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How to encourage athletes and why your support matters

How to encourage athletes, and why your support matters

4 min read
  • Sport psychology

“The unselfish effort to bring cheer to others will be the beginning of a happier life for ourselves” – Hellen Keller

Athletes. We know them, we support them, they can be the hero or the villain. Watching them can make us feel a million different ways but one thing is for sure: they work hard.

The effort they put into their training and competitions is unmatched so the least we can do as spectators is show them our support and encourage them. However, is there a certain way to do this? Is one method of encouragement better than another? Can the way we encourage athletes impact their performance?

These are all questions that the sport psychology team at InnerDrive was keen to answer. Here’s what we found in our research…

Why should we encourage athletes?

It may seem like a simple question, but have you ever thought about why we actually encourage athletes? The obvious answer would be to motivate them. But it’s actually more helpful than this.

To understand this, try to place yourself in the shoes of an athlete before a big event. What would you be feeling? Common answers would include pre-competition anxiety, nerves, self-doubt or lack of confidence. But these aren’t the only thoughts piling up in their heads. They may also be thinking about the weather, delays, adapting to new competition plans…

All of these things could influence an athlete’s emotions, focus and especially their motivation – which could impact their quality of performance.

This is why encouragement is so important. It gives athletes that extra dose of motivation they may have lost in their periods of self-doubt. When athletes are cheered on, they feel supported. This reinforces their determination, increasing their physical effort in turn.

So, encouragement can enhance athletic performance – we just need to make sure our encouragement is helpful for the ones we are cheering on.

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What does research say about encouragement?

In a fascinating study, researchers spoke to a group of marathon runners to identify how they felt about the encouragement they received. After many surveys and interviews, the results showed there were two types of encouragement: Helpful encouragement and unhelpful or “misplaced” encouragement

    Helpful encouragement

    Helpful encouragement is encouragement that athletes believed improved their performance. It can be split into two categories:

    1. Instructional – Giving the athlete information that could improve their performance such as “keep the pace” and “run tall”.
    2. Motivational – Praise and belief in the athlete’s sporting efforts such a “you can do it” and “brilliant running”.

    Helpful encouragement creates a sense of pride and competence within athletes. Something as simple as clapping will show athletes you are proud of their efforts, which will increase their determination and improve their performance.

    Support is also very effective when its personalised. Shouting out athletes’ names or club names was seen to be very encouraging and really improve performance. Researchers also found that adding a sense of humour to your support was very useful. Phrases such as “run like Brad Pitt is at the end of the line” not only lightened the mood but increased motivation.

    Unhelpful or “misplaced” encouragement

    Unhelpful encouragement includes when information is inaccurate or said very early in the competition. This type of encouragement can also be split into two categories:

    1. Instructional – Distance-related information or effort-related critical comments such as “not far now” and “you’re letting yourself down by walking”.
    2. Misplaced motivational support – Appearance-related critical comments such as “you look terrible” or anything weight-related.

    It’s also worth noting that encouragement that seems helpful may become unhelpful depending on the context or how the athlete is feeling. For example, if an athlete is very fatigued and struggling, shouting “keep running” may not be encouraging but instead frustrating.

    Also, the inaccuracy of information was something that could turn a helpful comment into an unhelpful one. For example, telling a runner “only 1 mile to go” or “you’re over halfway” when they clearly aren’t was seen as very unhelpful and demotivating.

    How to encourage athletes with the IMPACT approach

    Giving the right kind of encouragement isn’t always easy, but luckily researchers created the “IMPACT” approach to help us out. It includes six different ways to provide helpful encouragement…

    1. Instructional – Try encouraging athletes to finish the race, competition, or match. Giving specific information will really help with this such as “run tall” and “keep your hips high”.
    2. Motivational – Praising athletes’ participation or effort can really encourage them. Comments such as “great effort” and “you’re inspiring others” are great for sourcing motivation.
    3. Personalised – Try to make eye contact, use names and other personal information when encouraging athletes. Examples of this could look like “Come on John!” or “Let’s go Lions!”
    4. Authentic – Say things you genuinely mean. Comments such as “you’re a role model” can really motivate others and increase performance.
    5. Confidence building – Expressing your belief in the athlete is a great way to boost their confidence. Actions such as applauding and cheering are very encouraging.
    6. Tailored to the distance – Try to be specific about the distance or time remaining. Rather than using subjective language like “not long left”, try “you’ve got 1k to go” or “5 minutes till the whistle”.

    Final thoughts

    The way you encourage athletes can really make a difference to their results. However, it’s crucial to remember that context and the athlete’s psychological state can influence the way they interpret your support.


    About the editor

    Bradley Busch

    Bradley Busch

    Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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