Student Motivation in #PhysEd

One of the most interesting books I read this year was “Drive” by Daniel Pink, an amazing read on what truly motivates people in this day and age.


The whole time I was reading “Drive”, all I could think about is how the concepts presented in the book could be applied in #PhysEd.

If you’ve ever taught physical education before (especially the older grades), you’ve probably found yourself facing the occasional student motivation problems. I know I have. So I thought I’d take some time to present some of the ideas that Daniel Pink presents in his awesome book and see if how they could be used in #physed.

In “Drive”, the author outlines three major elements that are key to motivation: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.


When it comes to motivation, Pink lists four main areas over which people (or in our case, students) need to feel like they have some say over.

1. Task

One way we could give our students autonomy over task is by planning our lessons in such a way that they provide students with choices over the activities/rules they can use to achieve their learning goals. For example, let’s say that you are using a Teaching Games for Understanding approach in your teaching. Now let’s remember that a) games have both primary and secondary rules, that b) even though all students should be following the same primary rules, not all students need to be following the same secondary rules, and that c) you can have a game going in which different students are following different sets of secondary rules so that they can develop the skills/tactics they are supposed to be focusing on. Still with me? Ok.

In such a situation, you could provide students with a sense of autonomy over the task by presenting them with the different sets of secondary rules they can use to focus on the various learning outcomes the game was designed to help them meet. However, instead of you just assigning a set of secondary rules to any given student, you could ask them what they feel they need to focus on the most and then ask them to select which secondary rules they could follow to focus on that. Doing so gives the student a sense of choice over the task and could, therefore, better create a sense of autonomy.

2. Time

In “Drive”, the author writes about a “Results Only Work Environment” (a.k.a. ROWE) system that involves employees getting to create their own work schedule as long as they are producing the results their job title requires them to produce. Now, I am not about to suggest we have our students create their own class schedule for #physed (although, in an ideal world, that could be cool), but that doesn’t mean we can’t give them any autonomy over their time during PE.

Let’s say you have a lesson plan that is broken down into different sections (e.g. 10 minutes warm-up, 20 minute focus on objective #1, 20 minute focus on objective #2, 10 minutes review and cool down). Now imagine that one student has met objective #1 within the first five minutes of the second section in your lesson. Instead of forcing them to continue working on that objective for the next 15 minutes, you could present them with activities that focus on objective #2. However, the student would have to prove that they have reached a certain level of mastery on that first learning outcome before moving onto the next. The same goes for the student who, after 20 minutes, still hasn’t mastered that first outcome. You could allow them to have more time to keep working on it until they produce the results they are expected to (i.e. until they mastered the first outcome).

Allowing students to progress at their own speed in #physed can help give them a sense of autonomy over how they spend their time in class.

3. Technique

Giving students different options of activities that all focus on the same learning outcomes and allowing them to choose the activities that best suits their skill level would be a great way to provide students with a sense of autonomy over the technique. Think of it a student-led differentiation (for an example of a resource that could help with this, check out my QR Skill Posters).

4. Team

Allowing students to choose their own teams can be a little tricky in #physed. Although I have had success with student-selected teams in the past (my So You Think You Can Dance unit used this type of teams), oftentimes we find students simply choosing to be with their friends rather than partners who would be better matches for their skill level. However, this doesn’t mean that the teacher should have the only say over who gets to work with who.

If a student comes to see you requesting to change teams after you have assigned them learning partners, hear that student out! If they can properly explain why they feel they need to change groups and who they believe they would work with best, then why not trade them? In situations where student-selected teams are not a possibility, be sure to remember to be flexible with your student groupings. By doing so, you won’t only be making your students happy, you’ll be providing them with some sense of autonomy over their team.


Encouraging your students to focus on mastery in everything they do in #physed can lead to a huge boost in their motivation. In “Drive”, Pink explains the difference between performance goals (e.g. getting an A in French class) and learning goals (e.g. being able to speak French). When you start a new unit and you’re presenting the learning outcomes you will be working on, be sure not to talk about those outcomes simply as performance goals (e.g. “here’s what you need to do to get 100% in this volleyball unit”). Instead, try to frame those outcomes as learning goals (e.g. “If you work hard, by the end of this unit you’ll be able to experience what it’s like to maintain a great rally in volleyball!”)

Always remember to remind your students that their physical education class is just part of their journey towards becoming physically literate individuals. Even if they work hard and do great in class, there is always room for improvement… and that’s ok! In the words of Vince Lombardi, you can chase perfection, but you cannot catch it, because nothing is perfect. However, by relentlessly chasing perfection, you’ll wind up catching excellence. Remind your students of that and encourage them to always strive for mastery in everything they do.


If you’ve caught any of my Purposeful #PhysEd posts (Part One, Part Two), you’ll understand how I try to create a sense of purpose in my #physed classes. By sharing with my students the “Why” behind everything we do in class (e.g. “today we will be playing this game so that we can focus on these outcomes”, “over the next few classes, you’re goal is to be able to ______”), I help my students understand their purpose for being in PE that day. Reminding students of the learning outcomes they are working towards is something that is so simple to do, but it is something that we often forget to do. Then again, it means that your lessons/units need to be based around learning outcomes in the first place… so get to know your curriculum and make sure they are!

So that is how I interpreted Daniel Pink’s amazing book “Drive” and how I would apply it’s concepts to my #physed teaching. I know a lot of you have also read it, so I would love to hear how you think it could be applied in your own teaching. Be sure to leave your thoughts in the comments below!

Again, thanks for reading and happy teaching!

You can find “Drive” on Amazon, the iBookstore, or in most book shops.


Joey Feith is the founder of He currently teaches elementary physical education at St. George’s School of Montreal in Quebec, Canada.