muscle compliance.   This strong mind to body connection helps build physical and self confidence, motivating young children to try new sport activities, knowing that they can pick up most sports with ease.  According to the Canadian Sport for Life Long Term Athlete Development plan,  children age 6-8 yrs enter the FUNdamentals Stage where the focus is on movement, fun, participation, development of athleticism and regular physical activity. When adding sport conditioning to sport skill development, this age group benefits from static and dynamic balance challenges to build Smart Muscle™ accomplished through fun and exciting game like activities that build agility, movement patterns and core stability.    Using a BOSU® Balance Trainer and light weight medicine balls, partners catch and throw as they maintain balance, develop and absorb whole body force and enjoy some fun with friends (insert image #1 of children BOSU Balance Trainer Medicine ball Partner catch and throw) As children increase their sport exposure through to age 12 (pre-puberty), improvements in sport skill should be supported by the continued development of overall athleticism.  In this Learning to Train stage, children should be exposed to static and dynamic balance challenges, more complex movement skills (ladders, hurdles, cones) to build agility with a focus on developing the foundation of deceleration.  Teaching young athletes to stop safely using triple flexion (hip, knee and ankle), positive hip to ground contact angles and timed weight shifts improves joint durability and reactivity to reduce the risk of injury within the sport environment.  Rewarding this age group for personal effort and for being a team player helps promote great sport attitudes.  Feedback should be constructive and positive to continue to develop self esteem and sports confidence. In adolescence, competitive desire increases but physical attributes change considerably with growth. Many young athletes drop out of competitive sport at this age due to parental pressure to perform, inability to compete with peers, lack of physical confidence from fast growth rates and time schedules shifted to alternative life choices (work, school, social relationships).  The most competitive youth will persevere through a challenging transition.  Competitive situations should emphasize teaching new skills, coping methods for stress and anxiety and continual experiences that feed self esteem.   The training environment promotes improved proprioception and body awareness using dynamic balance challenges, strength development fundamentals using low loads with a focus on multi joint, multi direction whole body movements along with agility and coordination using more complex movement patterns.    Active coaching is an integral part of the motivation process where athletes receive instruction, feedback and motivation to improve.  (add image #2 Smart Toner Low to High Woodchop with Active coaching)  All aspects of the training session promote a strong mind to muscle connection, teach mental toughness and provide opportunities for competition between peers.  The most dedicated athletes continue to improve their physicality and their sport skills, where others may plateau and lose interest.    Great coaches help athletes of all abilities achieve success in the training environment to help them transition to a higher level of sport success or on to new lifelong recreational challenges. As athletes mature (16+ yrs), the focus shifts to more tangible results where goal setting and extrinsic rewards supplement an intense personal drive.    The training focus shifts to intense workouts that build dynamic balance, high tempo movement skills and complex whole body strength training lifts to enhance all aspects of athleticism including speed, agility, quickness, reaction skills, balance, core stabilization and rotation, eccentric strength and explosive power.  (Insert image #3 Smart Board tuck and hold) Sport specialization occurs, focus deepens and athletes commit to serious elite sport goals. Adult athletes maintain motivation using a blend of intrinsic and extrinsic methods and continue to fuel competitive desires through pursuits in  professional sports, recreational sports, training for physical and health gains and in business.  The desire to always be your best (developed in childhood) relentlessly pushing them to excel.

A Training Style That Motivates Athletes

High achievers have self confidence and know what they want out of life. Children to adult athletes must be physically and emotionally challenged to improve in every aspect of every workout.  Age appropriate modifications to exercise selection, training tools, intensities, tempos and progressions all presented by quality sport conditioning coaches in a positive environment creates the ultimate motivational setting.

Positive Environment

The old Machiavellian approach to coaching through fear has given way to more long term, constructive and respectful methods for motivating. Everything about the Twist Sport Conditioning Centre fuels motivation, from the quote on the front door “Today I give everything I have, what I leave behind I lose forever” (Peter Twist) to the inspirational messages of the athlete journey on the walls.  Once the workout begins and the coaches and athletes engage, the enthusiasm builds.  The positive environment deepens motivation. Like sport, athletes register for training programs and every workout is coach lead with a small athlete to coach ratio (1:6 max).  All aspects of the training session are purposeful, coach to athlete feedback is precise, competitive spirits soar and personal results in a team environment are emphasized.

Full Engagement

Adult athletes are encouraged, during their peak efforts, to visualize and think of what they want to achieve in life, the type of person they desire to be for their spouse, their kids, friends, business, community. From start to finish, each exercise itself requires a full engagement of mind and body.  No TVs and no machines, just a commitment to improve, be present in the moment and exercise with intent. The training session combines balance, speed, agility, quickness, along with whole body strength and power to challenge athletes in a high intensity workout.  The session concludes with a recovery stretch to ease the body towards resting state.

Athletes feel so fully alive training this way, they hesitate to leave. Exhausted, inspired and completely pumped, they leave for work, sport and life.  The Twist work hard – play hard attitude goes with them.

Motivational Strategies to Implement

  • Create a positive environment that fuels motivation
  • Choose exercises that are purposeful and require complex mind to muscle connections
  • Challenge athletes / clients to reach new achievements in every training session
  • Provide age and ability appropriate exercises with modifications
  • Engage with athletes / clients and promote improvement using regular constructive feedback
  • Create opportunities for successful execution of skills and drills and recognize effort
  • Use goal setting to supplement internal drive and determination
  • Promote competition and team building activities
  • Utilize individualized extrinsic and intrinsic motivators
  • Choose your attitude for every session and Give Energy™

Each of us has an untapped energy source that can be drawn upon to create superior results. We have positive energy to share, motivating those around us.  When it’s all said and done and you’re looking back on your life, wouldn’t you want to know that you did your best? This requires your best each day, each workout, each interaction which motivates naturally.

Peter Twist, MSc BPE CSCS TSCC-L3 is President of Twist Conditioning’s 3 divisions: franchised Sport Conditioning Centers, product wholesale, and professional certifications. Twist has coached over 700 pro athletes, published over 400 papers, authored 10 books and 18 DVD’s on athlete development.   To learn more about Twist Conditioning go to

Janice Hutton, MA, BPE, BEd, TSCC-L3 is the Director of Education Business Development with Twist Conditioning focusing on international brand development, publications and delivery of Twist sport conditioning education internationally.