Science Briefs

Enhancing Motivation in Sport

Psychologists have been supporting the U.S. Olympic mission formally since the 1980s and a team of sport psychologists will be on-hand in Italy this month to continue the work they have been doing for the past 4 years with some of the country’s finest athletes.

By David E. Conroy, PhD

With Torino Olympic Games underway, the sports world will be in the spotlight for much of this month. Psychologists have been supporting the U.S. Olympic mission formally since the 1980s and a team of sport psychologists will be on-hand in Italy this month to continue the work they have been doing for the past 4 years with some of the country’s finest athletes. As important as performance enhancement can be for elite athletes, it is only a small piece of how psychologists are contributing to the world of sport. Millions of youth participate in organized sports annually in the United States (Ewing & Seefeldt, 2002) and another interesting line of inquiry in sport psychology focuses on how organized sport experiences can be used to foster optimal motivation. Enhancing motivation can lead to the sustained, high-quality engagement in sport that is required for the development of Olympic-level expertise (Ericsson, Krampe, Tesch-Römer, 1993) and it may also contribute to healthy youth development which will be the focus of this essay.

The Value of Youth Sport Participation

One of the most powerful rationales for promoting youth sport participation draws from the documented benefits of physical activity. The United States Surgeon General (USDHHS, 1996) and the American College of Sports Medicine (2000) endorse regular physical activity to reduce long-term risk for disease (e.g., diabetes, cardiovascular disease, some forms of cancer). Strikingly, the prevalence of diseases such as type-II diabetes recently increased dramatically in children and youth (Ludwig & Ebbeling, 2001). This increase is widely attributed to concurrent increases in childhood obesity (Ebbeling, Pawlak, & Ludwig, 2002). Overweight status among children and adolescents in the United States has more than tripled in the past 25 years (Baskin, Ard, Franklin, & Allison, 2005; Flegal, 2005).

Given the nature of energy balance (i.e., caloric intake vs. energy expenditure), increasing youth physical activity will surely be one part of the solution to the current childhood obesity crisis. Unfortunately, daily physical activity is being cut out of school curricula across the country (Jago & Baranowski, 2004). The greatest single source of organized youth sport participation appears to be recreational sport programs, such as those sponsored by community recreation departments (Ewing & Seefeldt, 2002); but it is well-established that youth sport participation rates experience a steady decline starting between ages 10-13 years (Brustad, Babkes, & Smith, 2001). Getting and keeping youth involved in organized sport programs outside of school is a motivation problem of great importance for public health. Of course, physical activity and its benefits for physical health represent only one class of youth sport outcomes.            

Sport is also a powerful context for youth psychosocial development. Youths’ subjective experience during organized sports and other structured voluntary activities is unique because they report greater concentration than they do when playing with friends in unstructured settings, and greater enjoyment than they do in structured activities such as school (Cziksentmihalyi & Larson, 1984; Kirshnit, Ham, & Richards, 1989). These conditions are ideally-suited for social learning and internalizing environmental characteristics.            

Notwithstanding a few undesirable correlates (e.g., reported alcohol use, getting drunk, perceiving aggressive behavior to be more legitimate; Barber, Eccles, & Stone, 2001; Conroy, Silva, Newcomer, Walker, & Johnson, 2001; Eccles & Barber, 1999), the available evidence suggests a generally positive profile of correlates associated with youth sport participation. Compared to non-athletes, high school athletes report greater liking of school, are less likely to dropout, have higher grade point averages, are more likely to attend college, are less socially-isolated, attain greater occupational success, and have greater increases in self-esteem through high school (Barber, Eccles, & Stone, 2001; Eccles & Barber, 1999; Mahoney & Cairns, 1997; Marsh & Kleitman, 2003).              

On balance, youth sport participation seems to be a positive developmental experience; however, it seems apparent that not all youth sport programs are equal with respect to their developmental yield for youth. Many factors are likely to play a role in determining the quality of a youth sport experience (cf., National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2002). My colleagues and I are among a group of scientists who focus on the role that coaches play in determining the developmental yield of youth sport participation (for a broader model of youth development in sport, see Petitpas, Cornelius, Van Raalte, & Jones, 2005).

The Importance of Youth Sport Coaches

Behavior observation research has provided compelling evidence that coaching behaviors influence the quality of youth sport experiences. In one study, youth reported greater liking for basketball when their coaches exhibited high levels of mistake-contingent technical instruction, and low levels of keeping control and general encouragement (Smith, Zane, Smoll, & Coppel, 1983). Similarly, youth evaluated their coaches more positively when the coaches exhibited high levels of instructive (e.g., general and mistake-contingent technical instruction) and supportive (e.g., reinforcement, mistake-contingent encouragement) behaviors, and low levels of punishment (Smith et al., 1983; Smith & Smoll, 1990). Interestingly, Smith and Smoll (1990) also found that youth self-esteem at the beginning of the season moderated the effects of coach behavior on youth evaluations – low self-esteem athletes’ evaluations of coaches seem to be especially influenced by the coaches use of the desirable coaching behaviors described above. Clearly, what coaches do impacts how youth evaluate those coaches and the activities that are organized by those coaches.            

Beyond a specific behavioral repertoire, coaches are able to create motivational climates by the way they choose to structure the setting. To illustrate the role of coaching climates on young athletes’ sport experience, consider a recent study of female and male recreational swim league participants aged 8 – 18 years (Conroy, Kaye, & Coatsworth, in press). In this study, we were interested in whether and how the perceived coaching climate predicted changes in youths’ reasons for swimming. Youth completed measures of their situational motivation (i.e., their reasons for swimming) at the beginning, middle, and end of the season. At the beginning and end of season, youth also rated their achievement goals. Achievement goals represent the purpose or aim of their achievement behavior. We employed Elliot’s (1999) 2×2 model of achievement goals that distinguishes four goals based on their definition of competence (i.e., task- or self-referenced criteria vs. normatively-referenced criteria) and the valence of the goal (i.e., approaching competence vs. avoiding incompetence). At the end of the swim season, youth rated their perceptions of the coaching climate – that is, the degree to which youth perceived the coaches as emphasizing each of the four achievement goals when evaluating the youths’ competence.            

Results indicated that youth perceptions of avoidance coaching climates positively predicted approximately 40% of the change in youths’ corresponding avoidance achievement goals during the season. Additionally, to the extent that youth increased their focus on avoiding self-referenced incompetence (e.g., not performing worse than they previously performed), they described their reasons for swimming as being more externally regulated (i.e., done to satisfy external demands, such as parents’ directives) and more amotivated (i.e., done without a clear purpose in mind). Thus, avoidance coaching climates in swimming appear to be linked with deterioration in the self-determination of young swimmers’ motivation.            

The studies described above illustrate the emerging conclusion from this literature – coaches may influence youth motivation both through their observed behaviors and the motivational climate they create. Similar to the literature on developmental correlates of youth sport participation, evidence for coaching effects on youth sport motivation is based largely on non-experimental research that does not permit strong causal inferences. For this reason, a number of researchers in this area have turned to experimental designs to test their hypotheses about the critical factors for optimizing youth sport experiences. 

The seminal coach training efficacy trials involved Coach Effectiveness Training (CET; Smith, Smoll, & Curtis, 1979). This program focused on teaching coaches a behavioral repertoire and philosophy of winning based on some of the behavioral research reviewed above (for additional details, see Smoll & Smith, 2002). This behavioral repertoire is designed to enhance youth perceptions and recall of coaches, and ultimately youth evaluative reactions in the sport setting (Smoll & Smith, 2002). To accommodate recent theoretical developments and emerging research findings, my collaborator and I have posited that coach training programs may influence youth motivation (and ultimately some important indicators of youth development) via a sequence of cascading changes in (a) coaches observed behaviors and activity structures, (b) youth perceptions of coaches behaviors and the coaching climate, and (c) youth self-perceptions (Conroy & Coatsworth, 2006). This model provides a framework for evaluating the experimental coach training literature (unless otherwise specified, this brief review includes studies employing various psychosocially-based coach training programs).            

First, it appears that some coach behaviors may be modified by brief training programs. Specifically, coaches’ use of reinforcement following desirable behaviors appears to be the behavior most amenable to change following training (Conroy & Coatsworth, 2004; Rushall & Smith, 1979; Smith et al., 1979). Other theoretically-important behaviors may be sufficiently well-engrained that they are resistant to modification or infrequent enough to escape detection of modest changes in their base rates. Second, athletes evaluate CET-trained coaches more positively than non-CET-trained coaches (Smith et al., 1979; Smith et al., 1995; Smoll et al., 1993). These findings are based on post-training differences in youth perceptions of coach behaviors; it will be important to determine whether randomly-assigned coach training programs can account for changes in youth perceptions of coaches.            

One of the most consistent findings from this literature concerns the effects of coach training on youth self-perceptions. Psychosocial coach training programs have led to increases in self-esteem for low self-esteem youth (Coatsworth & Conroy, in press; Smoll et al., 1993). It is worth noting that these self-esteem enhancement effects for low self-esteem youth are significantly larger when coaches and youth are homogeneous as opposed to heterogeneous with respect to biological sex. Finally, experimental investigations of the effects of coach training on youth motivation are scarce in the literature. The most compelling evidence for the motivational benefits of coach training was provided by Barnett, Smoll, & Smith (1992) who found that 95% of youth who played for CET-trained coaches returned the following year whereas only 74% of youth who played for non-CET-trained coaches returned the following year.


Scientific understanding of the factors that make youth sport a motivationally-rich and developmentally-productive experience is in its infancy. The available evidence suggests more developmental benefits than costs to youth sport participation; however, rigorous experimental studies that manipulate characteristics of the youth sport context and isolate change in causal mechanisms are needed to strengthen conclusions from this literature. In light of the public health crisis and persisting social problems confronting youth in the United States, psychologists will make a positive impact on society by enhancing understanding of the factors that motivate youth to participate in organized sport. This knowledge also may help to explain why some individuals persist in their deliberate practice and reach the most elite levels of athletic competition whereas others drop out of sport altogether.


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I am extremely grateful to my research collaborators for their contributions to our work, especially Doug Coatsworth (Penn State), Andy Elliot (University of Rochester), Aaron Pincus (Penn State), and all of the graduate and undergraduate students in my lab. I also wish to express my appreciation to Chris Janelle (University of Florida) for his thoughtful feedback on an earlier draft of this essay.


Based on the Torino experience, a group of USOC sport psychologists will be presenting a symposium entitled, “Olympic Sport Psychology Service Provision: Perspectives on Preparation for the 2006 Games” at the 2006 APA Convention in New Orleans.

For the purpose of this essay, optimizing motivation is assumed to be a central mechanism involved in the physical health and psychosocial benefits of youth sport participation because it can promote physical activity and foster developmental competence and initiative among participants.

About the Author

David E. Conroy is an Associate Professor of Kinesiology at The Pennsylvania State University. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Utah. His research focuses on interpersonal and intrapersonal influences on achievement motivation and has been supported by the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development. Dr. Conroy received the Prince de Merode Prize for Behavioral Research from the International Olympic Committee in 2002, and the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology’s Dorothy V. Harris Memorial Award for early career excellence in sport psychology research in 2004.