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Psychology of Training Football Players

Improved Performance and Success

Gilson, Todd A. PhD

Author Information
Strength and Conditioning Journal: December 2015 - Volume 37 - Issue 6 - p 102-108
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000164


When training football athletes, a great deal of care is spent on physiological adaptations and the learning of complex motor skill patterns to attain great levels of sport proficiency. To those involved, this statement is of no surprise, as athletes themselves have reported strength training is an important component for future sport success (19). However, although adaptive physiological changes and motor skill proficiencies are essential for achievement (both in competitive sport settings and in practice for sport), psychological components should not be overlooked. Many times, training sessions occur early in the day and/or after the athlete has spent the entire day in class. In these instances, one's motivation to simply attend and give effort can be a hurdle that must be overcome for training benefits to be realized. Additionally, strength training sessions in particular can invoke a sense of self-doubt as, for example, athletes may arrive at the weight room, look over their lifting card for the day, and question whether they can successfully complete the prescribed sets and repetitions. Thus, in addition to motivation, developing a firm foundation of confidence—especially in the face of setbacks—is paramount for athletes' training for the sport of football (1). In this article, the psychological principles of motivation and confidence will be examined through both a theoretical lens and by providing tangible action steps coaches can implement to help improve athletes' performance and eventual goal attainment.


In the strictest sense, motivation is defined as a process that influences one's initiation, direction, magnitude, perseverance, continuation, and quality of behavior that is directed towards achieving a goal (16). The problem with this (or any) definition is that it does little to help one understand the process of how to motivate, and this disconnect can produce frustration for both practitioners and athletes. For instance, strength and conditioning coaches may dictate football athletes' initiation, direction, magnitude, perseverance, and continuation in training by mandating the number of training sessions one must attend, specifying the location, duration, and volume of work to be completed, and implementing a punishment/reward structure for failing to comply. However, athletes who are subjected to these conditions may feel the parameters are inappropriate, and therefore, respond with behavior that is more negative than the coaching staff expects. Gilson, et al. (10) noted this effect, as NCAA division I athletes' motivation to engage in strength training sessions included preparing for stronger/tougher opponents, receiving praise from significant others, fear of becoming unhealthy, or just not wanting to get punished by coaches. With this diverse range of motivations present on most teams, a better way to examine motivation—than simply classification of differences—is through an understanding of athletes' reasons behind their behavior.

Self-determination theory (SDT) provides insight into the antecedents, mediators, and consequences of motivation (6). Central to SDT is the notion that athletes' motivation ranges on a continuum with 2 anchors, amotivation and intrinsic motivation (Table). Amotivation is the complete absence of motivation, and thus, no subsequent action to complete a goal, whereas intrinsic motivation is characterized by active and free choice to engage in an activity on the part of the athlete because of the pleasure it produces. In between these 2 end points are various forms of extrinsic motivation and inherent practical suggestions for coaches.

Overview of SDT

As highlighted in the Table, the most controlling form of motivation an athlete can experience is external regulation. Here, athletes participate in strength training with the aim of obtaining an external reward (e.g., new lifting shoes) or preventing punishment (e.g., public embarrassment or extra physical conditioning). Football players characterized to be motivated by introjected regulation have a greater degree of volitional choice—when compared with external regulation—but only so much as it satisfies external pressures. For instance, an offensive lineman may put forth maximum effort during conditioning drills when his specific sport coach is present and then return to a state of “going through the motions” for the strength and conditioning staff. Once athletes cross into identified regulation, their reasons for participation are considered to be self-directed. This is a critical distinction in SDT because now although the athlete may have external reasons for participation (e.g., trophies, notoriety, etc.), the individual makes the autonomous choice to partake in the activity. An example of this regulation type can be seen with a starting running back who participates in football training because he enjoys being the “go-to” player on the team and the media attention that accompanies this role. Finally, at the level of integrated regulation, athletes immerse themselves into activities coaches deem important because they share the same end goal(s). Therefore, although a coach may control the behaviors of athletes by dictating practice and training schedules, individual athletes believe these decisions align with their own motives/goals, and therefore, will produce successful outcomes.

Because the strength and conditioning coach is one of the most important figures to enhance sport performance (19), he/she is well positioned to augment the adaptive forms of athlete motivation. The first way to accomplish this goal is through the appropriate use of external rewards. Readdy et al. (21) noted that even well-intentioned reward structures can actually impair athletes' motivation if not introduced and implemented correctly. Specifically, the authors examined the motivational consequences of an off-season reward program that allocated points to NCAA division I football players based on physical effort during training sessions and academic performance in the classroom. Results highlighted how although the design and purpose of the program was admirable (e.g., players could earn a special dinner or “opt-out” of conditioning as punishment), athletes believed the foundation of the program rested on the goal of aligning players' behavior to organizational norms and were devoid of player input. Furthermore, athletes interviewed about their experiences after completing the off-season program noted that although the tangible rewards were nice, they did little to impact motivational levels of players at the division I level. Therefore, coaches considering implementing a reward structure in relation to training should focus on rewards that provide players a greater level of autonomy in their football-related activities. As an example, research in the area of music and physical performance has shown that introducing specific types of music can increase aerobic and anaerobic performance (3). Therefore, allowing athletes to first specify the parameters for receiving a reward and then permitting those (who achieve the pre-established guidelines) to select the warm-up music for a training session can help to advance athletes' motivation by satisfying their desire to control aspects of their training.

In addition to the basic need for autonomy when engaging in a task, another important tenant of SDT that can influence motivational levels is the type of feedback (or lack thereof) athletes receive. Specifically, SDT argues that for optimal motivation, individuals need to feel competent in the skills they are executing. When examining the sport of football, a major source of competence is derived from coaches' feedback related to progress/performance. Although most coaches know that feedback can be an important factor to elicit increased effort during a challenging task, it is important to understand how the ramifications of feedback also impact athletes' long-term motivation. For example, it has been shown that during a shuttle run task, participants who received more detailed feedback that encouraged individuals to give future effort (i.e., strong positive feedback) valued the task more than individuals who received feedback of a benign nature that reaffirmed average performance was acceptable (i.e., mild positive feedback; 18). Thus, from an SDT perspective, the more a football athlete values a task, the more intrinsically motivated he will be, and thus, actively work to better himself during the activity by engaging in extra practice and being more receptive to feedback from coaches. However, all strength and conditioning coaches know that reinforcing poor behavior/effort with comments like “Good job” is not beneficial or practical for adaptive motivational changes to occur in the future. Thus, when delivering critical feedback, coaches should focus on 3 key principles to enhance motivation (25). First, coaches should own their message directly, stating exactly what the problem is, why it is important, and what can be done as corrective measures. Second, coaches need to deliver a message rooted in facts (not opinion or sarcasm) that focuses on one thing. For instance, a football linebacker who fails to reach adequate depth during a squat repetition benefits little from a comment of, “You know that's terrible, right?” Instead, a coach should respond with, “Travis, I need you to get 2 inches lower. Reaching that depth will activate the most muscle fibers and give us the best result. Focus on driving your hips back and keep your chest up and out on the descent.” Not only does this comment satisfy this second principle but also it shows that the coach values Travis because he/she is willing to spend time to help him improve. Finally, coaches should aim to deliver feedback as soon as possible after a successful performance. Research has noted that providing individuals feedback after a successful attempt helps enhance future motivation (28). Furthermore, continually offering up feedback after failure cannot only be redundant—because skilled individuals often know how they performed—but can also impede future learning, as participants may rely more heavily on outside feedback in the future.

The third and final psychological need (hypothesized by SDT) of individuals is the desire to connect with, be understood, and valued by others. In particular, coaches who work to build and develop relationships with their athletes can positively influence motivation. When athletes feel a strong sense of belonging and are secure in the environment in which they interact, it is more likely that they will internalize goals, values, and norms being conveyed. This notion is especially important for football coaches because it is known that male athletes have strong masculine athletic identities, which can even increase during their time associated with the sport (24). Thus, as athletes progress through college, they will look to athletic authority figures for a sense of connection and belonging. Unfortunately, there is no “readymade” curriculum coaches can use with athletes, as relating to athletes will vary based on the organizational culture, team dynamics, and personalities of the individual athletes. Instead, coaches must consciously devote time to better understanding and appreciating the athlete as a person—separate from physical abilities and football competence—which will require significant time on a team with 100+ individuals. The sum changes in football players' motivation based on enacting these principles may very well be modest; however, as Readdy et al. (21) stated when interviewing a NCAA division I college football head coach, “often, less than (5% change in motivation) does create the disparity between a win and a loss” (p. 170). Thus, empowering athletes is integral for those who train contact sport participants, as it will result in greater fulfillment and future effort levels, both of which are linked to winning (20).


Considered by many scholars, practitioners, and athletes to be the “holy grail” of psychological concepts, a firm sense of self-confidence is vital for football athletes—both when competing and training. Confidence can be distinguished by its state- or trait-like nature. For instance, a member of a football team may have trait-like confidence (i.e., stable across multiple domains) in his physical abilities, such as running and/or jumping that serve as prerequisites to make the team. However, because football is a sport of specialized positions and responsibilities, the examination of state-like confidence (i.e., fluctuating based on specific task/challenge) may be more applicable. This latter form of confidence (known as self-efficacy to scholars) is defined as the belief an athlete has to organize and execute the courses of action necessary to produce given attainments (1). Furthermore, because self-efficacy levels are in a constant state of flux, understanding the sources of self-efficacy allows strength and conditioning coaches to positively influence this variable for athletes.

As evident in the Figure, the sources of self-efficacy work together to create an athletes' “composite” confidence level; however, for the purposes of the following section, each source has been separated out so the reader can better appreciate how they individually operate. Predominantly, athletes derive their self-efficacy levels from past experiences (12). This first source of self-efficacy, known as mastery experiences, is the most influential because it provides a first-person authentic experience of capabilities. Or more simply, if an athlete has done it successfully once, he is more likely to believe he can do it again. Another important self-efficacy source is vicarious experiences. It is known that observing another athlete perform a similar skill can influence one's self-efficacy level. In a classic study, Weinberg et al. (26) demonstrated that when 2 participants competed against each other in a muscle leg endurance task, the individuals who were informed that their competitor was recovering from an injury displayed higher self-efficacy levels (and superior performances) as compared with participants who believed their opponent was a varsity athlete. Progressing to the source that coaches most often use to manipulate self-efficacy levels, verbal persuasion can be an important factor as athletes form self-efficacy beliefs. Indeed, past research focused on weightlifting performance has shown that encouragement (even erroneous encouragement in an attempt to convince the individual that he is stronger than he believes) resulted in increased self-efficacy and performance levels (9,279,27). However, it should be noted that for this source of self-efficacy to have the greatest effect, the credibility of the persuader is also important; thus, repeated manipulation could result in the athlete not trusting the practitioner in the future. Finally, the physiological state of the athlete can also impact self-efficacy levels, as perceptions of excitement, fatigue, or nervousness when recovering from an injury or getting ready to take the field in the home opener can result in corresponding positive or negative changes in self-efficacy levels.

Sources of self-efficacy.

The power of self-efficacy is hard to understate. In the seminal meta-analysis comparing self-efficacy and performance in sport, encompassing 45 studies where self-efficacy and resulting performance were directly measured, a positive correlation of r = 0.38 was found (17). Furthermore, in the strength and conditioning environment specifically, Gilson et al. have also highlighted the importance of self-efficacy through a variety of studies. Exploring the link between self-efficacy and performance for division I football players over an 8-month period, Gilson et al. (11) found that athletes with stronger self-efficacy beliefs significantly increased their 1 repetition maximum squat performance at critical junctures. The next step in this series of studies was to explore the underlying psychological mechanisms responsible for performance gains. To this effect, athletes were asked to report their self-efficacy, effort levels, and effort goals for strength and conditioning training sessions over a 5-month period. As is to be expected, athletes who were more efficacious desired to give more effort and subsequently rated their past effort as greater than those athletes with lower self-efficacy levels (14). However, as an additional methodological step in this work, the strength and conditioning coach also graded each athlete's effort independently (and this score was weighted into athletes' final effort score), which further corroborated the self-efficacy/effort relationship. Finally, because football athletes engage in strength and conditioning training sessions under less than ideal circumstances (e.g., skipping breakfast for an early morning lift), possible inhibitors of maximum effort were explored in relation to self-efficacy levels. Once again, those athletes who reported higher self-efficacy levels were better able to regulate their behavior and continue to give effort towards their end goal (13). Taken as a whole, it is clear to see the benefits of increased self-efficacy in relation to strength and conditioning and how cultivating this psychological construct should be of utmost importance for coaches and athletes alike.

Increasing self-efficacy can be an arduous task because confidence gains do not happen in a linear fashion. Much like sport performances, success is intermixed with failure; thus, psychological skills offer the ability to help boost self-efficacy levels at important times while also buffering the negative effects of disappointment. One mechanism readily available at a coach's disposal is teaching—and then implementing—goal setting with athletes. In studies examining the positive outcomes of goals for weight training and exercise participants, it has been found that when individuals are guided in setting appropriate goals by others with influence (i.e., coaches), they outperform those who do not specify a goal and those who select their own proficiency standard (2,82,8). Examining these results from a self-efficacy perspective, when a coach makes a statement to a football athlete about what he can accomplish, the coach is using verbal persuasion, and furthermore, the athlete views this statement as an affirmation about what he can successfully accomplish in the future. Once this initial suggestion is performed, strength and conditioning coaches are encouraged to use a multiple goal setting strategy with their athletes (4). With this approach, goals are set in relation to the outcome desired (i.e., winning, achieving a starting roster spot), the performance level to attain (i.e., amount of weight lifted, effort displayed), and the process necessary to produce the desired changes (i.e., getting the required amount of sleep, attending training room sessions after an injury). By implementing a multiple goal setting strategy not only can athletes easily track progress and modify goals—at a variety of levels—but also multiple sources of self-efficacy (e.g., mastery experiences and vicarious experiences), which are also infused in this process, help build a firm foundation of confidence, and prevent damaging effects to self-efficacy when experiencing failure.

Another psychological skill that athletes can use to increase self-efficacy and performance is self-talk. Akin to the conversation that takes place inside one's own head, self-talk can either positively or negative influence self-efficacy. For instance, Cutton and Hearon (5) conducted a case study with a former World Champion powerlifter and reported that this athlete used self-talk to both motivate himself and provide instruction for how to complete difficult lifts. Furthermore, when this athlete experienced negative self-talk (e.g., doubting his abilities), he immediately followed up with a positive self-talk statement highlighting his past success, thereby boosting his self-efficacy. From this example, it is clear to see how mastery experiences and verbal persuasion can work in tandem when implementing this psychological skill. In addition, self-talk has also been shown to have near immediate effects in athletes' ability in the vertical jump. Specifically, rugby athletes who participated in motivational (e.g., encouraging statements) or instructional (i.e., “how-to” statements) self-talk displayed greater hip rotation velocity than teammates who did not practice any form of self-talk before a vertical jump trial (7). Thus, teaching athletes to mentally create a “script” to use when undertaking a physical challenge can help to bolster self-efficacy and performance.

Finally, spending time using imagery can serve the purposes of motivating an athlete during a difficult skill performance, correcting a past mistake, or aiding in recovery after an injury—all of which can enhance self-efficacy levels. At its core, imagery is the process of mentally rehearsing with the absence of most external stimuli (e.g., crowd, opponent, etc.). Studies examining the relationship between imagery use and self-efficacy have found that highly confident collegiate football players use imagery more often when compared with their low confident teammates (23). Moreover, when exploring the types of imagery used by athletes, who are required to engage in strength and conditioning sessions, athletes most often used appearance imagery (22). This form of imagery can augment one's effort and perseverance levels by athletes spending time visualizing the physical benefits of training (i.e., becoming more athletic, more powerful, and more explosive in their sport). Furthermore, Lebon et al. (15) found that in relation to lower-body strength gains, individuals who participated in a 6-week imagery training program were significantly stronger than a control group devoid of imagery use. Although athletes may feel somewhat awkward when first engaging in imagery, it is important to note that this psychological skill (as well as goal setting and self-talk) requires consistent practice for greatest effectiveness. Much like physical training for the sport of football, one cannot “microwave” a mentally strong athlete the day before competition (see Appendix, for guidelines on how these psychological skills can be implemented).


Psychological consequences (both good and bad) are experienced every time an athlete interacts with a teammate, coach, or attempts to successfully complete a task/drill. As a result, strength and conditioning coaches possess a great deal of influence regarding the psychological makeup of football athletes. By working to create an environment that allows for athlete autonomy (within reason), providing informational feedback, and expressing a genuine concern for athletes, coaches can better motivate individuals by nudging them towards intrinsic motivation. Likewise, understanding how the 4 key sources of self-efficacy interact when athletes train for football, practitioners are well suited to teach and implement psychological skills to produce adaptive changes related to individuals' goals, effort displayed, and perseverance in the face of failure. Therefore, as a first step, coaches should reflect on the practices they use and how these behaviors might influence athletes' motivation and confidence based on the information discussed in this article. Simply put, every decision and interaction has the potential to positively or negatively influence athletes' motivation and confidence levels, and therefore, the ramifications of these decisions should be considered when designing and executing training programs for football athletes.


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motivation; confidence; sport psychology; football

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