How to Build Motivation as an Athlete | Q&A with Coach Rebecca

Our question of the week comes from a gymnastics mom.  She’s wondering how to tap into a young athlete’s motivation source.  She writes…

Q: “They have enough to put up with the daily three to four hour grind and conditioning, but only give 60% effort when they have lots of talent. If even 90% effort, amazing results would occur.”

I’ve heard this from a ton of swim parents, plenty of gymnastics parents, and it’s boys, girls, it’s all ages.  A lot of us struggle with motivation.  Some of you start your sport at such a young age.  Maybe it’s the sport your parent did, or maybe it’s just something that your friends did, and you started because it’s fun and you like it.  Next thing you know, you have a little skill and then the coaches are kind of pushing you, and now you’re on the competitive team.

Being Pushed

They see a ton of potential in you, but you’re not working at your best.  Sometimes the other kids on the team will say, “Why does that kid do well in competition?  They don’t work hard.  Gosh, imagine if they did.”  Maybe that’s you, maybe that’s your kid, maybe that someone you coach.

I’m going to give you some framework for how to help ramp up that motivation.  That’s going to be our acronym actually, RAMP.  I’ll explain that in just a minute.


First, a quick overview on motivation.  There are two primary forms of motivation:

  1. Internal
  2. External

External Motivation

That’s your medals, places, and points.  Its wanting to win, wanting to beat your best friend, to get a teddy bear, wanting a pizza party.  Whatever it is, it’s something outside of yourself.  Internal motivation is really that great feeling of satisfaction that comes from doing something that just feels good.

When I ask somebody why they want to do their sport, it should eventually boil down to, “Because I like it and because I want to.”

The response at first might be, “Well, because I want to win, and I want to go to college,”  and then I’ll ask, “Okay, why is that important?”  The response is usually, “Because then I’ll show my parents and my coaches that I worked really hard.”  Again, I ask why that is important.

We just keep unraveling it until finally, they say, “Just because I want to, because I like it.”  If they can get to that point, then I say, “Great, we have what we need.”

You just have to want to do it.  You have to just love it.  The kids I’ve seen go the farthest in sport are the ones who just love to do it.  They love the burn of a hard workout.  They love the satisfaction of walking out feeling like they cannot lift their arms because they’re so tired.

Internal Motivation

There’s a framework on internal motivation that we’re going to focus on because here’s the thing – you can get interested in a sport because you want to win, because you like the cool uniform, because you want to have that pizza party at the end of the year, but that’s not going to last.  That’s not going to keep you involved.

Once you’re climbing up the skill ladder to the point where the skills are hard, they’re scary, and they take a lot of training, you’ll really need your motivation to be coming from within.  This framework that I’m going to call the RAMP framework, comes from Andrzej Marczweski. It’s in regards to how you keep people playing video games.

Have you ever found a game that you started playing that you like and couldn’t put down?  Or you’re motivated by these four different factors.  You can pay attention for yourself on what keeps you motivated, and then also pay attention to what you can help give your kids so they can stay motivated.


RAMP is our acronym, and it’s how to build intrinsic or internal motivation.  The R is Relatedness.

R: Relatedness

This is for our social butterflies.  Now, each of us is going to fall more into one of these four categories, but we all are motivated by all four.  For the kids who are purely there for the friendships, this is going to be their category – relatedness.  They need to feel like they’re a part of something, like they have friends, that they matter, and that they’re welcome.

If they’re being bullied, if there’s any kind of negative vibes coming from the coaches or from other teammates, that’s going to eat away at this relatedness.  If they’re being excluded, if they have had a bunch of kids move up to the next level and they didn’t move up, that’s going to really eat away at their motivation.  Whereas if they know, “Okay, my best friend is in the next level up, and if I work my butt off, I can be with her,” that could be this huge motivating force.

Position Yourself

What you want to do is align yourself with the type of athletes on your team that are going to cheer you on, motivate you, bring you up, and pull the energy in toward effort.  If you can connect the socializing with the effort factor, that’s what’s going to get these kids in particular going.

You can help them to feel related in many ways, like hosting a team sleepover.  If you’ve just joined a new team and they’re really not feeling motivated, they don’t really know the kids, invite everybody over and have a pool party.  Do something where you can start bringing those kids together and build some social capital.   These relatedness kids need social status, social connections, and belonging.  Anything you can do to help increase that, or help them learn tools and skills to increase that, will help their motivation.

A: Autonomy

This is for the free spirits.  This is my little three-year-old, and this is me, personally.  They need to feel like they have creative freedom, they have choice, and they have responsibility. This is the type of athlete that if you say, “You have to do it this way, and only this way, and you have no choice.  Go do it,” they are going to do a slow fade.  They are not going to have fun if they’re being told what to do all the time, and they will actually go quite the opposite direction.  They will say, “Well, you can’t tell me what to do.  I’m going to figure out how to do it a different way,” just to prove you wrong.

In those cases, that just-to-prove-you-wrong motivation is typically in the kids who need autonomy, whereas the relatedness ones are like, “Just to make everybody love me.”  It’s a little different.  What these ones need is to feel like they are in control, like it’s their choice. They need to constantly be reminded, “You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to do it.” They’re going to go, “I want to do it.  Don’t tell me.  I’m not going to quit.  What?  You don’t believe in me?” And then they’re going to like, fire it up.

Don’t Nag, Remind

Nagging does not work with this type of athlete.  The best way to get them to shut down is to tell them what to do.  With adolescents and teenagers, which is who I work with most, the worst thing you can do to them as a general population is to nag.  Don’t tell them what to do.

Remind them they have choices.  Ask them if they want to do it.  If they don’t want to do it, whatever.  The more nonchalant you are, the more you’re allowing them to feel like they’re in control.  They’re going to take it on and say, “I want to be amazing.”  And you can respond, “Okay, if you want.  Whatever.  No problem.”

“Why can’t I help them?”

My daughter is a three-year-old gymnast.  Listen, I work with kids all the time whose parents ask, “Why can’t I help them?  I was a gymnast.  I knew how to get through this.  Why can’t I help them?”  I have the same issue with my three-year-old.  Her assignment in her little gymnastics class today was to do a safety fall.

Of course, before you learn how to do anything scary or dangerous, you learn how to fall.  That was what she’s supposed to do – give herself a hug and fall backwards like a tree, which is terrifying, right?  I have tried them before.  It’s this big backwards fall and it’s super scary.  If you’re three, it’s especially scary and she doesn’t want to do it.

She didn’t do it for two weeks.  I specialize in helping kids through fear, and thoughts are running through my head going, “She needs baby steps, she needs to start trying, and she needs to …”  I go into overdrive of, “I hope she’s not developing a mental block.”

Pushing Your Athlete

I don’t know what it is about parenting that makes us nerd.  I can help other kids in this wonderful, calm way.  With my kid, I feel like I have to do everything perfectly.  I was saying, “Hey, why don’t you just try to sit on your bottom, and then fall back?”  I’m building her confidence ladder for her.  She says, “No,” and runs away.  I say, “No, you have to do it.”  It was this big, unproductive encounter with my three-year-old.

Finally, on the way home I said to her, “Dude, I’m sorry.  I should not have done that.  What do you want to do?  How do you want to deal with that station?”  She told me, “I just don’t want to do it.”  I responded, “Well, okay.  What do you think you want to do instead?”

She said, “I just want to do forward roll.”  The next time we went back and I was said, “Okay, you know what?  Just do forward roll.”  She did it.  Then we come around again, and I didn’t say anything to her.  She climbs up and she does a seat drop, so she falls on her butt, which is different.  I’m like, “Okay, cool.”  Then on her butt, she falls back.  The next time she gets up, she just does it.

Let Your Athlete Control The Situation

The second that I shut my mouth, I let her be in control of it.  I actually apologized.  I was like, “Sorry I nagged.  That was not helpful.  What do you want to do?  How do you want to approach this?” Then I just kept my mouth shut and let her.

My little autonomous girl, my free spirit is going to need me to zip it and I get to know nothing about what her process needed to be, and she’s going to handle it.  I have to trust her to do that.

If you have a kid like mine, back off.  Let them figure it out on their own.  Also, for coaches who might be listening, give them things like, “When you finish your assignment, you get 10 minutes of free time to work on upgraded skills.”  They’re going to jam through their assignments so that they can have freedom.

Free Spirits

The Microsoft employees were given an 80/20 rule, where 80% of the time, they had to be working on Microsoft projects, 20% of the time, they could do whatever they wanted.  That was when some of the best innovations came about, during 20% of their work hours that were totally open.  Free spirits, run free and do your thing.

If you give kids that opportunity, if they have to do 20 back handsprings a day to work through the mental block, then let them go do front flips at the end for 10 minutes.  Let them do whatever they want so that they’ll jam through the hard stuff, the thing they don’t want to do, so they can play.  That really, really works for this type of kid.

M: Mastery

Now, this is the achiever.  This is most of us.  Most of the type A perfectionist, A-plus students, we are mastery-oriented.  This is good because we want to get better just because we want to be better.  I talk a lot about flow, especially in the PerformHappy Community, and that’s that state where things just click in and work.

All your training completely pays off, and you’re at your best.  That only happens when you have a challenge-skill balance, when your challenge is just the teensiest bit above your current skill level.  It’s not too high so that you give up, it’s not too low so that you get bored.  It’s just right out of reach.

That’s what we want.  That’s what motivates the achievement type person.  We want to get better, we want to have the feedback that we’re getting better.  This isn’t the gold medal, this is the coach going, “Whoa, that was better,” and us going, “… It felt better, cool.  Let me try it again.  Ooh, I got closer. Let’s do it again.  Oh, my gosh, I’m getting better, I’m getting better.” That feeling of getting better really drives me personally in exercising.  I want to feel stronger. Every time I workout, I want to be like, “Ooh, I just didn’t one extra.”  That’s what I want.

My Motivation

When I was pregnant, my motivation to exercise went way down, because I was starting to feel weaker, and weaker.  I needed to feel like I was getting better at something to be motivated to keep trying.  Now I’m back, I’m saying, “Yay, I’m getting stronger again.  This feels great.”  It’s not about winning Pilates class.  It’s about me getting in and feeling stronger and feeling like I am reaching my own standard of improvement.

You can help your kid to come up with some kind of like a self-determined skill sheet.  Coaches, you could do a skill scavenger hunt, or make it a fun game where they have to be challenged and they get to feel that they’ve been challenged and they rose to the occasion. That’s one of the best things you can do to motivate kids.

If they’re constantly working the same stuff over and over, they feel like it’s too easy, or they’re never going to get better.  That’s going to keep them stagnant.  They have to be challenged and they have to be able to rise to it.  This is why a lot of my work on fear is about creating these little milestones that are just out of reach.  It is going to be a stretch, but once they do it, they throw a party, they feel so happy.

P: Purpose

This is for those givers, the kids who are motivated by helping other people.  With adults, it’s like philanthropy, or giving back, or if you win this, you donate it to charity.  For kids, they want to do it because the five-year-old’s watching because they believe in them.  Sometimes for people who are not motivated as much by the other things, they are motivated by cheering on their teammates.

They say, “You know what, I’ll do it if you do it,” or, “Okay, I can do this because I know my little sister believes in me and is looking up to me.”  Also, as far as the dreamers, this could be a big dream like college.  They may be the first in their family to go to college, so it would be an amazing thing to do to prove to her little sister that it can be done.  Those sorts of things, getting a bigger purpose and a bigger why involved that’s bigger than you because you want to do it, and also it’s for you because it feels good to be an inspiration.

How to Build MotivationDo it for Yourself

For those of you who just have a really big heart, and sometimes have a hard time working harder being successful for yourself, you might do it for somebody else.  Do it for grandma, do it for mom, but obviously not if it’s going to stress you out.  Believe me, too many kids doing it for mom, meltdown on competition day.  It ultimately needs to be for you.

Sports Moms: What Motivates You?

One final little thought is for the moms listening out there.  What motivates you out of those four things?  What gets you to go to your exercise class?  I did Bikram yoga every single day for two months.  What got me there was kind of a combination of all four things.  I had a buddy, a friend of mine who picked me up one day, then I picked her up the next day, and we went together every single day.

Then I started feeling stronger, getting better, and holding things longer, and the gymnast in me was saying, “Yeah, I’m going to be the best one in this class by a mile.”  I would kill myself in class because I wanted to be the best one and I wanted people to look at me and think, “Dang, she is good at yoga.”  Whatever works, right?

I started to have this really nice, peaceful presence that came as a result of being super focused and present every single day.  I also had my friend there.  All of these different things were helping to motivate me.  Then we stopped going.  We went on vacation for a couple of weeks, and we didn’t go.  We were like, “You know what, we did that, we’re good.”

Make it Achievable

Make sure that it’s something that’s also achievable, that you’re setting goals within reach that are easy to stick with.  Don’t try to be perfect, saying, “I’m going to go every single day,” then you miss one and you’re like, “Well, the goal’s blown.  Oh, well, forget it.”  Instead, you want to go, “Hey, I want to improve.  I want to focus on this, or I want to get this skill,” and then map it out.

That is our RAMP up to motivation and effort.  Send me questions if you have them to  If you want a free consultation coaching session with me or any of the coaching team, head over to  If you’re not sure which coach would be best for you, I just put up a handy-dandy quiz that you can take.

It doesn’t require email address or anything.  You just go on and it’ll tell you who is going to be the best coach for you, and then you can schedule a free 20-minute coaching session.  How cool is that?  I’ll see you again next week.  Thanks for joining me.

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