Keeping Players Motivated with Great Practice Activities

November 18, 2020

Use our six criteria for a motivating practice activity to grade your own practice activities

Every coach should want players to be highly motivated during a practice activity. But where does that motivation come from? Are some players just motivated from the inside? Or does motivation arise from the practice activities? In this article, I want to convince you that your practice design has the biggest impact on player motivation.

But let’s take a step back: why do you want motivated players? We know from sport psychology research that motivated players are more likely to stay engaged in a practice activity and give more effort. They will persist when the activity becomes difficult. They will work through fatigue. Arguably, they will learn more from the activity, which will help their performance in games. And they’ll feel more satisfied with their sport experience and want to come back for the next practice. Those are all good things.

We also know that practice activities need to be a close representation of the “master” sport. So, for invasion/ball sports like basketball and soccer, practice activities that don’t use a ball are probably not ideal because they are too abstract. And for racing sports like running or swimming, high training volume without much racing can lead to “mindless” training where technique and form often suffer. Motor learning research shows us that activities that are more game-like and allow for implicit learning are more likely to develop skills that last in the long run. So, we want to use practice activities that have a close connection to the sport itself.

But if you aren’t familiar with sport psychology or motor learning research, it can be difficult to understand what all of this research means and how it applies to your own practices. No worries! We have developed these six criteria for you to follow along and evaluate your own practice activities. The six criteria we use to evaluate a practice are evidence-based. You can also download our grading form and follow along with one of your own favorite practice drills.

Clear Goal

Does this practice activity have a clear goal that does not take much explanation? Think about it. When you instruct your players to start this activity, how much time do you spend explaining the object of the game? And how much does this activity relate to the sport? Some of our research has shown us that players are more likely to ask why a drill or practice activity will help them get better. But if your goal is very clear, then you won’t need to spend much time explaining why players need to do it.

Flow theory tells us that when an activity has a very clear goal, players are more likely to be engaged and motivated. I like to compare practice activities to video games. Most video games have a very clear goal that people can figure out even without a tutorial. The rules of a typical video game constrain the possibilities for what you can do: don’t go out of bounds, don’t fall off a cliff, don’t let the little creatures eat you. Is your practice activity that easy to understand?

Rapid Competence Feedback

Does the player get immediate and clear competence feedback? Competence feedback tells a player how well they are performing the drill or activity. If players can see how well they are performing right after they perform, this will help keep them engaged in the activity, and help them persist to get better.

Competence feedback can come in two different ways: sensory feedback and augmented feedback. Sensory feedback is perceived directly by the player; for example, a basketball going through the basket, a tennis serve hitting a target, a soccer goal going into the net. A coach does not need to tell the player anything about whether they have achieved the goal. Augmented feedback comes from sources outside of a player’s direct perception; for example, a video-replay of a performance, a coach giving the player some information about how to move their body or how to control a ball.

Which type of feedback is better? In most cases, sensory feedback is better for learning a skill. The reason why is complicated, but the short answer is that the bodily systems that control movement are more tightly linked with the systems that handle perception. When coaches ask players to simply “react” and “not overthink,” I think coaches are intuitively understanding these perception-action systems that control our movement. Another benefit of drills with good sensory feedback is that a player can do this activity independently from the coach. This could be really important in the age of COVID-19, when many players are training on their own.

Augmented feedback is needed sometimes when a player is trying to change how they perform a skill or change how they move. I still think the best example of this is rapid video feedback. It is very common for diving coaches to set-up a TiVo (DVR) on a 30-second delay. After a diver performs a dive, they can see an instant-replay of their performance, and they can use this augmented feedback to make needed changes for their next dive. This kind of set-up can be useful in a variety of sports, but it is usually best and most practical when used for “closed” skills like hitting a baseball, soccer penalty kicks, or basketball free throws. I also feel that video feedback has a very short shelf-life – maybe five minutes – and it’s most useful in situations where the player can make an immediate correction or change on their next set of reps. This is why I think video review of a performance two days after a game has some limits for changing the way a player performs a skill.

So, the bottom line – how fast does the drill provide competence feedback? If it comes immediately, and it comes from the drill itself (sensory feedback), it’s better.

Scalable Challenge Point

What is a challenge point? A challenge point is the point in a practice activity where the task is difficult enough so that the player is experiencing about as much success as they are experiencing failure. For example, in drills or activities where a player is successful when they hit a target, the ideal challenge point is determined by the size of the target and maybe by the player’s distance from the target. A skilled player might have a smaller target compared to a novice player. Typically, we give our best effort and focus when the challenge point is around 50/50 success/failure. But that challenge point will be different for each player, so it’s important that a coach can scale the challenge point up or down depending on the skill of the player.

Challenge points aren’t just about hitting a target. They can be scaled up and down during small-sided games. For example, if you have a 4-on-3 game, and the defense is really good and keeps stopping the offense, you can scale the challenge point by pulling one of the defenders and making the drill a 4-on-2. This way, the offense is more likely to be successful, and the defenders will have to work harder to be successful. This approach also allows you to mix players of differing skill levels, which can be a good way to bring varsity and junior-varsity players together – four JV players can take on two varsity players.

A challenge-point can also be a time goal in sports like swimming or running. The athlete might be asked to do a set number of repeat runs or swims that beat a certain time-goal. If the challenge point is matched to the athlete’s capability, instead of the same goal for every athlete, it is more likely to keep each individual athlete motivated.

A drill where you can quickly and easily scale the challenge point up or down is a good drill to use. It allows you to respond to a practice situation rapidly so that you can keep players engaged throughout the whole drill.


Mastery is the process of continual self-improvement. When players do an activity that shows their steady improvement, they will be more likely to persist and engage with that drill.

One of my favorite swimming drills was called “beat the champ.” The goal was for swimmers to do a set of 10 50-yard repeats and beat as many of the splits of the national champion in the 500-yard freestyle from the previous year. At the beginning of a season, a swimmer might only be able to beat 4 of the 10 splits. But by mid-season, they could often beat all ten splits, which demonstrated to the player that they had improved. And if we wanted to keep doing the drill, I could just scale the challenge point by giving them less rest in between repeats.

I cannot overstate how important it is for a drill or game to show the player how they have improved over time. There is no better evidence than practice performance. It means so much more than a coach’s compliment. However, in many cases, it is important for the coach to point out to each athlete how they have improved in a drill like this one. If the coach only gives attention to the athlete who performed the best, it takes the focus away from continual self-improvement and puts the focus on the athletes with the most skill. Instead, try calling out the athlete who made the most improvement from the last time you did the drill. Reward improvement and you keep the athletes striving to beat their own personal best, and you keep them engaged and motivated.


Autonomy is a player’s amount of “choice and voice” in a practice activity. Generally, when players have some freedom to be creative, to have some control over decision-making during an activity, this will stoke players’ motivation. Small-sided scrimmage games at the end of a practice can be a great place to relinquish some control over the practice environment and let the players play. In these situations where adults and coaches are not giving orders, they are more likely to get into the mindset of a pick-up game, where players are running the show. These types of games naturally create opportunities for leadership to emerge, which is an important part of holistic athlete development.

It’s also important to consider how the coach rewards creativity and independent decision-making. What if players make mistakes? If coaches reinforce their effort in trying to figure out a problem on their own, players will be more likely to take risks in other situations (like games). Risk-taking and independent decision-making aren’t always valued by coaches, but they are an important part of players improving their game skills. Not all players may embrace creativity and independent decision-making and might need some time or some coaxing to attain this level of independence. But if they see other players rewarded for it, they’ll be more likely to try it themselves.

Connection with Teammates

Drills and practice activities give coaches the ability to mix-up training groups, such as mixing varsity and junior varsity players. A fifteen-minute activity gives you a space where new social bonds can form amongst teammates, and where established social pecking-orders can be disrupted. These opportunities are essential for helping athletes build a sense of connection (sometimes called a sense of relatedness in sport psychology). This is often one of the big reasons that kids seek out sport opportunities – they want an opportunity to meet new people and feel part of a group. But if drills are always done with the same groupings, they don’t provide the opportunity to form new social bonds.

Grading Your Practice Activities

In our graduate course on the psychology of coaching, we ask our students to grade a practice activity using each of these six criteria. Many students often find that their favorite practice drills grade very well, and to nobody’s surprise, these activities are also player favorites. But many students also have the opposite experience. They take a practice activity that they feel should be very motivating, but when they grade it out using these criteria, they find that the drill doesn’t look so good after all. However, they can look at each of the six criteria and determine which ones they can tinker with to make the drill more interesting and motivating. I think this is a great activity for coaching staffs to engage in – to take your ten most common practice activities and grade each one of them against these criteria. See which ones stack up well, and which ones need some improvement.

You can download our form and grade out your own practice activities if you want to try this yourself.

Do all practice activities need to be motivating?

I can hear some skeptics asking why every practice activity needs to be motivating, interesting, engaging, or fun. “Sometimes you need to work hard, and it’s not always possible to make that fun.” That’s a fair point. But what’s the balance of grinding, hard work in a typical practice compared to activities that are more motivating? If your players are dragging, maybe it’s time to inject some more interest and engagement into your practice activities. And don’t assume that just because a practice activity is fun and engaging that it somehow means that players are not working hard. In many cases, the most motivating practice activities can get players more active than ever before.