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Improving Attribution Patterns for Strength and Conditioning Contexts

by Andrew D. Gillham, PhD, CSCS,*D, CC-AASP
NSCA Coach April 2015
Vol 4, Issue 2

Available to:
Members only

One challenge is to critically examine your own successes and failures to find a way to attribute the outcomes to something you can control and can change for the future. This could be as small as how you deal with a single person, or it could be a more in-depth examination of how you provide feedback to athletes and how you work with your own staff.

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Attributions are the reasons people give to explain why something happened. An athlete executing a successful lift could believe she succeeded due to her own efforts in learning the lift because the lift was easy or because she simply got lucky. The specific attribution pattern adopted by an athlete is crucial to their long-term development and is something that coaches can directly influence. The path to assist athletes in improving their attribution patterns is filled with complexities and internal biases, both on the part of the athlete and the coach (5). Attribution stem from perceived control; the payoff of navigating the complexities of attribution patterns is an increase in perceived control. Having a sense of control is related to components of Achievement Goal Theory, Self-Determination Theory, intrinsic motivation, athlete self-efficacy and self-confidence, and leadership approaches where the development of trust between leader and follower is critical (8,9,10,13). The purpose of this article is to show some ways that coaches can directly impact the level of perceived control that athletes experience. 

Attribution Basics

A basic depiction of an attribution model is a 2x2 framework with stability and control serving as the dimensions, leaving four possible combinations: internal-stable, internal-unstable, external-stable, and external-unstable (Table 1) (12). This basic description only scratches the surface, but it should serve well as an introduction to understanding attribution. Essentially, the model shows how each person makes a judgement about why something happened along dual-continuums of stability and controllability. Perceived control is simply the degree to which the athlete felt she personally could have impacted the situation. The stability dimension refers to how likely the same outcome will be in the future given similar circumstances. That future-looking component is why helping athletes improve their attribution patterns can lead to improved performances for both the coach and the athlete. An athlete that attributes failure to something internal-stable (e.g., “I just cannot do a power clean coach; it is too hard for me”) is unlikely to devote the time and effort required to properly execute the lift safely. Conversely, the athlete that attributes the same failure to something internal-unstable (e.g., “That power clean is tough; I need to ask coach for some more tips”) believes she has some control over the situation and, thus, is more likely to work to improve her performance.

Table 1Depiction of Attribution Model (12)  


Internal Control

External Control








Attribution Biases

Adding significant complexity to understanding attribution is that all people suffer from attribution bias, which has been found across contexts (6). The base layer of the bias is that we all tend to attribute successful outcomes to something we did and failure outcomes to some external cause. There are at least two major competing perspectives for why this occurs (6). One perspective asserts this is a self-confidence preservation technique in that we all want to take credit for the things that go well, while looking to blame failures on anyone or anything not ourselves (7). Acknowledging when we accomplish something that we wanted to achieve is consistent with how self-efficacy and self-confidence are developed (13). The other dominant explanation for attributional bias is rooted in simple logic (6,7). Regardless of the task, rarely was failure the intended outcome. Therefore, if something does go wrong, it must be due to something that we could not have foreseen and could not have controlled. Athletes have this bias, but so do coaches and spectators (5). Compounding matters is that the more someone identifies with the team or school, the greater the bias (11).

Greater bias means that the more devoted a coach is, the more likely they will fall into the bias that successes, on the field or in the training facility, are of their own making, while unsuccessful outcomes are to be blamed elsewhere. When a coach is heavily biased in this way and athletes blame their poor execution of a complex lift on the fact that the task is difficult, the coach is likely to more-or-less shrug and agree that the lift is difficult. That combination rolls on together, reinforcing that this particular lift is challenging to execute. As a result, sooner or later that lift simply gets written out of the training program in favor of something easier for the athletes to execute. Conversely, the ideal response is for the coach to first look inward and attribute the athlete’s poor performance to the coach’s own incomplete teaching of the technique necessary for the athlete to properly execute the lift. The message this ideal scenario sends to the athlete is that with greater effort (i.e., internal-unstable) the athlete will eventually be able to execute the lift properly.

This interplay also affects the trio of sport coach, strength and conditioning coach, and athlete. It is rather common for sport coaches experiencing a losing season to look elsewhere (i.e., external-unstable or external-stable) to explain why the team is not performing well. The strength and conditioning coach is a likely target for the blame. When we experience failure and attribute the cause to something or someone external, the attribution adjustment that should take place is to try to find something that you can control and work on that aspect. This helps explain why sport coaches seek to attribute failures on the field to poor conditioning of athletes, regardless of whether that is true or not. Similarly, strength and conditioning coaches are certainly limited by the athletes that the sport coaches recruit. Also, some strength and conditioning coaches attribute lackluster athlete training gains to the quality of the recruits and not the quality of the training program or the sport coach’s teaching. In reality, many factors contribute to performance success, so to avoid attribution bias, be sure you and your staff are focusing on what you can control when an athlete or a team experiences some failure. One method for accomplishing this is using questions to improve your own performance (4). Examining your own attribution pattern is a viable application of reflective questioning.

Moving Forward with Attributions

Keeping in mind that attributions are inherently about expectations for future events, the importance of improving attribution patterns for athletes and coaches cannot be understated. Every coach wants an athlete who will persist in the face of failure and diligently work to improve both form and function. Every athlete wants a coach who will tirelessly work to facilitate performance success. Attribution research has shown consequences of attributions go beyond a continual cycle of expectancies and impact the athlete’s actual performance, emotions, and persistence (6). Of the two dimensions, control and stability, the degree of control seems to be the most powerfully associated with expectancies of future success (6). For that reason, emphasizing any and all aspects that are controllable for the athlete is critical to the coach’s efforts to help athletes establish helpful attribution patterns. Some examples toward that end include:

1. Effort is typically thought to be internal and unstable, making it a great attribution pattern for athletes. Encouraging athletes to recognize their effort levels during training is an effective way to enhance their sense of accountability for training success. When an athlete seems to be giving sub-par effort, the first step may be just a gentle reminder to go hard when training. When that does not prompt enough change, verbal comparisons to look across the room and see how much effort teammates are putting forward may work. If the change is still not acceptable, consider using videos to explicitly show the athlete what high effort looks like. You can video other teams at your facility or find any number of videos online. Another option is to video the athlete while giving lackluster effort and full effort. Show both videos to the athlete and challenge the athlete to explain the differences.

2. Both meager training improvements and injuries can stem from poor technique. Technique execution is something largely controllable by the athlete performing the lift. Finding novel ways to teach, explain, document, and demonstrate proper technique is the strength and conditioning coach’s responsibility, which is an internal-unstable attribution for the coach. Verbal explanations may not be enough for all athletes. Having other athletes demonstrate lifts could be viewed as problematic, especially if the skill level between athletes is large (3). That situation may prompt statements like “I am not that coordinated” which is an internal-stable attribution.

A specific goal setting approach focusing on technique with corresponding checklists could be used (2). In that case, the lift gets broken down into multiple pieces, each that the athlete can control, instead of just the one complete lift. Going even further than simply having an athlete demonstrate a lift while you teach, is to have one athlete teach the lift to a teammate as a way to reinforce the proper technical cues. Sometimes athletes benefit from seeing poorly done examples and even demonstrations across varying levels of success. Because attributions are associated with future expectancies, it can be quite valuable for the strength and conditioning staff to have a video library of athletes performing complex lifts demonstrating varying degrees of success. For example, if an athlete’s current performance is substantially inferior to the finished product on the video, only showing the finished, fully successful execution of a lift may leave an athlete responding with an internal-stable attribution such as, “I just cannot do that.”

3. Finally, social modeling is an extremely powerful tool at your disposal. Common advice for coaches is to focus on attitude, effort, and performance execution, all of which are at least largely controllable by the athlete, instead of performance results, which clearly depend on a multitude of factors outside the athlete’s control (1). Through the lens of attributions, luck (i.e., external-uncontrollable) is never good. Similarly, getting breaks from officials, weather, or playing an inferior opponent do not lead to athletes believing they can influence the outcome. If an athlete believes effort would be wasted, what would be the point of putting forth high effort? This is why the behavior and verbalized attributions the strength and conditioning staff makes for successes and failures are so impactful. When an athlete is successful, the coach should find something to say that allows the athlete to own that success. The following are some examples:

• “I saw that pancake block you had in the third quarter. All of that technique work you did sure paid off on that play.”

• “The sheer power you generate in pushing off the blocks is why you are usually the first one to the first hurdle. Keep doing those cleans.”

• “Remember back when you had all those shoulder problems? Those early mornings you showed up extra early to perfect your stroke were worth it.”


Though no guaranteed way exists to get athletes to train hard consistently, anything the strength and conditioning staff can do to better prepare the athletes for success is something worth exploring. Attributions are constantly being made by athletes, sport coaches, and strength and conditioning staffs simultaneously. From a professional development standpoint, the challenge is to critically examine your own successes and failures to find a way to attribute the outcomes to something you can control and can change for the future. This could be as small as how you deal with a singular troublesome athlete or sport coach, or it could be a more in-depth examination of how you provide feedback to athletes and how you work with your own staff. When utilized correctly, attributions are about putting in the time and effort to consistently identify pieces you can control and working to enhance your own coaching performance.

This article originally appeared in NSCA Coach, a quarterly publication for NSCA Members that provides valuable takeaways for every level of strength and conditioning coach. You can find scientifically based articles specific to a wide variety of your athletes’ needs with Nutrition, Programming, and Youth columns. Read more articles from NSCA Coach »



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3. Gillham, A. Building better athletes through increased self-confidence. NSCA Coach 3(3): 16-18, 2016. 
4. Gillham, A. Using questions to improve coach effectiveness. NSCA Coach 3(4): 6-8, 2016. 
5. Grove, JR, Hanrahan, SJ, and McInman, A. Success/failure bias in attributions across involvement categories in sport. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 17: 93-97, 1991. 
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9. Ryan, R, and Deci, E. Handbook of Self-Determination Research. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester; 3-33, 2002. 
10. Spears, LC. Character and servant leadership: Ten characteristics of effective, caring leaders. The Journal of Virtues and Leadership 1: 25-30, 2010. 
11. Wann, DL, and Wilson, AM. The relationship between the sport team identification of basketball spectators and the number of attributions they generate to explain their team’s performance. International Sports Journal 5: 43-50, 2001. 
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Andrew D. Gillham, PhD, CSCS,*D

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