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Ever felt discouraged in the midst of intense nationals practices because the team isn’t giving it their all? Or have you started off the season with high hopes for an amazing new team, only to be disappointed later when you don’t reach your goals? Every coach wants to be a motivational coach. To help his athletes to achieve their personal and team best. But how? The short answer… you want a team full of self-motivated athletes.

Easier said than done, but it is within your power as the coach to make that happen! It starts with intrinsic motivation, but it doesn’t stop there. A motivational coach understands how to support an athlete’s 3 basic needs. When you can do that, you will see a team full of athletes who push themselves to achieve their best.  Read on to discover the 3 basic needs and the 15 different ways you can support those needs and improve the motivation on your team.motivational coach

 First the Basics of Motivation

Intrinsic motivation comes from an internal source, for example, “I dance because I enjoy it.” The motivation to work hard at practice and stay disciplined in the sport comes from the desire to master a skill, learn something new, and genuine enjoyment for the sport.

Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is when the incentives lie outside the individual. This could be a tangible reward like trophies or scholarships. Or it could be feedback, like when a dancer is motivated to work hard tomorrow because her coach gave her a positive comment at the end of practice. Let me be clear, there isn’t a “good and bad” type of motivation. They are just different, and many of the best athletes have both sources of motivation. They genuinely enjoy what they are doing, they want to improve their skills, but they also want to win!

That said, there are a lot of positive outcomes associated with a primarily intrinsic, or what psychologists call self-determined motivational style. Generally speaking, the more self-motivated an athlete is, the better. So the million-dollar question becomes: “How do you improve your athlete’s intrinsic motivation?”

Motivational Coaches Understand the 3 Basic Psychological Needs

First, know that you, the coach, do have the power to improve your athlete’s intrinsic motivation! Yes, it’s about them, but you set up the culture on your team. You can make a big difference in fostering intrinsic motivation in your athletes. There is extensive research on motivation. One of the most widely renowned theories of motivation is called Self-Determination Theory by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci.

(NERD ALERT: Click here for one of their primary papers explaining the theory).

If you’re not into reading all the science behind it (I get it!) let me break it down: The main ideas is that every athlete has 3 basic needs. Psychologists believe that every athlete has a need for Competence, a need for Autonomy, and a need for Relatedness.


is the belief that you are capable. Every athlete has a need to perceive his or her behavior and abilities as effective. For example, a dancer has a need to feel competent in his ability to complete the turn section in the jazz routine. This can be skill specific, or more general. Like a dancer’s need to feel capable of hitting the hip-hop tricks required in the routine.

  Motivational coach


is the belief that the activity or task is under your own self-control. In the context of sport, it often comes down to choice. If an athlete feels like she has some choice on the team and is involved in the decision-making process she will feel more self-motivated.

Motivational Coach


is the need for positive social relationships in an activity. Whenever positive relationships exist on a team, that allows a person feels a sense of belonging. When we feel like we belong, we are more motivated.

Motivational coach

 How to be a Motivational Coach: Satisfy the 3 basic needs:

Satisfaction of all three basic needs facilitates self-motivation. The more a coach can establish an environment that will support all three needs, the more motivated his athletes become. Here are 15 concrete ways you can be a motivational coach by improving the needs satisfaction of your athletes:


  1. The language you use can make a big difference in an athlete’s perception of choice and control in the environment. So rather than telling your team they should or have to do extra cardio training, explain why the extra cardio will make a difference in their performance. Encourage them to come up with a plan for the type of training they want to do and how often.
  2. Offer choice whenever you can. Present a few options that are all ok with you, and then let them chose. Things like what kind of warm-up to do that day, what team t-shirt to wear when you travel, or even bigger things like what process goal they set for the year.
  3. Allow athletes to have a say, especially in how practices are structured. When you are in the midst of intense nationals practices and you can tell they are feeling run down and tired make sure their opinions are heard. Even just, “would you rather start with pom today or hip-hop?” You may have a long day ahead of you where you have to work on both routines, but the choice of which one to start will go a long way.
  4. Allow athletes to be a part of the goal-setting process. They will have much stronger investment and long-term continuous effort when they were a part of setting up the goals for the season. In fact, not including them is one of my big goal setting mistakes. Want to know more? Check out my “5 Rookie Goal Setting Mistakes – and how to avoid them!”
  5. Consistently ask for feedback. When a coach stops to ask his or her athletes how they are doing, and genuinely hear the answer, the athlete will have an increased sense of control. While one-on-one is ideal, realistically it takes too much time. So as a whole group or with a small subset, check in every once in a while and ask how they perceive things are going. “What did you like or dislike about that new strength and conditioning practice?” “How do you feel about how we have spent our time this week?”
  6. Provide opportunities for athletes to serve as leaders and display responsibility. (And I don’t mean just your formal captains.) Informal leaders are a powerful aspect of your team, so don’t forget to include as many people as possible in small leadership roles. Set up a cleaning workshop where they work in groups of 3 and one girl is assigned as the ‘captain’ of that group. You can rotate leaders on different days, instilling a sense of control over their own actions and improving motivation.
  7. Overall, highlight the importance of effort, not outcome. Highlight effort during practice and when giving feedback about progress. It is much more powerful to tell an athlete, “I’m proud of the work you put in today,” rather than, “You are such a natural.” They are both praise and a nice compliment, but only the first one will help instill a sense of autonomy. Athletes have control over their effort, not over their innate talent.


  1. Set goals that optimally challenge your athletes. They should be realistic and achievable goals, both individual and as a team. Then make sure there is systematic effort based feedback as athletes work towards those goals. (Here’s my formula for D.A.N.C.E. specific goals!)
  2. Ensure your skill-building drills are meaningful and the athletes understand the purpose. If you introduce a new drill for improving jumps, make sure the athletes know that’s what the drill is for. That way, when they are exhausted and frustrated with the repetitiveness of the day, they are more likely to push through and encourage each other because they understand the importance and desired outcome of the drill.
  3. Encourage athletes to try new things and support their creativity. Allow them to play around during practice every once and a while and try new skills, or experiment with their own choreography or improvisations.
  4. Along with asking for feedback as discussed above, provide feedback to your athletes in an appropriate timely fashion. Make sure you focus on positive reinforcement and progress, not just the outcome.
  5. Make sure your athletes know it’s ok to make mistakes. It’s a tradition for many dancers to clap when a fellow dancer falls. This helps the dancer understand when you are in practice trying to improve your skills, sometimes you fall (literally and figuratively). But if she knows it’s ok to make that mistake, she will stay motivated to keep trying until she is able to master the new skill.


  1. Simply providing opportunities for your athletes to hang out, get to know each other, and socialize outside of practice can improve motivation. Encourage interacting with different teammates during practice as well as outside. Sit with someone else during team dinner. Choose a partner from another class to do the conditioning drills with you. The more you can work team bonding and social connections into the team, the better.
  2. A relationship between an athlete and coach should be based on trust, care, and respect. Doing things like involving athletes in decision making not only improves their sense of control and increases autonomy, it also helps them feel respected. Like their voice matters. Use inclusive language like, “Let’s all put in our best and focus on cleaning this section without interruption for the next 30 minutes.” That statement includes you, and you are communicating you are one of them and respect their time and effort as they should respect yours.
  3. Acknowledge their thoughts and feelings by actively listening to your athletes. Ask them questions and truly listen to their answers.

Why needs satisfaction matters to a motivational coach

So the bottom line is this: the more you can support these 3 basic needs, the higher your athlete’s self-motivation. The trickle-down effect from there is incredible, because the more an athlete is intrinsically motivated, the more …

  • Effort
  • Persistence through difficult times
  • Positive attitudes and happiness
  • Resilience, or ability to bounce back, when they experience failure

Related Posts by Passionate Coach

How to Perform Under Pressure

Passion for Coaching

How to Clean a Dance Routine

*A lot of the information in this post comes from the book “Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Exercise and Sport” by Hagger & Chatzisarantis

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