Authors:1Kimberly S. Fasczewski, 1Paige N. Bramblett, 1Landry K. Bobo, 2James Peterman, 1R. Andrew Shanely
1Department of Public Health and Exercise Science, Appalachian State University, Boone, North Carolina, USA
2Fisher Institute of Health, Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana, USA
Kimberly S. Fasczewski, PhD.
Department of Public Health and Exercise Science
Beaver College of Health Sciences, 1179 State Farm Rd
Boone, NC 28608-207
Understanding written message framing, motivation, and performance in competitive cyclists
Purpose: An athlete’s motivation and sport performance is impacted by their environment, including the interpersonal relationship between athlete and coach. What messages the coach conveys, and how those messages are received, can impact performance. Conveying messages via controlling message framing (dictating goals and outcomes) or informational/supportive message framing (providing information and recognizing effort) may impact the athlete’s perceptions of the environment and alter motivation, thus impacting performance. Endurance sports, such as cycling, require high amounts of self-determined motivation due to the duration and solo nature of training. Often the primary interaction with the coach is through online written communication. As such, the goal of this study was to explore the impact of written forms of controlling and informational/supportive message framing on motivation and performance in trained cyclists. Methods: Using a crossover design, 11 amateur competitive cyclists (9 Male, 2 Female; age 43.6 ± 10.3 years) were randomly assigned a written training protocol containing either controlling or informational/supportive messages and describing a specific workout with a goal of participation to exhaustion. Perceived competence, perceived autonomy, motivation, and performance (time to exhaustion) were measured for each trial. Results: No significant differences were found in perceived competence, perceived autonomy, motivation, or performance between controlling or informational/supportive conditions. There was a significant correlation between pre-task competence valuation and post-task perceived competence (r = -0.738), and autonomous motivation and time-to-exhaustion (r = -0.674) in the controlling condition. Additionally, a significant correlation was seen between perceived competence and perceived autonomy (r = 0.666) in the informational/supportive condition. Conclusions: A relationship does exist between written message framing and motivation. Motivation and performance may be increased by using informational/supportive messages in written communication with athletes. Application in Sport: Coaches must be aware of the impact communication has on athletes even when using online platforms. These interactions should be considered an important part of the coach-athlete relationship. For optimal athlete motivation and performance, coaches should focus on creating well-designed workouts that include detailed written information using supportive wording.
Keywords: (coaching, endurance athletes, online, Self-Determination Theory, cycling)
Athletes perform better, are more motivated, and stay in sport longer when they train and compete in environments that are supportive of their needs. (12). The athlete’s interaction with those around them (peers, coaches, family) is one of the primary determinants of this environment and thus has a profound effect on athlete motivation (3, 9, 10, 12, 13). During interpersonal interactions in training and competition, information between athlete and coach can be conveyed in many different ways. The information can have a positive or negative effect on an athlete’s perceived competence and autonomy, depending on how this information is presented. This concept is known as message framing (15, 16, 19, 22).
The construct of message framing is particularly relevant in sport settings where a coach is interacting with an athlete and those interactions directly impact the performance outcome. When attempting to motivate, console, or describe situations to an athlete, a coach must use language that the athlete will perceive as informational and supportive to enhance motivation (12). Language that is controlling and critical may result in decreases in motivation and hinder performance (14).
Effective message framing is anchored in enhancing feelings of competence and autonomy, two of the key principles of Self-Determination Theory (SDT). SDT postulates that adequately meeting an individual’s basic needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness will enhance the individual’s self-determined motivation to pursue an activity, thus increasing performance (7,18). Competence is defined as an individual’s belief that they possess the skills necessary to succeed in a performance situation. When competence is enhanced for a given activity, such as sport, self-determined motivation increases (12, 20). However, self-determined motivation is further increased if competence is paired with autonomy (2). Autonomy is an individual’s perception of control over a situation or activity that is viewed as meaningful and is seen as an expression of themselves (6). When an individual feels controlled or pressured by the environment, autonomy will not be supported for that activity (19). For an athlete, this would mean it is essential that a sporting environment provide feelings of both competence and autonomy free from external control for the athlete to remain motivated to perform at a high level in their sport (2,12).
Past research has demonstrated that a controlling message, which creates expectations for a specified outcome, decreases perceived autonomy, competence, self-determined motivation, and performance relative to informational framing. Informational message framing provides an individual with useful information about a task but does not attach any expectations (5, 11, 15, 21, 22). This information becomes supportive of the individual’s desired outcome and creates an environment that enhances motivation and increases performance. Limited research within sport has demonstrated that providing verbal feedback in either a controlling or informational manner following an activity can significantly change both motivation and performance in athletes in subsequent attempts of the activity (4, 8, 13). However, to date there is no research exploring how a written message (rather than a verbal message) can affect motivation or performance in athletes. Additionally, previous research has only provided feedback after a first attempt at the activity (4, 8, 13). It is possible that a learning effect may have accounted for some of the changes in performance and perceived competence rather than the feedback itself.
To date, research in this area has only used team and/or skill-based sports (4, 8, 13). Most skill-based sports have practices that are conducted in a face-to-face setting, where athletes directly interact with the coach. The present study uses cycling, an endurance sport where athletes often train solo and are usually coached remotely. In this type of coaching scenario, the athlete’s training is prescribed over an online platform with the athlete and coach communicating primarily using written messages. It is still essential that the coach effectively frames messages in an informational/supportive manner rather than a controlling one to enhance motivation (4, 13), however now this communication must be done using written messages. Accordingly, a successful coach must understand the art of constructing written messages that support an athlete’s self-determined motivation through the facilitation of autonomy and competence. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to examine how an electronically delivered written training protocol using controlled or informational/supportive message framing would affect motivation and performance in competitive cyclists completing an ergometer test to exhaustion.
Following approval by the overseeing Institutional Review Board, nine male and two female cyclists ages 18-55 were recruited to participate. All participants raced at an amateur (USA Cycling Category 3-5) level and trained 7-13 hours per week. To be included in the study, participants had to have trained regularly for cycling for at least 3 years prior, had to be healthy and free from any chronic diseases that would have compromised their ability to safely complete the test, and were required to have access to a home cycling ergometer equipped with a power meter and heart rate monitor. Prior to study participation, participants filled out an informed consent and questionnaire to ensure they had met all criteria for participation.
Using a ramp test protocol (17), participants warmed up at 100w for 5 minutes then power was reduced to 50w for the start of the ramp protocol. Power was then increased by 25w every minute and the participants were instructed to stop the test when cadence dropped below 60 rpm for more than 5 seconds (Figure 1). The highest achieved power (Wmax) was established by taking the power at the last completed stage.
The framed intermittent interval test consisted of a 20-minute warm-up followed by 30 seconds at 100% Wmax alternating between 15 seconds at 50% Wmax. The participants repeated this cycle until voluntary exhaustion (Figure 2).
Participants were given a pre-task questionnaire before each framed session, adapted from Mouratidis et al (14). This measure was developed with a measurement model showing an excellent fit, S-B χ2(312) = 355.44, p = .045, CFI = .973, SRMR = .062, RMSEA = .029, 90% CIs = .005 to .043 (14). The pre-task questionnaire consisted of two constructs: pre-task competence (how confident they felt about the activity) and pre-task competence valuation (how much they valued doing well on the activity). These measures were used to assess motivation levels prior to completing the test to track any changes between conditions.
Following the sessions, participants filled out a second questionnaire also adapted from Mouratidis et al (14) to assess post-task perceived competence (how well they felt they performed the task), post-task autonomous motivation (how much they enjoyed the task), and post-task perceived autonomy (how much control they felt they had over the task).
Performance was quantified by the time-to-exhaustion (TTE) during the intermittent interval test. TTE was determined by the time point at which participants reached exhaustion and could go no further. Absolute power output was not factored because the prescribed power outputs were the same relative to each participant.
The study was conducted remotely with all communication done via email and Training PeaksTM, an online cycling training platform. A randomized crossover design was used consisting of five sessions spaced out over a period of five days. Participants first did an unframed ramp test to establish baseline power zones. Following these sessions, participants did two framed intermittent interval sessions, one with controlling message framing and the other with informational/supportive message framing, with two easier sessions separating the high-intensity sessions. To mask the real purpose of the study, participants were told the study was examining the effects of repeated exercise bouts on performance. Participants used home ergometers equipped with power meters.
An unframed ramp test was used to establish a power target for the subsequent sessions (17). No particular message framing was used for either group and the participants were only given the necessary information to understand the purpose of the session and complete it properly. Following the unframed ramp test, participants were sent their power files for review to ensure compliance with the test protocol and were given instructions for the subsequent sessions.
The participants were then randomly assigned to complete an intermittent interval session accompanied with one of the following message framing:
- Controlling: This test is a measure of your capability in cycling. You must continue the test until you cannot successfully complete a full repetition, or your data will not be valid. For this particular test, we will be analyzing the relation between your HR recovery between intervals and how it relates to where the workout lies in the training week,”
- Supporting: This workout will be a good challenge, but it will produce some really valuable data so try to do as many reps as you can. Just take it one interval at a time, keep your cadence up on the recovery portions, and do your best! For this test, we will be examining total reps completed and how this relates to where the workout lies in the training week.
Following completion of the first session, the participants switched conditions for the subsequent intensity session and completed that session with the alternate message framing. The participants did not know what the second session would be until after they had completed the first session. Two easier sessions were inserted in between the unframed ramp test, informational/supportive message framing, and controlling message framing. This procedure was to allow participants time to recover, but also to serve as a “distraction” from the framed sessions to mask the purpose of the study. No message framing was used for the easier sessions. Even though the controlling message framing and informational/supportive message framing were the same tests, different explanations were given regarding the physiological parameters being assessed. This differentiation was intended to distract the participants from the different message framing of the workouts and to create the perception that the workouts required a different attentional focus.
All participants were instructed to perform both tests in a familiar setting (where they usually train) under typical training conditions. Participants were not instructed not to view any videos or use any training-related applications but were allowed to listen to music. They were also instructed to complete both sessions well rested with no strenuous high intensity exercise the day before either test. Additionally, the participants were instructed not to change anything about their normal diet and to consume a carbohydrate-based meal or snack 1-2 hours before the sessions. To ensure this protocol was followed, the participants answered questions in the follow up survey to verify they did not change their normal routine.
All data were imported from Qualtrics into SPSS version 27 (IBM Corporation 2021), cleaned (to detect duplicate entries, etc.), and organized. Basic descriptive data were reported as frequency and percentage or mean ± SD. Paired sample t-tests were used to compare performance and survey measures for the two conditions and Pearson correlations were performed between all pertinent variables (confidence level p < 0.05).
Eleven participants (9 male, 2 female) age 43.6 ± 10.3 years were recruited to participate. Participants trained 9.68 ± 3.95 hours per week and had a mean Wmax of 338 ± 84.1 watts.
Paired sample t-test found no significant differences between controlling and informational/supportive message framed interval workouts in Pre-task Competence t(10) = -.899; Pre-task Competence Valuation t(10) = -.520, p = .615; p = .392; Post-task Competence t(10) = 0.001, p = .999; Post-task Autonomous Motivation t(10) = -1.271, p = .236; Post-task Perceived Autonomy t(10) = -.959, p = .363; and TTE t(10) = 1.242, p = .242.
Pearson correlations were performed for controlling and informational/supportive message framing interval workouts. Results demonstrated a significant correlation between time spent training per week and self-reported functional threshold power (FTP) estimate (r = 0.693, p<.05). In the controlling message framing condition, a significant inverse correlation was found between pre-task competence valuation and post-task competence (r = -0.738, p<.01) and time-to-exhaustion (TTE) and post-task autonomous motivation (r = -0.674, p<.05). In the informational/supportive message framing condition, a significant correlation was found between pre-task competence and FTP estimate (r = 0.684, p<.05), perceive autonomy and FTP estimate (r = 0.801, p<.01), pre-task competence valuation and post-task autonomous motivation (r = 0.666), and post-task competence and post-task perceived autonomy (r = 0.732, p<.05).
The purpose of this study was to examine the relationship of written message framing to motivation and performance in cyclists performing an ergometer test to exhaustion. The hypotheses that there would be lower levels of perceived autonomy and competence and a significantly shorter time-to-exhaustion in the controlling versus informational/supportive message framing condition were not supported by the data; however, some of the correlations within each condition do suggest a relationship between motivation and the message framing conditions. These correlations could indicate that, had the sample size been larger or the framing presented differently, there may have been some significant differences between the two groups.
The first notable correlation is that pre-task competence valuation is significantly negatively correlated with post-task competence in the controlling condition only. This result suggests that the more participants valued doing well prior to the activity, the worse they felt about their efforts afterwards. It is possible that the controlling message framing directed the participants attention to the outcome of the test rather than their effort (19). The statement “This test is a measure of your capability in cycling. You must continue the test until you cannot successfully complete a full repetition, or your data will not be valid,” directs the participant’s attention away from the task and promotes a perception of a controlled environment. As a result, even if participants gave their best effort, they did not feel as though they did a good enough job of meeting the standard that the investigator had demanded for the data to be considered “valid”. Since the exact standard of the outcome was not specified, participants had no means of knowing whether their efforts were good enough. This methodology is congruent with the motivational model proposed by (12), suggesting that a controlling environment creates the perception that a coaches’ approval is contingent upon an athlete’s objective performance rather than their effort. This correlation was not found in the supportive message framing condition. Since “do your best” was the only directive given to participants, they may have felt as though they performed better simply because they gave their best effort. Individuals with higher perceived competence use more self-referenced criteria to define their own success (1), this could explain why the negative correlation between pre-task competence valuation and post-task perceived competence was observed in only the controlling condition.
Applied to a sport setting, the negative correlation between pre-task competence valuation and post-task perceived competence in the message controlling condition may depict how a pressuring environment can contribute to an athlete feeling inadequate despite their best efforts. When an athlete values being good at an activity, and they perceive after the task that they were not successful, there will be a decrease in perceived competence and autonomy, thus causing a decline in motivation (6, 12). By using controlling messaging, a coach is inadvertently diminishing the athlete’s competence and autonomy for future performances (4). Instead, positively framed informational/supportive messages should be used to enhance player competence and self-determined motivation. In an online format, coaches should focus on using supportive language that promotes athlete competence and autonomy in all interactions.
The second notable finding is that post-task perceived competence and post-task perceived autonomy were significantly correlated in the informational/supportive condition only. This finding is not unexpected. Previous research supports the relationship between competence and autonomy in positively framed messaging in sporting contexts (4, 14). The data from the current study suggest that this relationship is also true with written messaging as the previous studies were all done with in-person athletes. Additionally, in the current study there was no significant correlation between these two variables in the controlling group, suggesting that one or both of these constructs was impacted in some way by the controlling message framing, thus negating the correlation between competence and autonomy. One explanation is that, by telling the participants that they “must” complete a task to exhaustion, autonomy could have been decreased (14, 19).
Autonomous motivation was significantly negatively correlated with TTE in the controlling group only. A higher level of autonomous motivation means that theoretically the participant should be motivated to give their best effort because they possess self-determined motivation for the activity, basically because they enjoy it (6). However, in this condition these participants reported shorter TTE, suggesting their self-determined motivation was instead being controlled by external sources. Once the individual was no longer in control and self-determined motivation was not present, their TTE increased. Essentially, the controlling message framing decreased the participants’ autonomy and now they were completing the task for someone else. This finding, combined with the finding that pre-task competence valuation was negatively correlated with post-task perceived competence in the controlling group, indicates that highly motivated athletes might be impacted by a controlling environment to a greater extent than athletes who are less invested in their sport.
As with all research, this study is not without limitations. The study reported a small sample size which can be attributed to recruitment challenges associated with a week-long remote study requiring participants to possess specific equipment. Additionally, the use of a crossover design rather than a parallel design may have impacted motivation. It is possible that participants may have felt more motivated on the second attempt because they wanted to beat their prior best or they may have been less motivated because they did not want to do the test again, regardless of the message framing. Furthermore, participants may have been more prepared mentally for such a demanding task, or they may have learned how to better gauge their effort. A parallel design with an additional control group would alleviate this challenge in the future. Finally, since the study was done remotely, it was not possible to control for all extraneous variables such as nutrition, hydration, or outside stressors that may have impacted participants’ motivation. There was also a potential for inaccuracies with the participants’ equipment between the two tests as each individual was using their own equipment. However, these uncontrolled variables are similar to what would be encountered in a real-world setting, which is what this research was attempting to replicate.
This study was the first of its kind to examine the effects of message framing in a remote coaching setting. While there were no significant differences between the two conditions on the motivation constructs, the correlations in the two conditions suggest that controlling and supportive message framing do have an impact on competence, autonomy, and performance in some manner. Further research is needed to determine the true impact of message framing in the context of written messaging. Future directions should incorporate athlete feedback, long-term programming, and different forms of workouts and sports. Although much work needs to be done in this area, it is clear that message framing is an important part of sport performance.
APPLICATION TO SPORT
The wording of a written message can impact perceived autonomy, competence and performance in endurance athletes in a remote coaching setting. This study presents an exciting new avenue for understanding how written messages can affect one’s perception of their environment. Coaches working with endurance athletes need to consider the impact of their communication, even when they are not interacting with athletes face-to-face. Carefully chosen written workouts, that effectively convey information and create a supportive environment, are critical for optimal performance.
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