The Nature of Motivation - Competency

Updated: Aug 6, 2018

Competency - the need be proficient, adept, and skillful - is a vital part of motivation. A common misconception is that skillful athletes “naturally” learn their technique, or motor patterns (2). That somehow Adam Peaty naturally learned his stroke. When in fact Peaty was a “lanky 14-year-old with big feet and a horrible freestyle technique bumbling along in the slow lane”. It took 7 years to refine his stroke to what it is today. The point being is all athletes reach skill acquisition, or developmental trajectories, at differing rates. Don’t expect your athletes to understand and then implement a concept at once.

To build competency in athletes start with how you talk to your athletes. How coaches talk to, provide feedback, and communicate can have profound impact on their sense of competency (1).


Provide feedback on technique that is informational in nature and does not control or direct behavior (1). For example, we hear many coaches say some version of this to an athlete –

"I would like you to put in more effort next time"

This ‘motivation’ technique can be perceived as a form of control which may undermine innate drive and competency (1). The athlete perceived their effort to be 100% but received feedback from the coach that they need to try harder. This can be demoralizing, magnifying any perceived notions of incompetency.

To improve competency (and therefore, motivation) coaches can (3):

  • Provide continual, informational, non-comparative feedback

  • Reinforce what they have mastered and components they can master following some additional practice

  • Help athletes cope with temporary failure by identifying specific steps that can help them master the components that caused the temporary failure

Notes on 'I Can':

[Athletes] "are likely to invest considerable effort in coping with temporary failure (thereby turning it into success) if they think that there is a series of actions that can lead to mastery of the task and they are sufficiently competent to perform those actions" (3)

Allow failure in training and racing. Failure is an opportunity, not a condemnation. Take the stigma away from failure. The phrase ‘not yet,' “give athletes greater confidence, giving them a path that creates greater persistence” and perceived competence (4).

Here are the series of actions coaches can use to foster ‘positive failure’ (3):

  • Identify weaknesses

  • Reinforce the view that success depends mostly on controllable factors rather than on inborn talent

  • Identify specific steps that can help them master the components that caused the temporary failure


To ensure high competency, teach your athletes to evaluate their own performances without reference to others. Attempting to copy or simulate Adam Peaty’s breaststroke technique is impossible*. This is one of the most important jobs of the coach – to teach athletes to evaluate themselves according to their own criteria in a private setting (1). Coaches who create environments of public evaluation and comparisons risk decimating intrinsic motivation.

*Just like imitating or copying Michael Phelps is impossible. The specific anthropometrics of any particular athlete are extraordinary to them. The previous training history, flexibility, mindset, genetics, and a host of other factors cannot be emulated. That’s why foundations of physiology and biomechanics are essential in teaching performance basics.

The next post will cover relatedness and how it transmits to motivation.


  1. Bartholomew, Kimberley J., Nikos Ntoumanis, and Cecilie Th⊘ gersen-Ntoumani. "A review of controlling motivational strategies from a self-determination theory perspective: Implications for sports coaches." International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology 2.2 (2009): 215-233.

  2. Stodden, David F., et al. "A developmental perspective on the role of motor skill competence in physical activity: An emergent relationship." Quest 60.2 (2008): 290-306.

  3. Alfi, O., Assor, A., & Katz*, I. (2004). Learning to allow temporary failure: Potential benefits, supportive practices and teacher concerns. Journal of Education for teaching, 30(1), 27-41.

  4. Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Incorporated.

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