How to Keep Your Swimmers Motivated–from a Swim Coaches Perspective

In Psychology by Devon Jones2 Comments

If you’re a coach, trainer, mentor of any kind within any discipline, you’ve probably recognized by now that you have the unique position to motivate positive change in another persons behavior. Sometimes, however, having to motivate unwilling or unmotivated athletes can take its toll on us. Think of it as running a relay race alone, instead of splitting the difference and sharing the work load, you have to pick up the slack and do it all yourself, all the time. Eventually, that workload can make you a less effective motivator, that which your athlete so greatly needs.
As a coach, we actually feed off of the very motivation that we inspired within our athletes. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. 
The Scientific American published an article by Daisy Yuhas entitled ‘Three Critical Elements Sustain Motivation’ and starts off with this statement -“Got motivation? Without it, the long, difficult hours of practice that elevate some people above the rest are excruciating. But where does such stamina come from, and can we have some, too? Psychologists have identified three critical elements that support motivation…”

She highlights those three key categories in this order:

1) Autonomy 

2) Value 

3) Competence

All of which can be nurtured within our athletes in order to yield a greater result and make us better coaches.
Amongst the many sports that require great amounts of discipline – many will say swimming reigns supreme. Between the early morning and/or late night 2-3 hour swim practices, your dryland + strength training routine (if you don’t have one—we at RITTER got you covered), overlapping high school and club seasons, the 5+ meals you have to plan in one day, school and homework. Let’s not forget any form of social life you hope to have, and the list goes on; you need a ton of motivation!
Just saying your athlete needs motivation, however, is not enough. Being chased by a lion is motivating but most certainly not ideal. Once we escape (hopefully), poof, there goes our motivation. Yes, athletes need to be pushed to a limit that they alone couldn’t achieve. However we’ve all seen or heard of the coach who is just too hard on their athletes. After a while, they risk losing grip of their athletes’ overall output and effort levels.


How can a coach continue to get the best out of athletes on a consistent basis other than simply yelling out orders and demands? You must build a sense of autonomy within your team environment and your athletes experience. Psychologists Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan of the University of Rochester coined the “SDT Theory” to help define how we find motivation. Their research has shown that if athletes perceive a higher level of autonomy, they will be more likely to pursue a goal with greater purpose or drive. Feeling as if you have no choice in a matter, whether its of great importance or not, can weaken your internal motivation. Why not dedicate a portion of a practice and or week to allow your swimmers to choose a set or a theme for practice? This could very well not only increase willing participation but also you may discover some natural-born leaders to help lead the pack.


Alongside autonomy is a sense of perceived value that your athletes assign to a particular set, workout or the sport as a whole. Just like when we were kids and our loving mothers forced us to eat that extra helping of broccoli, when instead we fed it to our dogs. Yet when we became adults all we hear about is…”Kale this” or “Organic that” – we now clearly see the value in eating an adequate amount of fruits and vegetables and how maintaining a balanced diet has a direct correlation to our athletic ability. If your swimmers are not ‘bought in’, as it were, you may have a harder time to get them to push when they themselves believe they have nothing left. At the beginning of your next practice try explaining the focus of the the day and what your expectations are and how it will directly affect their success at the next meet. You’ve now given your swimmers the resources to execute with a sense of purpose because they understand the value and the overall goal.


Swimming is not a sport you can afford to be mediocre in or lack motivation. Frankly speaking, it requires a minimum amount of abilities and characteristics. Much like cross country running, for example, it can seem pretty straight forward from a broad point of view. Yet any experienced swimmer or runner will tell you it’s about the details that make a huge difference. As a coach, getting your athletes to focus on those details, leaving little to guess work, will undoubtedly increase their level of self competency. Yyuhas has this to say about competency – “In 2006 psychologists at the Democritus University of Thrace and the University of Thessaly in Greece surveyed 882 students on their attitudes and engagement with athletics during a two-year period. They found a strong link between a student’s sense of prowess and his or her desire to pursue sports.”
If you have a talented group of swimmers who have the raw talent to do great things but have never come to realize that if they don’t have the work ethic to back up those talents, they are more likely to give up when things get hard. Compared to those who already have a sense of accomplishment accredited to an invested effort in their craft.
Get your swimmers to focus on progress and victories both as a team and as an individual. Being able to see the correlation between the hard work they’ve been putting in day in and day out and its direct benefits, can increase their motivation to stick with it. 


The next time you feel like your swimmers aren’t motivated or you don’t have that extra pep in your step, evaluate one or all three of these areas and you most likely will find a red flag.
Here at RITTER Sports performance, we have accumulative experience to recognize that motivation is key to stick to your daily/weekly/yearly routine–whether you’re a swimmer or coach, AND we have interviewed thousands of swim coaches to get their take on this very topic/how they’ve built and maintain a GREAT team culture. To learn more about this, [CLICK HERE].


  1. Pingback: How to Keep Your Swimmers Motivated–from a Swim Coach’s Perspective – FINIS Inc

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