As a practicing performance psychologist, I often get asked about how best it is to motivate a group. My answer often starts with a question or two!

“How do you relate to the players? What is it the group dynamic like?

Players most often play because they enjoy the sport. They turn up because they enjoy the sport and the challenge it presents.

They turn off it very often due to a poor relational dynamic – often fostered by inadequate managerial skills or through management facilitating or allowing a vacuum for player cliques or player unrest.

The job of changing this dynamic can be quite complex but addressing such issues early in a management’s tenure could be worth its weight in gold. Developing a code of team values can negate a lot of needless unrest and help maintain a positive motivational climate as players are guided by a code of set behaviours. Better still, facilitating players to set their own code of values / behaviours can prove even more powerful as it generates a sense of ownership and empowerment among players.

Self determination theory (Deci & Ryan 1986) – an established psychological theory suggests that involving people in taking the correct decisions in the best interests of the group is a lot more beneficial and sustainable than telling the group what to do!

Wales – semi finalists at Euro 2016 had a very strong team culture with Ian Mitchell as performance psychologist. The group was always priority despite having a world class player like Gareth Bale on the team. Each player was part involved in the forming of the team motto – “Together, Stronger” that became emblazoned across much of the promotional material around the Welsh team. The togetherness of Wales saw an element of self-policing in the squad, a feeling of not wanting to let each other down and of being able to be honest with each other to get the best out of each other. Reaching the semi final for the first time ever ensured that they were getting the most out of themselves.

Wales reaching potential
TOULOUSE, FRANCE – June 20, 2016: Wales Ashley Williams, Wales goalkeeper Owain Fon Williams and Sam Vokes celebrate progression into the knockout stages (Pic by Paul Greenwood/Propaganda)

The  New Zealand All-Black culture is one that is extremely strong presently. It puts the needs of the team above that of all individuals. The challenge is for each individual to leave the jersey in a better place than they found it – to add value to it.

However it wasn’t always this way. Team performance coach Gilbert Enoka went about changing the culture in 2007 – at a time when they struggled to fulfill their potential. The culture change was facilitated by bringing the players to camp – a 3 day conclave where team standards and behaviour expectations were addressed – the result being a transference of positive leadership from the coaches to the players.

Since then, the All Blacks are different to most other teams. Enoka suggests that the difference lies “in the transference of power from the coaches to the leadership group who set and enforce standards among the players. When aberrations occur, a player is answerable to his team-mates rather than the coaches. Ego has to be left at the door; there is a rigidly enforced “no d—head policy” in the squad.

According to Team Manager at the time Brian Lochore, their aim was to create an environment that would stimulate players and make them want to be part of. He came up with 6 words that would epitomise that ethos. The phrase “Better people make better All Blacks” still rings true to this day.

The old style domineering autocratic style of leadership works to a degree but it has a very short shelf life where players become discontented and unhappy. In fact Louis Van Gaal lost his job at Manchester United after a short spell in charge. From the outset, Van Gaal imposed a military style operation with stringent demands that didn’t sit well with players. His early pre-season training revolved around twice daily intense sessions including early morning starts and team meetings for a fortnight with very little rest or recovery leaving players shattered and unprepared for the start of the season. Despite player discontent however, Van Gaal’s continued to persist with his iron fist management style which he developed at Ajax in the mid-1990s. Such an approach failed him in his ability to foster a positive team dynamic and in 2013/14, tired and disaffected players had United’s worst start to a season in 25 years.


Players will remember if they felt valued by a coach. They will also remember if they felt let down, disrespected, under-valued etc. That is not to say that all players will feel they should always play. Players as experienced sports people will often have their own hierarchy as to who is most deserving of playing and most if they are honest, know where they stand. Once the choosing of the team is done in a fair and equitable manner, then most players won’t have an issue irrespective of whether they are chosen or not – but choosing it in a fashion that disrespects the group or individuals within the group can make things difficult to get the most out of the group.

People wont always remember a coach says, but they will always remember the way you made them feel.


Keith Begley is a member of BASES and an accredited sport psychologist with the Irish Institute of Sport.

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