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8 // The Psychology of Performance, Motivation, and Athlete Development

David Roche, a professional trail runner and ultramarathoner, runs down a trail with arms spread wide and a smile on his face.

Throughout the Craft of Coaching, we’ve heard from master coaches who emphasize the pivotal role that mental toughness plays in athletic performance. In What it Takes to Succeed, Coach Julie Young said it’s not only crucial, it’s tough to coach or cultivate this in athletes. In this module, we will explore the psychological and social side of performance with the help of experts who specialize in sport psychology, mental performance, and athlete development.

Woman sprinting on a track

How Sport Psychology Can Unlock Athletic Potential

Sport psychology is proving to be just as important—if not more so—than physiology, but how do you incorporate it into your coaching for the benefit of you and your athletes?

Let’s take what we know about the body and deepen our understanding of it by seeing how the mind and the world around us impact both physiology and performance. Think about how small adjustments, different settings, and opportunities for more athlete interaction might spark meaningful progression for your athletes.  

Triathletes running into the water at the swim start

What Is a Biopsychosocial Approach to Coaching?

We are products of our social, mental, and biological processes, but what does this mean for coaches and athletes? Andy Kirkland explains how to adjust training for better results.

On reading Michael Crawley’s book Out of Thin Air, Joe Friel described the Ethiopian running program as an entirely different way of looking at training. “Something that stood out for me was how much the athletes had in common—poverty, religion, diet, management, coaching, feelings, beliefs, feelings, routines, family structure, goals, etc.”  

He went on to describe how training is different in the Western world, and yet there is still plenty that athletes share in common. Furthermore, as coaches, it’s clear that training (and even living) in a common group has the potential to accentuate the similarities while also boosting performance. And as the biopsychosocial approach would suggest, there are clearly disadvantages to consistently training alone.  

Joe Friel suggests that this might explain why training camps always seem to jumpstart athlete development: “The weeklong camps I’ve put on over the last 20+ years were extremely good at bringing out the best in athletes, especially those who were slow to respond. That was the psycho-social side of group training. There was always a strong sense of community and everyone had a good time, which made them even better.” 

Let’s take a closer look at how you and your athletes are likely to benefit from changing things up.  

The biopsychosocial approach: a venn diagram shows biological, psychological, and social aspects of human health and performance

How the Biopsychosocial Approach Can Benefit Your Athletes

Coaches include some components of psychological and social development in an athlete’s preparation. But do you know why and how it works?

Sport psychologist Julie Emmerman challenges coaches to grow and develop professionally by doing these two things: 1) Know yourself, and 2) Be athlete-centered. She describes the powerful role that coaches play in the lives of their athletes. When we pursue our own personal and professional development, we can better meet the needs of others. This style of conscientious coaching moves both the relationship and performance from transactional to transformative.  

The Role of Self-Awareness & EQ in Performance Psychology

The Role of Self-Awareness and Emotional Intelligence in Performance Psychology

Dr. Julie Emmerman joins Emma-Kate Lidbury to talk about the role that self-awareness and emotional intelligence can have in performance psychology.

Like mental toughness, motivation can be a difficult lever to pull as a coach. Some athletes don’t have enough of it and others have too much. Rob Griffiths explains what motivation says about the individual through a psychological lens. It’s a topic that will shed light on your own athletic pursuits, and even what motivates you as a coach.  

triathlete looking out at the water at sunrise

Understanding Motivation and How It Affects Performance

Motivation is key to the performance psychology puzzle, dependent on fundamental human needs. If those needs are not met, an athlete’s passion for sport and their self-esteem can suffer.

In the compelling case study that follows, Rob Griffiths shares his process to help one of his clients make the critical adjustments to avoid burnout and restore performance. Motivational interviewing is the same strategy that has proven effective in empowering people to address and overcome addiction. Tina’s story is one that you are likely to recognize in your own athletes—a crisis that demands a new perspective and balance between sport and life.  

ITU triathletes racing on the bike

How to Harness or Stoke Motivation

Coach Rob Griffiths describes the method he used to help an athlete shift her passion and motivation to make positive changes and avoid burnout.

The biopsychosocial aspects of athlete development can be difficult to quantify. Even race results only tell one side of the story. What about enjoyment or longevity in sport? As Dr. Julie Emmerman pointed out, the coach-athlete relationship is a litmus test for success.  

Joe Friel digs into the research that has been done to quantify the potential for success based on how coach and athlete perceive each other in terms of closeness, commitment, and complementarity. Improve your score and you will retain your clients longer and grow your coaching business.  

Coach and athlete talking on bleachers

How to Score and Strengthen Your Relationship Game

The degree to which you cultivate a positive coach-athlete relationship will enhance your athletes’ race performances—and help you retain them as clients.

The research Joe Friel described in the previous article is rooted in trust and commitment in the coach-athlete relationship. Mental performance coach Jeff Troesch consults with coaches and their athletes to facilitate a stronger working relationship. Get his recommendation on how to build more effective working relationships with your clients.  

Young, athletic woman in compression running socks jogging on the beach

Which Comes First: Trust or Commitment?

Much to the surprise of some coaches, mental performance expert Jeff Troesch argues that you can have commitment from your athletes without trust. He explains how—and why—this is important.

Joe Friel has presented several legendary endurance coaches throughout the Craft of Coaching and it could be argued that any one of them was adept in the psychology of performance. Franz Stampfl cultivated belief in his athletes and they went onto record-breaking performances. Percy Cerutty did the same, but in his coaching methodology we can see a definitive biopsychosocial streak. His unconventional approach made him an outsider, but his athletes weren’t complaining.  

Illustrated headshot of Percy Cerutty

Profiles in Coaching: Percy Cerutty

A rigorous, holistic approach to mental and physical training steeped in high-intensity sessions and hill running at a beachfront property would likely appeal to today’s athlete. This Australian running coach was ahead of his time.