Motivation by Design…


Motivation by Design

What is the difference between a good coach and an outstanding coach?

If we were to question a hundred PTs / S&C coaches on the science of what we should be doing when trying to develop any component of fitness & why we are doing it we would get similar information from all of them.

Yet if you gave each of those coaches the same group of people you would get different results. Why?

A lot of it is down to the art of coaching and HOW each individual coach works. Getting results is about more than just putting a programme together, you’ve got to get your message across and even more importantly it must get through.

The following are some examples of elements that in my experience can have a big impact upon the success you will see from a programme.

    • Constructing the sessions / tasks to enhance motivation
    • Communicating using appropriate instructional cues (external vs internal cueing)
    • Providing feedback on performance (timing and frequency)
    • Building rapport with the athletes/clients to get their buy in
    • Creating a culture of high standards and accountability

In this post I want to focus specifically on session and task design and how it can impact up on motivation.

A Case Study example

A fellow teacher, has introduced 6 minutes of CV fitness work ahead of skill based Core PE lessons to begin addressing the issue of low cardiovascular fitness levels, as the pupils don’t/won’t do it in their own time. His structure thus far has been 3 minutes continuous & 3 minutes interval and it’s been pretty good in terms of the effect it is having on the CV fitness of the students but for me it has reinforced the importance of the task and session/lesson design in engaging and motivating participants.

I’ve watched a number of the lessons where it’s been done and I was amazed that when challenged to work hard on the 3 minute run at a steady pace the majority simply cannot or will not maintain the intensity, either due to the fact they aren’t fit enough, motivated enough or they do not have the mental toughness to maintain the intensity.

However, on the interval section he sets them a target e.g. sprint past 2-3 cones (each approx. 15-20m apart) and then walk 1 cone for recovery. They run in this fashion for the second three minutes. The difference in the working intensity is incredible. Even the most unfit pupils will absolutely bust a gut on the sprint, take their recovery and blast it again as soon as they hit the cone.

Seeing the continuous block and interval block back to back is where it became so clear that the session/task design were having a huge impact on the participants’ motivation and engagement.

So why the difference in motivation & engagement?

As a teacher or coach it is very important (in my opinion) that we understand underpinning theories of motivation, to ensure we get the best out of the pupils/athletes/clients we are in contact with.
One such theory is the Self-determination theory of motivation which states there are 3 aspects to creating intrinsic motivation – autonomy (choice), relatedness (task relevance) and competence (actual & perceived ability to complete the task).

Take the 3 minute run task – “Run at a steady pace for 3 minutes, no walking” this is around a 200m track. No targets or feedback (no time or distance was recorded), no choice in how to complete it, you simply must run. A lot of the pupils know their fitness levels are poor and as a result the motivation for these people will be low as their perceived competence is low. Those who fail to run continuously for 3 minutes will perceive themselves as even less competent potentially further decreasing motivation to engage the task. In terms of relatedness, do they see the relevance of running for 3 minutes non-stop for what they want to do which is generally play football or rugby? Probably not.

With the interval task it’s a much better task in terms of its design when we analyse it in the context of the self-determination theory. There are clear targets – sprint the distance between 2 cones, walk 1 cone. There is more autonomy in the task, they can choose the speed that they run and walk to suit their level of fitness (they are just told that there must be a distinct change in pace). Perceived competence is higher for all students as they literally have to run only 25-30m, before they get to walk and recover. The students when questioned were also able to see the relevance and specificity to team sports with the constant changes in pace throughout the game.

Application… some ideas on building intrinsic motivation


Autonomy (choice)

Allow people to contribute and make decisions about goals and even exercise selection (to an extent), give them a say in what they do…even if it is you giving them a choice between two things that achieve your desired outcome – e.g. a Front Squat or a Back Squat? I promise you they will be more motivated to do it, especially if it’s something they don’t particularly feel like doing!

Relatedness (relevance)


First off, how well can they relate to you as an individual? How well have you built rapport and trust with them? Just being a good person will go a long way! Take an interest in them as an individual, a human being and not just an athlete or client. Listen to them. When you tell them you will do something, make sure you do it. When you do this repeatedly they will know they can count on you.

Secondly, make sure the athlete/client understands why you are doing what you are doing and where it fits in to the big picture of what you are working towards. They don’t need an explanation that requires a master’s degree to understand though, keep it simple!


Pitch the session at the right level, allow them to be successful but challenge them, provide them with positive feedback. Then begin progressively overloading the training (if it helps explain your progressions), challenge them and build it week on week. Tools such as the Resistance Training Matrix can with leveled progressions can be good as the athlete/client can see their technical progression, but also use a training diary to track progress.

Learn more about the Art & Science of Coaching by joining one of the UK’s leading Performance Enhancement Specialists Nick Grantham ( for his Physical Preparation for Performance Workshop on the 21st February 2015. There are a limited number of spaces available, and a only few Early Bird Tickets remaining. Don’t miss out!

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