Why Athletes Skip Workouts and How to Improve Compliance

Why Athletes Skip Workouts and How to Improve Compliance

Most athletes have great intentions and good reasons to accomplish their goals, but we're all capable of being less than fully consistent and focused with our training efforts. The good news is that you can do something to improve their capacity.

The benefits of having expert advice are numerous. Having a coach to assess an athlete’s specific needs and then create a training plan to move that athlete from point A (sitting on the couch and dreaming of their next event) to point B (crossing the finish line of that event knowing they gave it everything they had) is worth its weight in gold. But what are you supposed to do when your athlete isn’t doing the work to move from point A to point B?

Ebb and Flow

It is natural for an athlete’s motivation to ebb and flow throughout a training cycle. There are also times when life presents additional stressors or unexpected challenges that inevitably occupy more of your athlete’s bandwidth. Getting in their workouts is no longer at the top of the list, and suddenly you have a clash between their priorities and your priorities.

When you put time and energy into the training plan, only to have the athlete you’re coaching not do any of their workouts, it’s easy to feel frustrated. At the end of the day, the athlete is the one in charge of their motivation, but there are things you can do to help set up a positive motivational climate. To understand what’s happening, it’s time to head to sports psychology school to define some terms and concepts and provide some helpful context.

What is Motivation?

In terms of sports psychology research, motivation is defined as the direction and intensity of one’s effort. “Direction,” meaning where you are directing your energy and effort, and “intensity,” meaning to what degree is that energy and effort being activated. You want to evaluate whether it’s the direction or the intensity that is being compromised. If it’s direction that means other things have come up that are pulling their focus. If it’s intensity, it could actually be a lack of confidence creating the lack of motivation.

Now– breaking it down further, there are two main motivators: intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is your innate desire to participate. You are engaging in an activity because you enjoy the activity; the activity brings you pleasure, and/or you find it personally meaningful. Extrinsic motivation is when you are motivated to engage in the activity because there are rewards you want to reap or punishments you want to avoid. For example, you exercise because you like how your body looks with defined muscles, or you race because of the accolades you receive, etc.

It’s OK to have extrinsic motivators, but if you are only extrinsically motivated, you’re at higher risk for burnout and a higher risk for jumping ship when you hit a setback. It’s your intrinsic motivation that helps with commitment and perseverance. Intrinsic motivation is necessary for accomplishing long-term goals.

Competence, Connectedness and Control

Now– we’re going to take it one step further.

Enter Self-determination theory. Self-determination theory posits that humans have an innate desire toward mastery and growth, and in order to achieve this growth, we have three basic human needs: competence, connectedness, and control. These three basic needs influence your feelings of intrinsic motivation:

Competence — People need to feel they can be successful with any given skill or task. Does your athlete feel they can complete the workouts you are asking them to do? You are more likely to skip out on things you feel you won’t be good at — and more likely to not skip out on things you feel capable of doing.

Connectedness — People need to have a sense of belonging. Do you have a strong connection with your athlete, and do they feel the two of you are a team? You are more likely to skip out on something if you feel like the people involved don’t really care about you and you don’t care about them.

Control — People need to feel they have some influence over their choices and goals. Does your athlete feel they have ownership over their goals and adjustments to training? You are more likely to skip out on a workout if you feel like it’s something you have to do versus something you want to do.

If your athlete isn’t doing their workouts, identifying which “C” is lacking is a great place to start.

  • Do they feel confident in their ability to accomplish this goal?
  • Do they feel a connection to you as their coach or to the greater athletic community they are a part of?
  • Are they excited to work toward this goal, or do they feel like it’s something they “should” be doing?

Anything you can do to increase your athlete’s feelings of competence, connectedness, or control will help to increase their intrinsic motivation.

Reasons your athlete may be skipping workouts

It’s easy to make assumptions and come to your own conclusions about why your athlete has started skipping their workouts:

  • They don’t value your services
  • They weren’t ready/good enough for a coach
  • They’re lazy and don’t want to do the work

These are the immediate reasons you come up with when you are feeling frustrated or disrespected and see those skipped workouts adding up. But more often than not, it has nothing to do with any of the above. Assuming you’ve ruled out any physical reasons that an athlete might be skipping their workouts (sometimes the issue is physical and not mental), here are some other possibilities:

  • They couldn’t do the workout on the day you had it planned and didn’t know-how to adjust the plan to the reality of their schedule
  • Life tipped the motivation balance in another direction (i.e., family emergency, work stress — when I got a puppy, ALL workouts went out the window!)
  • They bit off more than they could chew
  • They are embarrassed and/or don’t want to disappoint you
  • They aren’t feeling confident about their ability to do the workouts

The point is, you won’t know the real reason if you don’t have a conversation about it. An open and non-judgmental conversation. When you approach it this way, you can come together to problem-solve and troubleshoot solutions instead of feeling there is someone to blame. You’re not the villain, and they’re not the villain. You are a team.

How You Can Help

  • Have a heart-to-heart
  • It’s time to have an honest and non-judgmental conversation. If they think you are going to judge them, you’re not going to get the information you need in order to make adjustments to their plan. It’s one thing to say, “Hey, I noticed you’ve missed a couple of workouts, and I just want to check in and see if you’re doing OK,” versus saying– “Look, if you skip your workouts, I can’t help you.”
  • Schedule regular check-ins. Regular communication can help you troubleshoot problems when they are guppies instead of waiting until they are sharks. If you’re not talking, then you won’t know why they’re skipping out.
  • Build their confidence
  • Self-efficacy is situation-specific self-confidence. The best way to build self-efficacy is through performance accomplishments. Set up a progression of goals they can accomplish in training to help build confidence.
  • Make sure you are giving positive feedback. Don’t assume your athletes know you think they are doing a good job. You need to explicitly let them know. You don’t have to hold their hand every second, but if you want to boost their motivation, be sure to give them some direct kudos every once in a while.
  • Boost their commitment
  • Make sure their “want to” didn’t turn into a “have to.” One of the ways to strengthen commitment is to get reacquainted with why you wanted it in the first place and why do you want it now? (You can do this as a coach too!). They need to reconnect to their “why.” Why is this goal important to them?
  • Create opportunities for your athlete to train with a group or a buddy. You are less likely to flake when you are accountable to someone in addition to yourself. If your athletes aren’t local to you, think of creative ways to create that accountability virtually (i.e., everyone sends a post-ride pic to a group thread, etc.).
  • Be honest with yourself
  • Think about your “recruiting” process and be honest with yourself about who you want to work with. If you find yourself feeling annoyed with certain athletes or resentful when it’s time to set up a meeting with a particular person that is not your ideal client.
  • Assess your marketing to see if you need to change anything in order to attract your ideal coaching client. Make sure the language you are using is speaking to the client you want to work with.

You also will have athletes that decide to get a coach to work toward accomplishing a goal, not realizing what it would actually take in order to accomplish that goal. They didn’t know until the work began that they weren’t ready, able, or willing to commit to what they needed to do to be successful. That can be a hard realization to come to terms with, and they may need some encouragement and help with adjusting their goal. Remember that an athlete’s motivation is up to them, but there are things you can do to increase the likelihood that they will get their workouts in, and you will both be celebrating their victory when they move from point A to point B.

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