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Use the Psychology of Motivation to Stop Quitting

Understanding why people stop exercising—and how to keep them going.

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Coaching client with the psychology of motivation

Inactivity is one of the world’s most pressing health issues. Though it’s common knowledge that exercise shapes nearly every human experience—physically, mentally and cognitively—less than 50% of the population gets enough exercise for basic health benefits (Lewis et al. 2017). One reason for this may be failure to launch (they never get started at all), but all too often it’s because they wind up quitting within the first few months. For the sake of our clients’ health and our business success, it’s vital for health coaches to learn more about the psychology of motivation and quitting so we can help clients protect themselves from the forces determined to derail them.

Here, we’ll explore two excellent approaches to helping clients stay motivated by

  • addressing their fundamental psychological needs using self-determination theory, and
  • learning to predict their intentions using the theory of planned behavior.

Integrating these practices—the three fundamental psychological needs of self-determination theory and the three predicting intentions from the theory of planned behavior—is an excellent way to help clients stay motivated.

Psychology of Motivation and Behavioral Drivers

How people think and how people act are two primary considerations in sparking and maintaining motivation. Here’s a brief overview of the key components of the psychology of motivation and what each means.

Self-Determination Theory

According to self-determination theory, three fundamental psychological needs must be met for self-motivation to occur (Ryan et al. 2010):

  • autonomy (belief that your actions are self-endorsed and not coerced)
  • competence (confidence in your ability to affect outcomes)
  • relatedness (feeling connected with and significant to others)

In self-determination theory, self-motivation is also known as intrinsic motivation, which we’ll discuss in the “The Motives for Change Spectrum,” right, and in the examples that follow.

The Theory of Planned Behavior

In the theory of planned behavior, a person’s intention to perform an activity is guided by three types of beliefs (Ajzen 1991):

  • behavioral (your own attitudes or beliefs about the behavior)
  • normative (how you think others view the behavior)
  • control (whether you believe you are able to perform the behavior)

By exploring the research in these areas, we can help make sense of why clients may have quit in the past and what we can do to improve their future success rate.

Let’s explore five common pitfalls and how to navigate them using the psychology of motivation.

See also: Behavior Change: What the Research Tells Us

1. Motives Were Not Clearly Identified

Two people on a kayak showing self-motivation

Motivation must have energy and direction toward some action.

Self-determination theory says if a person is going to stay motivated, decisions need to be self-endorsed and not coerced. That is to say, they need to be autonomous. Therefore, it is necessary to help your clients determine their motives for change. Identifying a motive for change can help you both design a strategy to stay motivated.

Motivation must have energy and direction toward some action (Ryan et al. 2010). In short, an action cannot be advanced without both fuel and steering. Think about the energy or fuel as being the “why” and the direction or steering as the “how.”

According to self-determination theory, at one end of the “motives for change” spectrum is intrinsic motivation, and at the opposite end is amotivation. In between are integrated regulation, identified regulation, introjected regulation and external regulation (Ryan et al. 2010). (See “The Motives for Change Spectrum,” below, for details.) Being in a mindset of intrinsic motivation—where one is doing the activity for the sheer joy of it—is the ideal place to be to continue a behavior.

Real-world example: The ashamed-of-herself client.  Let’s say your client says she wants to lose weight because she feels shame about the way she looks (an example of introjected regulation). To keep her motivated, you want to steer her away from feeling externally controlled by shame and toward feeling value for the activities she’ll participate in after weight loss.

How you can help: Meet her where she is—and help her move along. First, you might help her identify her higher-level goals, such as decreasing the need for medications or having more energy to go out with friends or perform her work. This begins the process of creating an excellent plan and helping her connect these actions to other personal values. This client’s program would be starkly different than an intrinsically motivated client who comes to you because she loves working out and needs you to help her with some creative programming.

2. Conflicting Priorities Were Not Addressed

The theory of planned behavior says that for people to intend to follow through with what they say they’ll do, they have to believe what they’re doing is going to get them to where they want to go (Ajzen 1991). This is called behavioral belief. A problem may arise, however, if “where they want to go” (in exercise) conflicts with other priorities of life.

As a coach, your first priority is to help your clients be very clear on where they want to go. However, often the said goal is not the actual goal. For example, a client might tell you his goal is to lose weight. But upon further investigation, really, he wants to feel attractive. He also wants to be a great husband and father. These can be contrasting goals, competing for his time.

Real-world example: The easily derailed client. According to the control belief as described in self-determination theory, in order for him to do what he says he’ll do, he needs to feel like he is in control of the circumstances (Ajzen 1991). In this client’s case, he might have felt his family controlled his world, that he had no choice but to put them first and, therefore, he just quit. For this client to be successful in his workout program, he will need help figuring out how to take control and meet his various goals simultaneously. If he can’t, his exercise routine will be derailed by ballet lessons, meal planning and sleep deprivation.

How you can help: Explain how and why to make a Plan B. You can help your client recognize he may have quit in the past because he didn’t know what to do when his priorities changed. To take control of the situation, he will need a Plan B that he would default to when Plan A can’t be put into action.

For example, when soccer season is in full swing, his number-one goal is to be on the sidelines cheering on his kids, which means five days a week at the gym is not likely to happen. This is when he gives himself permission to set an intention for things like: Do 50 squats and 30 pushups after brushing his teeth. Remind him that there is the expectation that Plan B does not become Plan A; when the conflicting priority is gone, he should return to his “ideal” scenario.

See also: Motivational Interviewing: Talking Their Way to Health

3. Perceived Competence Was Low

Trainer helping client with exercise competence

Competence can be honed with small, daily, process-oriented goals.

Competence, people’s need to believe they have the ability to affect outcomes, is the third and final fundamental psychological need that must be met within the psychology of motivation before someone is motivated (Ryan et al. 2010). Reasons for feelings of incompetence may be attempting an advanced workout as a beginner, engaging in a new pursuit without proper instruction or quitting a pursuit before putting in enough practice to see signs of improvement.

Real-world example: The I-always-fail client. Maybe your client has quit so many times in the past that she feels she is not competent to succeed now.

How you can help: Offer a reality check—and mini goals. You can help her develop competence by asking her to recall her many successes in the past (within fitness and otherwise). She has done hard things before and succeeded, and she can use those strategies to do the same here. Also, coach her through obstacles and create a Plan B, as mentioned on page 71.

Competence can also be honed with small, daily, process-oriented goals like “eat vegetables with every meal,” and “walk 15 minutes every day.” Developing a process-oriented plan can help develop her feelings of self-efficacy, which will build her competence.

4. True Autonomy Was Not Achieved

Autonomy is the most important basic psychological need for someone to feel self-motivated (Spence & Oades 2011). Autonomy is the opposite of being controlled by external forces. To use the psychology of motivation and help clients stay motivated, a coach can help them move away from feelings of external control.

Real-world example: The not-in-it-for-the-workout client. Maybe your new client has no interest in losing weight or gaining fitness, but he gets a discount on health insurance if he works out in the corporate fitness center twice a week. The external motivation of a discount on insurance might get him started, but it won’t keep him going (Deci & Ryan 1988; Friederichs et al. 2016).

How you can help: Normalize exercise—and connect it to core values. In this example, the goal is to help him become personally invested in the change. Let’s say he values traveling and learning about new cultures. A good first step would be to steer him away from a focus on the extra money controlling his decisions and toward helping him see his participation in exercise, which saves money on insurance and agrees with his value system of exploration and personal growth.

Another key factor in helping establish autonomy is to ensure the person feels safe physically and emotionally. If people feel like a particular type of workout will injure them, they will not feel autonomous. If they feel like they are being judged—either by you or by others in the gym—they will not feel autonomous.

5. They Always Felt Like an Outsider

The basic psychological need of relatedness applies here. The psychology of motivation shows us that, for people to be self-motivated, they must feel connected with and significant to others (Ryan et al. 2010). The theory of planned behavior’s normative belief also applies here. To intend to follow through with what they said they’d do, people must believe what they’re doing is something others close to them would approve of (Ajzen 1991).

Real-world example: The I’m-not-an-athletic-type client. For example, let’s say your vacation-loving client has never participated in an exercise program, knows no one who does, and feels awkward and inept simply walking on the gym floor. For him, exercise is not “normal.”

How you can help: Show an interest—and make some introductions. First, it is imperative you show him that you have unconditional positive regard for him as an individual, unique from any other person. You might do this by engaging him in conversation about his trips and showing interest in what he has learned from them.

Then you can help him normalize exercise by introducing him to other like-minded people—either in person or virtually. For example, you might organize a meet-up once a week for an outdoor walk or hike with any clients who care to join. By doing this, you can help him begin to feel a sense of relatedness, which fosters autonomy. This can also help him more confidently interact with other gym goers without your intervention, further putting him in control of his experience.

See also: 5 Crucial Behavior Change Variables

Have a Never-Give-Up Attitude Toward Coaching

As trusted health professionals, we can improve clients’ success rate (as well as our own)—and inspire the world to health—by allowing our understanding of the psychology of motivation to guide our programming and coaching. By showing you won’t give up on them, you may help more and more clients avoid quitting on themselves.

The Motives for Change Spectrum

As with many areas of life, motivation is not an on/off switch but a spectrum, and people may not be at the same place on the spectrum from day to day, hour to hour or month to month. Ryan et al. (2010) shares these definitions to aid in understanding the spectrum of motivation:

Amotivation. The client has little or no perceived value or incentive for action or feelings of competence for change. For example, some people don’t believe eating vegetables contributes to better health or that they have the capacity to exercise.

External regulation. Some clients are pressured from something outside of themselves. For example, a discount on insurance that’s offered for anyone who exercises 3 days a week.

Introjected regulation. These client feel pressure from themselves that they “should” do something because of pride or self-esteem—or to avoid disapproval by others. For example, a college student gained the “freshmen 15” and is embarrassed to go back home, where he feels his old basketball team will judge him.

Identified regulation. The client identifies with the value of whatever you’re coaching (exercise, nutrition, etc.) and is willing to accept the responsibility. For example, a mother recognizes she abandoned her own health care and self-care after she had her first child, and she knows lifting weights will help her feel strong and confident.

Integrated regulation. The client not only identifies with the value of the behavior but connects it to other values and goals. For example, a grandfather is lacking the stamina to play basketball with his grandkids, and he not only wants to get back in the game, but also knows his fitness will improve his relationship with his family.

Intrinsic motivation. The client wants to do the activity for the sheer joy of it. For example, a high-school student wants to include playing tennis in her fitness programming because she loves the game.


Ajzen, I. 1991. The theory of planned behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50 (2), 179–211.

Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. 1988. The support of autonomy and the control of behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53 (6), 1024–37.

Friederichs, S.A.H., et al. 2016. Motivational interviewing and self-determination theory in a web-based computer tailored physical activity intervention: A randomized controlled trial. Psychology & Health. 31 (8), 907–30.

Lewis, B.A., et al. 2017. Future directions in physical activity intervention research: Expanding our focus to sedentary behaviors, technology and dissemination. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 40 (1), 112–26.

Ryan, R.M., et al. 2010. Motivation and autonomy in counseling, psychotherapy, and behavior change: A look at theory and practice. The Counseling Psychologist, 39 (2), 193–260.

Spence, G.B., & Oades, L.G. 2011. Coaching with self-determination in mind: Using theory to advance evidence-based coaching practice. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, 9 (2), 37–55.

Andrea Bowden, MS

Andrea Bowden, MS, has been a leader and teacher in the fitness industry since 1984. She is the “Quit Quitting Expert,” coaching fitness professionals and community outreach advocates on how to achieve client retention.

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