The Unmotivated Athlete

I recently talked with a fellow coach on the topic of athletes who “aren’t motivated to change/work/push”. This coach described the feeling as “a failure”, because they were unable to “get the athlete to commit to their goals”. The orientation of the discussion, lead me to think about motivation and behaviour change. I then unpacked my experience as a health professional and analysed how transferable my clinical skills are to coaching powerlifting.

Strength training (and the fitness industry in general) is built around the concept of motivation. Posters, motivational music, success stories and magic routines are everywhere. The question I asked myself was: Why is the failure to reach goals in the fitness industry so damn high? I suspect it is because the psychology of “motivation” isn’t close to being understood by most PT’s and many coaches when it should be a HIGH priority.
Your MOTIVATION is based on your VALUES.

Let’s have a look at these concepts and how they work. When the majority of people think about values, they think about the list of ideals that they “live by”. This over-simplistic way of breaking down the human condition may work for some applications in life; but when it comes to asking “why?” (e.g. why we do things, why we avoid things, why we choose things) – Then we need to look at the values system as exactly that… a system.

The simplest way to explain the system is to imagine it as a colour wheel. A colour wheel has colours grouped by similarity or shade. In addition the colours are also organised opposite each other in opposing shades (Remember the rule! – Blue and green should never be seen). Humans have a large range of “values” that we hold dear, some stronger then others. Like colours on a wheel they fit within a system. Now, imagine these on a colour wheel, arranged and grouped by similar themes e.g. Security, achievement, tradition benevolence etc. Values on opposite sides of our ‘values wheel’ compete with each-other. Just like a game of tug-o-war, the stronger held value will always win.

An example of this can be found with the issue of drugs in sport. Academics from many disciplines have investigated why some athletes choose to use performance enhancing drugs (PED’s), the question asked is what drives some athletes to break the rules and use PED’s and others dont? Shalom Schwartz, et al (2012) looked into the structure of values systems and what values sat opposite each other within this framework. It’s noted that values that fit into achievement and competition sit directly opposite to values that include conformity/rules and community connection. When looking at PED it is suggested that the individual’s value on success and competitiveness is strong enough to outweigh their value of rules and conforming to be part of the larger community. Likewise the opposite would be the case for those that actively choose not to dope.

Whenever we are faced with a difficult or challenging decision/choice encounter a conflict of values. Being able to understand this concept can form part of a toolkit that allows a coach to understand our athlete’s motivations and decisions making process. This is a very simplified example of a complex psychological phenomena but it does highlight how the strength of your values, and how these values clash can influence your decision making.

So how does can this relate to Coaching?
The majority of coaches will not have the skills or knowledge to profile their athletes values systems, and develop the perfect training protocol for the athlete. I’m all for coaches that WANT to upgrade their qualifications with some sort of psychological knowledge, but the opportunity cost is high and in reality most will not. Thus, potentially missing out on developing an effecting coaching tool. The good news is understanding motivation does not require a high buy in. With a fundamental knowledge of how motivation works and can differ between individuals, a coach be equipped to understand their athletes better.

An important step is to examine and start to understand your own values system as a coach. Our decisions as coaches are no different to athletes and are driven by a conflict of values. Often our interpersonal relationships are decided in the same way. We are drawn to people who are similar to ourselves and avoid people whose values conflict our own. We don’t consciously think on a “values” level when making these decisions. Our mind is smart enough to translate these conflicts into feelings and emotions. However, being aware where these emotions stem from can be eye opening. Take the athlete you find yourself frustrated with when they show up late, even though they get the work done. The lifter who won’t “push themselves” as hard as you know they can. That client who isn’t disciplined enough to stick to the program. These things will ONLY annoy you if your values system is in opposition to these behaviours. Think about that.

So what about Motivation?
Most people think motivation is like a tank of fuel. They look at motivation as a commodity that “runs out”. In reality, motivation is a complex psychological (and at times physiological) process. As you may have guessed, it is also tied to your values system. There is no such thing as NO motivation. Often when you hear of someone with “No motivation”, itsimply means what you’re trying to get the person to do/change doesn’t resonate. Either physically or mentally. In order for a person to appear motivated the following concepts must be ticked:

1. People will only appear motivated if they are interested in the change.
2. People will only appear motivated if they have hope that the change is possible.
3. People will only appear motivated if they have a clear vision of what this change will look like.
4. People will only appear motivated if they believe they have the capacity to create the change.
5. People will only appear motivated if they value the difference the change will make to their lives.
6. People will only appear motivated if their intuition tells them, this change feels right, right now.
7. People will only appear motivated if feel they are in control of the process to create the change.
8. People will only appear motivated if they are prepared to tolerate the discomfort the change process will bring.

If a person can answer yes to all of these they will do whatever it is you’re suggesting they do. If they answer no to one or more of these points then they won’t. No matter how hard you push them, the outcome will be less than desirable. The importance of breaking down motivation this way; is it gives the coach an athlete-centric focus. By using this method a coach now has another tool in their skill set to help an athlete who appears “stuck” in reaching their goals or unmotivated. Importantly, as a coach you are able to reflect on and address the individual.

If a person ticks every box but isn’t willing to tolerate the discomfort of change then it may be up to the coach to scale the change right back so the athlete steps outside of the their comfort zone for a shorter duration to gradually build up confidence and “comfort” in doing the uncomfortable.

If the athlete continues to go off program or does not do things that are prescribed, it may be a case they need to feel more in control of the changes they are making. In this case it will be up to the coach to work closely with the athlete to develop a program that they are able to drive themselves. This can be hard for a coach to, if this subsequent middle ground challenges the coaches own value system.

Coaching isn’t always a magic formula of “do this program and gain this strength”. One of the largest and often most overlooked aspect of coaching is the intra-personal and social development between the coach and athlete. Motivation is the example we used today. By gaining a basic understanding of what makes people tick you can be much more effective as a leader on this journey towards mastery.


Schwartz, S.H., Cieciuch, J., Vecchione, M., Davidov, E., Fischer, R., Beierlein, C., Ramos, A., Verkasalo, M., Lonqvist, J., Demirutku, K., Dirilen-Gummus, O. & Konty M. (2012). Refining the theory of basic individual values. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(4), 663-688.

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