How Can Athletic Teams Systematically Motivate One Another?

Science shows a systematic approach to motivation can improve sport performance.

Posted Jul 07, 2019

A number of bloggers have asked us to discuss sport performance optimization exercises that are supported in science and may additionally have positive effects in mental wellness. In answering this call, we’d like to report the results of a study (Donohue et al., 2006) that compared the effectiveness of 3 exercises that were designed to improve running performance (systematic motivational exchanges, yoga, discussion about competitive running), and show how this information can be used to assist athletes immediately prior to competitive events.   

Brief description of study

The study involved 90 competitive distance runners.  Runners were timed in a baseline 1 mile run. Seven days later they were randomly assigned to receive 1 of 3 exercises immediately before running a 2nd mile. The exercises included (1) discussion about running, (2) a Yoga exercise that included 11 entry level asana positions (e.g., forward bend, lung, plank), and (3) a systematic exchange of motivational statements.

What did the study show?

Results indicated that athletes who were assigned to motivational exchange and yoga with their teams enjoyed these exercises more than participants who were assigned to discussion. Participants who were assigned to the motivational condition improved their run performance significantly more than participants who were assigned to the other conditions (4 seconds faster than yoga, 6 seconds faster than discussion).

How can the Motivational Exchanges Occur in Teams?

1)      Distribute the Motivational Statements Checklist (see Donohue et al., 2006) that is included below to athletes during a team practice.

Motivational Statements Checklist

Please rank the following categories in regards to their motivational value. The specific motivational statements are present only as examples.

Aggressive ____

It’s time to kick ass.

I’m going to dominate today.

I’m going to destroy the opposition


Strong and explosive

Definition of speed

A force today


Looking strong


I believe in me

Hold onto your faith

I can do it

I’m blessed

My faith is strong

God’s shining on me


This is my playground

This is a blast

Just having fun


Time to go to work

Let’s go

Let’s do it.



Take a deep breath

Feeling/looking calm


Affirming preparedness____

This is what I’m trained to do

I’ve worked hard for this

Best shape in life.

2)      During a team practice, instruct athletes to report which motivational categories are most desired to hear, and why. This usually leads to great discussion, and educates the athletes and their teammates and coaches about the types of motivational statements each athlete believes are most helpful. This discussion is often very insightful as teammates and coaches are often inaccurate in knowing which words, or word types, are optimally motivating. Sometimes it's good to have athletes explain how the words can be optimally stated (timing, tone, loudness, who).

3)      Immediately prior to the competitive event, usually as a warm-up exercise, instruct athletes to form a circle while sitting down or standing. A ball or other appropriate object can be thrown or rolled to a teammate (by each athlete) after shouting the chosen optimum motivational statement 3 times. The only rule is that each athlete must receive/pass the ball once prior to participating in additional rounds of statement exchanges (to assure equal participation). Athletes are then instructed to form two parallel lines. Athletes in the respective lines clap their hands and shout motivational statements (You’re going to dominate!) while each athlete takes a turn running between the two lines shouting the respective motivational statement (I’m/we’re gonna dominate!).  These exercises are especially important to assist the team in (1) being familiar with the motivational statements that are uniquely desired by athletes, (2) creating a positive environment that fends off potential disruptive thoughts, and of course, (3) raising motivation and arousal.   

The aforementioned motivational exercise may be adjusted to accommodate various contexts (e.g., culture, number of athletes, sport type, optimum arousal desired).   


Donohue, B., Miller, A., Beisecker, M., Houser, D., Valdez, R., Tiller, S., & Taymar, T. (2006). Effects of brief yoga exercises and motivational preparatory interventions in distance runners: Results of a controlled trial. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 40, 1-4.