How to Properly Motivate Your Athlete | Q&A with Coach Rebecca

Today’s Topic: How to Properly Motivate Your Athlete


About me

Welcome to this week’s episode of our Q&A with Coach Rebecca. I’m Rebecca Smith, a high performance coach. I specialize in helping athletes age 8 to 18 become the best possible version of themselves under pressure, and under fear. And I also help them unlock all of the good stuff that comes with sport participation.


The Perform Happy Community

Today, I have a couple of really good questions that I’m excited to dive in to. But before I do, I want to let you guys know that today I officially opened the doors to the brand new Perform Happy Community. I know you guys have heard me talk a lot about this. It’s kind of like my little passion project where I take all of my techniques and tactics that I’ve basically figured out through research, reading other people’s research and doing my own research when working with thousands of athletes to figure out what works.

I figured out how to get people out of mental blocks and fear, how to help build confidence and how to help kids unlock what’s called a “flow” experience. I’ve put all of my research into these in-depth courses that are easily digestible and fun so kids can get through them and learn all the techniques taught without having to sit with me one on one. It’s a lot more flexible that way. You can do it on the go or in the car, and I’ve also put together some really fun challenges about building confidence and overcoming fear that you can download there.

Coaches, this is a really great system for you guys to tap into too, because you can start doing my techniques with your kids. And this is something I wish I had when I was a kid and  when I was a coach. I created it just opened the doors today. We are only taking 30 new members, because I want it to be a high quality experience where I can actually be there interacting with you, answering your questions and guiding you through all the good stuff.


Mental Toughness Bootcamp Update

I’m starting a new program called Mental Toughness Bootcamp within the community next week. That’s going to be a four week super challenge where we can finish out the summer strong to get you ready for fall. If you haven’t already joined us and you’ve been on the fence about wanting to join the community, this is the week to do it. The doors close on Sunday at 10 PM Eastern. I’ll do a quick Q&A near the end of the week if we have enough spots left, so if you guys have questions you can ask them there.


I’m going to jump into the first question that I got form a member of the Perform Happy community. And here it is. She asks,

Q: Is it appropriate to reward your child for motivateaccomplishments? If so, when? It’s hard to find the right balance between bribery. (I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but trust me I have tried it and it has worked. And reward for getting new skills and doing well at competitions. We set goals and set small rewards like ice cream or a fun outing, but I don’t want her to feel as if only her performance will get her these opportunities. Yet dangling the carrot does work sometimes.)



I love this question. I have a two year old, we are potty training, and I’ve heard things like, “Just give them a little screen time. Give them an M&M. It’ll make it happen.” I tend to be pretty anti-rewards just based on my own psychology training. But there’s this part of me that’s like, “But it probably works. It works in the moment.” But it takes me back to this. Something that somebody told me right when I was pregnant. Or when I was reading all the about becoming a mom. They said, “There is no easy way. You’ll only have to be re-fixing it later on.” I keep that in my mind. Saying, “Just say no to the M&Ms. Just sit in the bathroom, it’s going to happen.” I went through all of my different research that I’d done in grad school around this topic, because it is controversial.

We’re in this society that really encourages rewards. We are capitalist, and you get what you want, and you can live your dreams, and you can have the big house, and you can have all the money, and you can have the fame, and you get your scholarship. And it’s like we are really just systematically already conditioned to be working toward rewards all the time. Promotions, and likes on Facebook. We are always wanting some kind of, “Good job. Oh, look at you. You’re doing great.” We as Americans, humans, like that stuff. It makes us tick. And to be honest, I’ve actually added a little bit of that to the community, because I know that it works. I went back and forth. I said, “Do I give points? Do I give gold stars? Or do I just allow them to enjoy it and love it?”


Rewards Work on a Short-Term Basis

Here’s kind of my song and dance on this question. Rewards work in the short term. They motivate us. Sometimes when you’re afraid, or you’re stuck, you need something to push you over the edge. For example, I work with a ton of kids on mental blocks and fear. Most of these kids are the type that show up at a competition and, for some reason, can kind of force themselves to do this skill they haven’t done in a month. They do it, they get it over with, they go back to the gym and they never do it again. This because of some reward they expected to get: maybe a medal or a present from their parents. No judgement, however, if you’ve offered rewards like this.

It worked in that one instance, but it did not have anything to do with the long term overcoming of that fear at all. You guys, if you’ve heard any of my talks on fear, you know that if you just shove the kid out and tell them to do it, they might be able to do it. But that doesn’t mean anything for the future of them being able to do this skill. It doesn’t build anything lasting. So yes, rewards work in the short term, but they actually have some consequences that are important to talk about. They undermine your internal motivation. And I think about when I was in college, back to my undergrad days. There were these couple of classes that I was required to take. One of them I took where there was a requirement that you participate at least once a day.


Doing Things Because you Have to VS. Doing Things Because you Want To

I would raise my hand once a day, and I would say something. Then I would check it of in my mind, and then I would kind of like zone out into space knowing I’d already done the thing I needed to do, and now I was done. I had this other class that had these really stimulating discussions that I really wanted to participate in because it was cool and I was learning and I was turning these ideas around in my head. And I was like that annoying chick in the front with my hand up every five seconds because I was like, “Ooh. I have another thing to say about that.” But this other class was like, “You got to raise your hand once a day.”

And so I would raise my hand and then I was done. There was general participation that was required and not optional at all. But there was none of that in this other class that I really enjoyed. And I kind of forgot all about that reward. That my have gotten my hand up in the beginning, but it’s not why I kept participating. So this is where it gets a little gray and one of the other benefits of rewards is that it actually can drive internal motivation. But you have to be really careful. There’s only a select few ways to do that.


Punishment VS. Reward

I’ll give you another example. My husband is a runner. He’s training for a marathon. He’ll get up and he’ll go for a run every single morning. And then one day he got sick. I think he had a cough, and he hadn’t run for a couple weeks, and his tendency was just to not get out of bed at 4:45 AM which is literally when he gets up in the morning. Like, oh my gosh, I could never. But he gets up at 4:45 AM because he likes to run. And he feels better when he ran for the day.

But he couldn’t get himself back in the routine. So I said, “All right, what’s going to motivate you.” And he was like, “I don’t know.” And I was like, “What about if you don’t run, you have to 200 pushups instead.” And he was like, “Ugh. I don’t want to do that. Okay, I’ll do it.” And so the next day, he got up and he ran. And he was like, “I’m so tired. Oh that was so hard.” And then the next day, same thing. All week we kept that on the table, and then after that he kept running because he got back, and his energy was up. He was feeling good. He was back in his flow. It kind of like got him over the hump, and then after that we kind of forgot about it.


It’s All About Motivation

But the one day he didn’t run I was like, “You owe me 200 pushups.” And he was like, “That wasn’t the deal this week.” That actually really did work for him. I know punishment and reward are different, but it’s all really about motivation. And our ideal is to get into internal motivations. You want to get to the place where you are doing it because you loved to do it. Because it feels good. Because it makes your heartbeat or it makes you like you who you are when you look in the mirror. That’s why you want to do stuff.

So the question you want to ask before you reward somebody is, “Why do I want them to do that? Is it so that I look good? So that I feel like they’re compliant? Is it so that …” And I mean of course you parents are like, “It’s because you want your kid to be happy.” I know that. That’s obvious. But you got to really check in with yourself. Like, “Why do I want her to succeed so bad? What if she didn’t do it? What if she didn’t get the skill?” I mean really some of the failures and disappointments are our absolute biggest teachers, and you don’t want to deprive somebody of an opportunity.

I know this sounds hokey, but you don’t want to deprive somebody of an opportunity to hit a wall and learn something. So don’t be afraid of letting your kid fail a little bit. Letting your kid climb a rocky road to somewhere that’ll stick. That they’ll be confident rather than just, “Do your skill at the meet for an iPad. You go the iPad, you did the skill, you’ll never do this skill again.” It’s a very different outcome.


Flow: Ultimate Internal Motivation

Let’s talk a little bit about flow. I know I talk about flow a lot. Flow is basically this experience of ultimate internal motivation. You’re doing something because it feels good, because you want to learn, it’s a challenge that is exciting. It’s a new height that you’re reaching for. This is what we want to be giving our athletes is more opportunities to be challenged. What we don’t want to be doing is controlling them.

The way not to reward somebody is in a controlling way. Like, “If you do what I want you to do, I’ll give you something.” That’s tough because a lot of coaching can kind of come off that way. So for you coaches, do you want your kids to just comply? Which maybe the answer is yes. Or do you want them to be engaged, motivated, active, and excited? Because you can have one or the other.

You can create compliant athletes by punishment and reward. But you’re not going to get the type of team that is on fire and excited and feeling great, and really that wants to keep learning and growing. You’re going to get the kids that are, “Oh I have to do this, otherwise I’ll have to do that. I have to do this, or I won’t get that.” Instead they’ll go, “I want to try this. Oh I can’t wait until we get to that part of the assignment where I get to work on this.” That’s the type of passion that we want to open up in our kids. Not just, “I got to do it or I’m not going to get ice cream.” And then, for mom, here’s how to do the rewards in the right way. Coaches you guys can listen to this too obviously.


Positive Feedback VS. Controlling Feedback

Positive feedback. This, but not controlling positive feedback. Not like, “Good thing you did that, or you would’ve been in trouble.” There’s a very different way to give feedback in a positive way that’s controlling, versus encouraging. And it’s a fine line. So you want to make sure that the feedback is not based only on a task or outcome. And it’s not because you say, “All right everyone who does this gets a high five. You did it. High five.” That doesn’t count. That actually decreases internal motivation. Versus, people you’re kind of encouraging them to learn and grow and stretch and try and work, and you’re praising their effort all along with these little things like, “Hey, you just worked so hard at practice. I know you didn’t cath your skill, you didn’t get your new skill, but let’s go get ice cream. I’m so proud of you.”

Those are the moments that improve your kids’ ability to feel good about themselves and their desire to keep training. If you just surprise them with a, “Hey, good effort. Let’s go do something special.” Or, “Hey you didn’t win, but I’m really proud of you. Let’s go do something.” Those sorts of things in the long term will work much better than the, “If you score a goal, you get ice cream.” I was the soccer player, side note, my mom was always like, “You get ice cream if you score a goal.” I was a defender. I was a terrible forward. I don’t think I scored a single goal my entire soccer career. Of course it was not anywhere like when I was a gymnast. My mom said, “Pick one,” at like nine.


Rewards: What to do and What Not to do

My brother was always scoring goals. So, he got to get to get ice cream all the time, and here I was not getting ice cream. But that totally backfired. Here’s kind of my overview of what to do and what not to do as far as rewards. No controlling. No encouraging compliance. If you give them like, “This is the guideline. This is what you have to do,” then they’re not going to want to go above and beyond. So don’t do that. But what you should do is give positive feedback that has no pressure, I know this is hard. That’s not evaluating, it supports their choice.

You encourage them to make choices, and then you let them know that you’re proud of them for making that choice. And the one thing I do with a lot of my fear clients, is I actually make it a game. They set all the requirements, they make the rules. They decide what all the rules are going to be, and then they hold themselves accountable and there are a few certain rules that I give them that help keep them moving out of their comfort zone. But it’s fun.

I’ve noticed when I changed literally the words of the activity to game, people started getting better results because they’re like, “Ooh. I want to win the game.” Even though they were doing the exact same thing. So sometimes just making it a game like, “Hey, maybe you could hold your handstand a little bit longer than last time.” But it’s got to be the athlete’s choice. That’s what you want to really encourage.


Rewards Can Cause Mental Blocks and Fear

And what we want to discourage is this all or nothing thinking where your either get the reward an you succeed, or you don’t get the reward and you fail. Because this is the main cause of mental blocks and fear as I’ve noticed, is that you feel like you’re failing, and every successive progression until you get to your success, and then you succeed. But most people are not perfect. Nor do we ever attain perfection. And if you’re working through something scary that you’re like, “I should be there already. And everyday or ever second that I’m not there, I feel like a failure.” That’s what rewarding is doing.

It’s saying you fail, or you succeed. And we have to encourage that gray area. I talk a lot about this in my fear course. You have to get comfortable being halfway there. Because you took a baby step forward today. You took a baby step forward this week, you have to celebrate that and you have to be super excited about it. And parents, surprise them with a pat on the back or a high five, or some ice cream just because. That’s going to have a lot more effect at praising their effort than relying on their outcomes. It might be motivational, but it’s not the best long term strategy.   Okay. Now another question from a member of the Perform Happy community.


Q: We’re moving and switching gyms. I’m worried about my daughter losing the progress she’s made with her new coaches. We weren’t expecting to move. Do we tell them of her past issues? Should we just let them evaluate her and go from there?


Okay. So good thing that you’re in the Perform Happy community. You can get more information and report back to me. And that’s a lot of the benefit of this is that you can reach out to me at any time. So it looks like we don’t have enough information. I would say at this point, there isn’t really a blanket answer because there is a benefit to having a clean slate that you can go in, and you know what? Maybe she’s not going to be scared. Maybe she’s got enough information, she knows exactly how to listen to her brain and feel her heart.

She knows what to do so that she can take care of herself. She might not need her coaches so actively involved since you have done a lot of work and she’s seen a lot of good progress on her blocks. But let’s say that she’s there, and she’s starting to have trouble and the coaches are not being understanding. Then absolutely that’s when you go in and you have good communication.


Blank Slates can be a Good Thing

And check in with me along the whole process and let me know what does it seem like? What is the vibe? What is the energy among the coaches? Is it very punitive? Is it very loving and kind? That’ll make a big difference because if it is a very punitive environment you might not want to lead with, “My kid’s got issues.” And then the coaches are like, “Oh great. This kid’s got issues.”

You know, unfortunately most people don’t understand. And that’s okay. We can teach them. You guys did it at your last gym, you can do it again. And hopefully this foundation of confidence that she’s been building with us is going to pay off and make it so that it’s not such a difficult transition. But mom, I would say when you’re doubt get more information. And then communication is my favorite when it becomes obvious that that’s the next step. Hope that answers your question.


Wrap Up

One more reminder you guys. The doors are open temporarily to the Perform Happy community. I’m taking 30 members. I forgot to mention the first ten get a free one on one session with me. So you typically, if you sign up as an elite member, you sign up for the year and you get a session, but if you sign up for a standard membership you get a free session too if you’re one of the first ten to sign up. And if you sign up elite you get two sessions with me. So, you can go to, check that out.

If you have any questions reach out to me. And I always give priority to my members to ask me questions here every week. But you guys can reach out to me at and I’ll do my best to get back to you. Thank you guys for being here and I’ll see you soon.

Is your gymnast struggling with mental blocks or fear?  Check out my FREE resource for parents.