Overthinking In Sport and Performance

Overthinking is one of the most common mental challenges we deal with as sport psychologists and performance psychologists. Are you an overthinker?

Sport and Performance Related Overthinking

  • A large part of our work as Sport and Performance Psychologists is centred around the relationship between thoughts and performance.
  • Through mindfulness-based strategies, we can learn to reduce the impact of our thoughts on our performance.
  • At Condor Performance, one of our main goals is to help our clients develop a more helpful relationship with their mind so they can perform at their best.
  • The T in Metuf stands for thoughts / thinking, in case you didn’t already know that.
  • Can’t be bothered to read the article but really want some help around your thoughts and overthinking? Get In Touch by clicking here and give us the basic details of what you’re struggling with and one of the team will get back to you within a couple of days.

Psychology in a general sense is the relationship between thoughts, emotions and behaviour. As Performance Psychology experts our work is centred around these same three areas but with one eye always on their impact (or lack of) from a performance standpoint. One of our main consulting goals is to help athletes and performers understand how thoughts, emotion and performance really interact. This is often very different from how most of them believe that they interact.

Thoughts and Performance

Reflecting on my own experiences as an athlete and now working for Condor Performance, I would argue that the most challenging mental aspect of any performance is trying not to overthink it. It is clear that our thoughts have the capacity to be a barrier to performance, but through psychological research and practice, we also have the capacity to overcome this mental barrier.  

All of us have experienced our minds going into overdrive. As soon as we’re faced with something important or threatening, our mind goes into a state of overthinking. Overthinking is not a comfortable mental state to be in, making it a lot more difficult to do the things we train to do on a daily basis. We often hear athletes and performers say that during training they perform at quite a high level but find it difficult to perform well on competition day, often stating that their thoughts get in the way. Most competitors associate a higher level of importance with competition than training, so it makes sense why they overthink during this time.

Sport Psychologist Gareth J. Mole

Out of all of the sport psychologists that I’ve met, the most process focussed is my primary supervisor Gareth J. Mole – the founder of Condor Performance. In fact, so process-focused is he is that the majority of the focus in his work is around practice, preparation, training and effort. The logic behind this is very sound. He wants his clients to overthink concepts such as getting the most from training, planning training sessions and “what to do in a lockdown” but underthink the actual day of competition.

Thoughts Are Just Thoughts

Most athletes and performers don’t realise is that it is actually the relationship they have with their thoughts that gives them the power over their performance.  

So why do we overthink? We think like this because our brain is hardwired to view the world in certain ways, and for a very important purpose. Like emotions, our thoughts play a huge role in our survival. One of our mind’s jobs through thinking is to generate all possible outcomes, predict and preempt the worst possible scenarios. In other words, problem solve its way through these potential events so that in the slight chance they do pan out we’ll be prepared. Our brain does a lot of the thinking in the lead up to something happening so that when it does, we can rely on the Limbic System (home of the fight or flight response) to help us survive this threatening or important event. Basically, our brains are the perfect overthinking machines.

Because of the important role that our thoughts play in survival, it’s something we don’t have a lot of influence over. Our default cognitive response to an event is always going to be one of caution. It is our mind’s job, as a reason-giving machine, to go straight to the “negative”, and list all the possible bad things that could happen. Our mind is never going to go straight to the positive, and because of this, the idea of changing the way we think is a hopeless and impossible one.

Thoughts Play A Role In Survival

Don’t get me wrong you can try and change a single thought or three with some success but the very notion of learning to think more positively as a habit is flawed. Imagine if our minds didn’t think in this way? Instead of stopping at the crossroads to check if traffic is coming because your mind is saying “better to be safe than sorry” imagine the carnage if our thought in this situation was “just go, peak hour is over, you’ll be right”.

We don’t step out onto busy roads because our mind tells us we might get hit by a car. We don’t stand too close to the edge of a cliff because our mind tells us we might fall. But we often hold back on performance day because our mind tells us we might get it wrong or we might not be good enough. Unfortunately, when this happens we’re letting our protective mind dictate our behaviour rather than our performance mind.

Postive Thinking … Good Luck With That

What you’ve probably gathered from the tone of this article (and my last one) so far is that trying to think more positively is a near-impossible task, and certainly not the goal of our work. In saying that, the first step we want to take in learning to manage difficult thoughts is to shift this near-impossible goal to one that is attainable. That is, rather than striving to think more positively, we instead aim to build an awareness of the mind that allows us to diminish the power of thoughts over our actions. We can achieve this goal through working under an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) framework, where we assume that thoughts cannot necessarily be changed but rather our response to them can. 

Developing Psychological Flexibility 

Through building an awareness of the mind our goal is to ultimately build what is known as “Psychological Flexibility”. This is basically the ability to engage in behaviour that is functional and congruent with one’s values irrespective of their private experiences (thoughts, emotions, memories, cravings, bodily sensations, etc.) (Kashdan & Rottenberg, 2010).

Through developing psychological flexibility, individuals have the capacity to let their actions dictate their thoughts and feelings, not the other way around. For an athlete who values challenging themselves and seeing what they’re capable of, the idea behind building psychological flexibility is to help them live out these values through their sport despite any difficult thoughts or uncomfortable feelings they have. For a performer who values creativity and bringing enjoyment to others, developing psychological flexibility means teaching them the skills to go out and perform in the presence of any yucky private experiences they might have. 

“ACT” on Thoughts

Psychological Flexibility is the main goal of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, an effective psychological intervention used across clinical and performance settings and a potent one in sport and performance. ACT is a multi-diagnostic approach to mental health, effective in reducing symptom severity in depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and addiction (A-tjak et al., 2015; Berman, 2019). This intervention is also commonly used across multiple psychological and behavioural disorders among children to help improve quality of life and overall wellbeing (Fang & Ding, 2020). 

ACT’s popularity in the sporting domain is also growing. This intervention has shown effectiveness in helping athletes manage thoughts, in particular thoughts of perfectionism (Watson et al., 2021) and worrying/ruminating (Ruiz et al., 2018). ACT’s effectiveness as an intervention has also been seen across many other performance domains, including the performing arts (Juncos et al., 2017; Juncos & de Paiva e Pona, 2018), academia (Scent & Boes, 2014; Wang et al., 2017) and the workplace (Flaxman & Bond, 2010; Moran, 2015, Kiuru et al., 2021).

Accept Most Thoughts, Then Let Them Go

Athletes and Performers often come to mental toughness training wanting to learn how to rid of their difficult thoughts. However, it is the attempt to get rid of that is actually the source of the problem. To get rid of difficult thoughts we need to focus on them, and when we’re focused on them we’re not focusing on what we need to be doing at the moment.

We call this becoming fused, meaning we’re so caught up in getting rid of the difficult though that we can’t focus on anything else. Before we know it, 10 minutes have gone past and we’ve been cruising through the game on autopilot, not really paying attention to what we’re doing and certainly now showcasing the best of our physical abilities. 

Diminishing The Power Of thoughts

Through regular mindfulness, athletes and performers learn how to notice their thoughts, acknowledge and accept their thoughts, and let their thoughts come and go without a struggle. Through developing a relationship with our thoughts in which we learn to observe and watch them come and go without engaging too much in them, the power of those thoughts are often diminished as a by-product.

In order to do this, we first need to acknowledge that there is a part of us that thinks, but there is also a part of us that notices that we think. A part of us that can take a step back and observe what we’re thinking. Through accessing this “noticing self” we can become aware of those thoughts without getting tangled in them, and give ourselves a choice regarding how we’d like to respond to them. We can either let the thought stop us from doing what we’re doing, or we can notice it and choose to redirect our focus back to what we’re doing.

The Power of Mindfulness

One of the best ways to practice bringing awareness to our thoughts is simply through meditation. Meditation is often associated with the idea of only thinking positively, or being completely free from thoughts altogether, but this is not the goal of the exercise. If done right, meditation should bring heightened awareness to any private experiences we have at that moment (thoughts, feelings, memories, bodily sensations, urges, cravings), so that we can practice observing them without necessarily engaging with them.

We can do this through simple visualisation exercises, one of the most common being ‘Leaves on a Stream’ where we visualise our thoughts on leaves floating down a stream. If leaves and streams aren’t appealing, you can instead visualise sushi going by on a sushi train, or a train going by as you watch from the platform, whereby you notice your thoughts going by on the carriages but don’t get on the train, even if it stops.

To bring awareness through meditation we engage in what we call mindful (deep) breathing, where we really focus on the entire sensory experience of breathing (what our breath feels/smells/sounds/tastes like). When our mind wanders away from our breathing, it is our job to then notice that, accept that our mind has wandered, and choose to bring our focus back to our breathing. 

We Are Not Our Thoughts

We can add to this by developing a relationship with our thoughts whereby we view them as separate from us. Through noticing our thoughts and silently verbalising them (e.g. “I notice I am thinking…”) we can separate our thinking-self from our noticing-self.

Viewing our thoughts from our noticing self allows us to observe them as they come and go, and make a choice about whether or not to engage with them (try to get rid of them) or allow them to be there will we focus back on our actions. We can take this one step further by personifying our thoughts, or giving them an identity we know them by (e.g. “The ‘I’m not good enough’ thought is here). The idea here again is that we are stepping into the shoes of our noticing self. It is in this state of noticing and awareness that we can make more mindful decisions about how we respond to difficult thoughts (Assaz et al., 2018).

Changing Our Relationship With Thoughts

Ultimately our goal in the work we do with athletes and performers isn’t to change the way they think but to guide them towards a more helpful relationship with their thoughts. Sure, the thoughts we have about screwing up before going out on stage to perform are uncomfortable, but don’t those thoughts motivate you to prepare ahead of time? And yes, the thoughts we have about whether or not we’ll be good enough to pass that exam are frightening at times, but don’t they push us to study and revise for the test to ensure we’re as prepared as we can be? 

A lot of this boils down to reframing the way we view our thoughts. Rather than evaluating them as positive, negative, true, false, right or wrong, we can instead look for their helpfulness. To overcome the mental hurdle thoughts create we need to understand that there is always a reason for thinking the way we do. And of course, if you feel like some expert guidance with all of this then Get In Touch and ask us about our 1-on-1 sport and performance psychology services – most of which now take place via Webcam.

References

A-tjak, J. G., Davis, M. L., Morina, N., Powers, M. B., Smits, J. A., & Emmelkamp, P. M. (2015). A meta-analysis of the efficacy of acceptance and commitment therapy for clinically relevant mental and physical health problems. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 84(1), 30-36.

Assaz, D. A., Roche, B., Kanter, J. W., & Oshiro, C. K. (2018). Cognitive defusion in acceptance and commitment therapy: What are the basic processes of change?. The Psychological Record, 68(4), 405-418.

Berman, N. C. (2019). Treating taboo or forbidden thoughts: integrating mindfulness, acceptance, and emotion regulation into an exposure-based intervention. Journal of cognitive psychotherapy, 33(3), 196-212.

Fang, S., & Ding, D. (2020). A meta-analysis of the efficacy of acceptance and commitment therapy for children. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 15, 225-234.

Flaxman, P. E., & Bond, F. W. (2010). A randomised worksite comparison of acceptance and commitment therapy and stress inoculation training. Behaviour research and therapy, 48(8), 816-820.

Juncos, D. G., Heinrichs, G. A., Towle, P., Duffy, K., Grand, S. M., Morgan, M. C., … & Kalkus, E. (2017). Acceptance and commitment therapy for the treatment of music performance anxiety: a pilot study with student vocalists. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 986.

More References …

Juncos, D. G., & de Paiva e Pona, E. (2018). Acceptance and commitment therapy as a clinical anxiety treatment and performance enhancement program for musicians: Towards an evidence-based practice model within performance psychology. Music & Science, 1, 2059204317748807.

Kashdan, T. B., & Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical psychology review, 30(7), 865-878.

Kiuru, N., Puolakanaho, A., Lappalainen, P., Keinonen, K., Mauno, S., Muotka, J., & Lappalainen, R. (2021). Effectiveness of a web-based acceptance and commitment therapy program for adolescent career preparation: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of vocational behavior, 127, 103578.

Moran, D. J. (2015). Acceptance and commitment training in the workplace. Current Opinion in Psychology, 2, 26-31.

Ruiz, F. J., Flórez, C. L., García-Martín, M. B., Monroy-Cifuentes, A., Barreto-Montero, K., García-Beltrán, D. M., … & Gil-Luciano, B. (2018). A multiple-baseline evaluation of a brief acceptance and commitment therapy protocol focused on repetitive negative thinking for moderate emotional disorders. Journal of contextual behavioral science, 9, 1-14.

Scent, C. L., & Boes, S. R. (2014). Acceptance and commitment training: A brief intervention to reduce procrastination among college students. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 28(2), 144-156.

Wang, S., Zhou, Y., Yu, S., Ran, L. W., Liu, X. P., & Chen, Y. F. (2017). Acceptance and commitment therapy and cognitive–behavioral therapy as treatments for academic procrastination: A randomized controlled group session. Research on Social Work Practice, 27(1), 48-58.

Watson, D., Hill, A., Madigan, D., & Donachie, T. (2021). Effectiveness of an online Acceptance and Commitment Therapy-based sport psychology programme for managing trait perfectionism, perfectionistic thoughts, and emotions in athletes.

Emotions, Sport And Performance

“Emotions, Sport And Performance” is another free article by our own Madalyn Incognito. Are you still trying to feel a certain way in order to perform at your best? Madalyn explains why you might want to consider another approach.

Competitive sport is highly emotional, it always has been and always will be.

Emotions – The ‘E’ in METUF

  • As Sport Psychologists and Performance Psychologists we’re often asked for ways to improve emotional management come performance day. So what exactly does this involve?
  • Through varitions of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) we can learn to manage our emotions in more helpful ways compared with what society generally suggests.
  • At Condor Performance the goal of our emotion work is to teach athletes and performers how to perform at the highest possible level whilst experiencing the full range of emotions.
  • If you’d like more infomation above our sport and performance psychology services get in touch by completing the form on our Contact Us page.

Please Make Me Feel Better! 

In our profession, we deal with emotions on a daily basis. Athletes and Performers often ask us how they can learn to feel better on performance or competition day. A day that is often riddled with a whirlwind of emotions from excitement to anxiety, to helplessness, guilt and everything in between. The work we do around emotions often begins with a deep dive into reality. We’re probably never going to feel great on most performance days. And we will certainly never feel great before and during all competitive situations.

Our first job as Fully and Provisionally Registered Psychologists is to help our clients to let go of the idea of wanting to control the way they feel. Emotions aren’t something we have a huge amount of influence over. Athletes and performers often come to mental toughness training wanting to learn how to get rid of the “negative” emotions and replace them with positive ones. Yeah, good luck with that!

In their defence, this is often what is taught to us from a very young age. “It’s not appropriate to feel anger in the classroom” or “you should feel excited by the chance to play in the biggest competition of the year”.

What they often don’t realise is that it is trying to get rid of the negative ones that is actually the source of the problem. Not the actual uncomfortable feelings themselves.

Emotions And Performance

Emotion plays a huge role in Mental Toughness purely due to the fact that it has the capacity to impact virtually everything else. During the initial Kick Start Session, we hear stories of struggle when it comes to feelings on game-day. Performers often describe to us the many ways in which they try to control the uncomfortable emotions that inevitably arise on performance day. We get remarkable insight into how much impact emotions and feelings seem to have on their performance. To understand how to manage emotions, we first need to understand exactly what they are.

Why Do We Feel Things?

It is important for athletes and performers to understand why humans experience emotion. In short, it plays a very important role in our survival, providing us with crucial social and environmental information:

  • Feeling betrayed by someone? The emotion of betrayal teaches us not to trust that person again, because they have the potential to harm us. 
  • Feeling scared to jump out of a plane? The emotion of fear warns us that if we jump out of the plane, we could die. 
  • Feeling happy you completed that task? The emotion of happiness reinforces the behaviour you just performed, increasing the likelihood you’ll do it again. 

The Amygdala (the emotional centre of the brain) produces emotions mainly to warn us or reward us. The well-known fight or flight response is basically about our internal warning system. It’s hugely beneficial for there to be a surge in emotion and adrenaline when being attacked by a killer wombat, for example.

Survival vs Performance

So what we know about emotions is that within a survival framework they’re really good at keeping us alive. However, emotion in the performance domain has a reputation for often getting in the way of us doing the things we already know how to do. Our job as Sport and Performance Psychologists is to challenge the consensus that emotions have a direct impact on our performance. That is, to challenge the idea if I feel “bad” (i.e. nervous, anxious, doubtful) on game-day, I’ll inevitably perform “badly”. 

Often one of the first questions I’ll ask a new client during the initial Kick Start Session is,

“How do you view the relationship between emotions and performance. If I were to draw an arrow between the two, which direction would the arrow be pointing and what would this mean?”

Nine times out of ten, the response I get is, “how I feel usually determines how I perform”. But if we rarely feel fantastic come performance day due to our Amygdala then we’re in trouble, no?

The Reality Of Emotions in Sport

Little do most people know that it is actually the power we attribute to emotions that makes them so problematic. If you had the opportunity to ask some of the more mentally astute athletes in the world (e.g. RF) how they feel going into important matches most of them (if being honest) will say nervous or very nervous. We think either they’ve been doing it for so long they just don’t get nervous anymore, or they’ve developed some ‘magic skill set’ where they can switch off those uncomfortable feelings. The fact is that even the best athletes in the world feel the full range of emotions we experience before an important event.

What has made them so good in their performance domain is their ability to welcome and embrace these emotions and perform at a high level with them present. The ability to do this is a skill that can be developed in virtually any performance domain, so how do we go about developing it?

Introducing ACT

The main therapeutic framework we work within at Condor Performance is known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT (pronounced “act”) for short. This approach assumes that trying to get rid of unwanted emotions (anxiety, depression, hopelessness) actually creates a lot of psychological distress, often having a maladaptive impact on our behaviour (or in this case, a negative impact on our performance). This is basically because we are trying to fight something we don’t have a lot of influence over.

Through the mindful nature of ACT, we can learn to reduce the impact of emotions through building awareness and actually making room for them in our lives (and on performance day) and learning to let these feelings come and go without a struggle.

ACT Works

ACT is an extremely effective therapeutic approach to mental wellbeing and mental performance. In terms of emotion management, ACT has built a reputation over the past 30 years in terms of its effectiveness in both clinical and performance settings.

In the sporting domain, mindfulness-based strategies within an ACT framework have assisted athletes in emotion regulation, particularly during challenging periods of post-injury rehabilitation (Bernier et al., 2009, Mahoney & Hanrahan, 2011, Gardner & Moore, 2017). The effectiveness of ACT has also been seen in other performance domains including the workplace, academia and the performing arts (Moran, 2015; Paliliunas, Belisle & Dixon; 2018, Pingo, Dixon & Paliliunas, 2020; Clarke, Osborne & Baranoff, 2020).

Acceptance

ACT is an umbrella term for a range of mindfulness-based skills, with acceptance being one of the most useful and important. Through the skill of acceptance, our goal for athletes and performers is to help them open up to the uncomfortable feelings they experience as part of the human condition, before accepting their presence and allowing them to be there, rather than trying to avoid them. The idea behind acceptance is that if we learn to make room for emotions in our lives (without trying to fight them off), their power is ultimately diminished. ACT assumes that it is the struggle with and fighting off of these emotions that give them their power over our actions.

The “Noticing Self”

There is a part of us that feels, and then there is a part of us that notices that we feel a certain way. It is important for performers to learn to notice their emotions as they arise and build more awareness of them – why? Because our default response to uncomfortable feelings is to turn away from them – try to suppress, avoid or escape them, or distract ourselves from them. This is catastrophic when it comes to the motor skills required in most sports. It quite literally stopped you from doing what you are naturally very good at (e.g. kicking a soccer ball etc).

A trap we often fall victim to in performance settings is getting sucked into this default response. Eventually, we become so caught up in trying to get rid of uncomfortable emotions (an impossible task), that it’s impossible for us to be intensity aware, present and focused on what we need to be doing in that present moment. To help athletes and performers develop the noticing skill, we ask them to practice intentionally and consciously noticing and acknowledging uncomfortable feelings. We might ask them to silently tell themselves what they notice they’re feeling. For example, “I’m noticing anxiety”, or “I notice I’m feeling worried”. Through accepting and noticing emotions, we can learn to sit with the discomfort and reduce its impact on our actions (e.g. kicking a soccer ball etc).

Emotion Validation

Without acknowledging the presence of uncomfortable emotions we can actually invalidate our own experiences. When our most inner and private emotional experiences feel invalid, we’re then at risk of falling victim to that unhelpful emotion default response (suppress, avoid, escape, distract). Following this, our default cognitive response is often “I shouldn’t feel this way” or “I should be able to handle this better”.

Validating our emotions is a very technical term for comforting and reassuring ourselves (through some compassionate self-talk) that as part of the human condition, it is very normal to feel uncomfortable emotions when we encounter difficult situations. When we learn to notice, acknowledge and validate our emotions (in light of the important role they play in survival), this allows us to make room for them without feeling the need to struggle with them.

Commitment

But at the end of the day, there is a choice to be made. The athlete or performer can choose to:

  1. Feel these uncomfortable emotions and not commit to their actions, or
  2. Feel these uncomfortable emotions and commit to their actions.

Through mental toughness training our goal is to empower individuals to choose the latter. With the help of skills such as acceptance, noticing and validation, the decision to commit becomes much easier. 

Learning to Embrace Emotion

At Condor Performance, our goal is to guide athletes and performers towards a more healthy relationship with emotions. Because think about how boring would life be without them? The only reason we know happiness is because we’ve experienced sadness, so it is important as part of the human condition that we choose to welcome all emotions, pleasant and unpleasant. In the performance domain, we often view emotion in a negative light, but rather than looking at it as a sign of weakness we can choose to see it as a sign that we’re living. If you need help in doing this, then get in touch.

References

Angiola, J. E., & Bowen, A. M. (2013). Quality of life in advanced cancer: An acceptance and commitment therapy view. The Counseling Psychologist, 41(2), 313-335. 

Blackledge, J. T., & Hayes, S. C. (2001). Emotion regulation in acceptance and commitment therapy. Journal of clinical psychology, 57(2), 243-255.

Bernier, M., Thienot, E., Codron, R., & Fournier, J. F. (2009). Mindfulness and acceptance approaches in sport performance. Journal of clinical sport psychology, 3(4), 320-333.

Chawla, N., & Ostafin, B. (2007). Experiential avoidance as a functional dimensional approach to psychopathology: An empirical review. Journal of clinical psychology, 63(9), 871-890.

Clarke, L. K., Osborne, M. S., & Baranoff, J. A. (2020). Examining a group acceptance and commitment therapy intervention for music performance anxiety in student vocalists. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 1127.

Gardner, F. L., & Moore, Z. E. (2017). Mindfulness-based and acceptance-based interventions in sport and performance contexts. Current Opinion in Psychology, 16, 180-184.

Graham, C. D., Gouick, J., Krahe, C., & Gillanders, D. (2016). A systematic review of the use of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) in chronic disease and long-term conditions. Clinical psychology review, 46, 46-58.

Liverant, G. I., Brown, T. A., Barlow, D. H., & Roemer, L. (2008). Emotion regulation in unipolar depression: The effects of acceptance and suppression of subjective emotional experience on the intensity and duration of sadness and negative affect. Behaviour research and therapy, 46(11), 1201-1209.

Mahoney, J., & Hanrahan, S. J. (2011). A brief educational intervention using acceptance and commitment therapy: Four injured athletes’ experiences. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 5(3), 252-273.

Moran, D. J. (2015). Acceptance and commitment training in the workplace. Current Opinion in Psychology, 2, 26-31. 

Paliliunas, D., Belisle, J., & Dixon, M. R. (2018). A randomized control trial to evaluate the use of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) to increase academic performance and psychological flexibility in graduate students. Behavior analysis in practice, 11(3), 241-253. 

Pingo, J. C., Dixon, M. R., & Paliliunas, D. (2020). Intervention enhancing effects of acceptance and commitment training on performance feedback for direct support professional work performance, stress, and job satisfaction. Behavior analysis in practice, 13(1), 1-10.

Ruiz, F. J. (2010). A review of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) empirical evidence: Correlational, experimental psychopathology, component and outcome studies. International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy, 10(1), 125-162.

Motivation In Sport And Performance

“Motivation In Sport And Performance” is a 15 minute read by Condor Performance’s Madalyn Incognito. Please enjoy and share responsibility.

  • As Sport and Performance Psychologists we’re often asked about ways to improve or enhance motivation – so how do we do this?
  • The M in Metuf stands for motivation, and it’s apt that it comes first in our mental training model.
  • The best way to measure you motivation is by completing one of our four MTQs via this link. Your results will be emailed to you within a day or two.
  • Other words (synonyms) that are very similar to motivation are commitment, desire, passion and determination.
We are only just starting to realise just how big a role motivation plays in sport and performance situations. What will this mountain cyclist need to pass the athlete in front of her? Motivation obviously plays a part.

Why Is Motivation So Important?

The simple answer is motivation improves longevity both in sport (Sarrazin et al. 2002) and other performance domains (Grant, 2008). The higher the motivation, the longer (in years) you’ll want to do it for. There are a number of reasons an athlete or performer might struggle with motivation at some point in their career. Barriers can be physical, biological, social-environment or psychological. In terms of psychological barriers, what we know about motivation is that it is fostered by meeting three basic psychological needs (Deci & Ryan, 2000):

  • Competence
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness

For motivation to flourish, a performer first needs to be able to do the task. Then they have to have the freedom to choose to do the task, and finally, in some way feel a sense of connectedness with others. We know that by meeting these needs the likelihood of burnout is reduced significantly, keeping performers in their performance domain for longer.

The Role of Performance Psychology in Motivation 

What we also know about motivation is that the type of motivation a performer possesses is another extremely important factor to consider. One of the first questions we ask our clients during their initial free Kick Start Session is, “why do you do what you do?”. Understanding the reasons why an individual engages in something is a vital bit of information to have.

The most crucial bit of information we want to extract from this answer is around whether their motivation is intrinsic, extrinsic, or a mix of both. It’s important for both the Psychologist and the Performer to understand which of the two are at play, due to the fact that they work in different ways and can provide the performer with different motivational outcomes. 

Intrinsic Motivation

An athlete or performer who is intrinsically motivated does what they do for their own sense of personal satisfaction. Individuals who are internally driven will often say the reason for doing what they do is because it brings them a sense of:

  • Achievement
  • Purpose
  • Challenge 
  • Personal Reward 
  • Belonging 
  • Enjoyment

Performers who are intrinsically motivated participate in the performance domain because they enjoy learning and improving their skills, and have made a self-determined choice to participate. 

What makes intrinsic motivation so useful is the fact that it’s completely dependent on the individual. That is, the performer’s motivation isn’t based on anything or anyone else, and therefore isn’t reliant on things the individual doesn’t have a huge amount of influence over. The performance psychology literature claims that intrinsic motivation has the largest and most positive impact on performance quality (Cerasoli, Nicklin & Ford, 2014), and is the better of the two for more stable, long-term motivation. 

Not Just In Sport …

In alternative performance settings such as workplaces, intrinsic motivation is also associated with greater worker satisfaction and commitment, self-reported performance, company profitability and lower emotional and exhaustion burnout (Deci, Olafsen & Ryan, 2017). If you’re wanting to stick around in your area of performance for the long run, I definitely suggest sitting down and figuring out whether or not you are intrinsically motivated to put in the work. I don’t think just because you don’t love your sport at the moment that you can’t learn to love it.

Think about certain foods that as a kid you hated but that as you got older you learned to enjoy them (Brussel sprouts, dark chocolate!). One of the simplest exercises to boost intrinsic motivation is to write a list of your five favourite aspects of your involvement in the sport or performance area. Now, really “go to town” with these. For example, if you love the health benefits of running then keep a track of these benefits as objectively as possible.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsically motivated performers put in the work for some external reason or benefit. An individual who is very extrinsically motivated may feel obligated to do what they do as a result of external pressure (parents, coach, peers), or for financial or social benefit. 

The issue with extrinsic motivation is that it is reliant on things we don’t have a huge amount of influence over. For example;

  • What if one day mum and dad decide they’re not interested in your athletic career anymore? What if something else becomes more important to them than your athletic pursuits? Would you still want to continue?
  • What if I told you that you would never go on to earn lots of money, never land any sponsorships, and no one outside your local sporting community ever learns your name? Would this have an impact on your motivation?

For performers who are extrinsically motivated, it’s happy days when all the external factors we base our motivation on are present. The issue here is when they’re gone, you can expect to experience a real dip in your motivation.

Intrinsic or Extrinsic Motivation

The simplest way to determine whether or not a performer is intrinsically or extrinsically motivated is through a simple listing exercise – in the same format as a pros and cons list. What we would hope to see is that the performer lists more reasons they are intrinsically motivated than extrinsic. In-session, the discussion around this generally tends to serve as a time for realisation, and in some cases rediscovery:

  1. The athlete/performer may not have acknowledged the value of enjoyment, sense of reward and challenge they get from doing what they do, and how this can actually serve as an internal driving force during prolonged periods of training.
  2. The athlete/performer may also come to a realisation that they are doing what they do for the wrong reasons. A discussion around whether or not they’re taking committed action towards living a rich and meaningful life (as defined by their values) might follow this.

Visualisation for Motivation

Following discussions around the types of motivation that may be driving performance pursuits, we then have an opportunity to discuss some more practical skills to enhance it. Visualisation or Mental Rehearsal has many different purposes, of which technical practice and motivation are the two main uses. 

Visualisation for motivation is particularly important during times of prolonged intense training with limited competition (did someone say pandemic?). Visualising intentions (the actions or processes we wish to perform) from the first-person perspective can have a positive effect on motivation (Ouellette et al., 2005; Knauper et al., 2011; Johannessen, Oettingen & Mayer, 2012), and therefore process-based mental rehearsal from the mind’s eye is going to provide the best motivational outcomes. 

Understanding Your Motivation Fluctuations

Motivation tends to fluctuate (and sometimes for no obvious reason). This is particularly likely during a period of intense training or preparation. We often like to remind our clients that they are not robots and that doing the same thing over and over again is very unlikely to always be highly satisfying and enjoyable.

Having an understanding of what factors influence your levels of motivation is important. Knowing why you’re not that keen to go to training is far better than just having that feeling. Keeping note of motivation levels in response to known hormonal changes, level and intensity of training, presence of upcoming competitions and stressors outside of your performance domain is an important part of managing your mental wellbeing as an athlete or a performer. This allows for us to acknowledge we may need to engage in some self-compassion practices during those particularly challenging times. Try and track your motivation in a diary or similar format in order to link certain events so you can understand your motivators better.

Exploring Motivation Further

If you’re an athlete or performer and would like some tailored insight on how to boost your motivation then please get in touch by completing our Contact Us form and one of our team will get back to you to discuss how we might be able to assist you in this crucial performance area.

References

Cerasoli, C. P., Nicklin, J. M., & Ford, M. T. (2014). Intrinsic motivation and extrinsic incentives jointly predict performance: A 40-year meta- analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 140, 980–1008. http://dx.doi.org/10 .1037/a0035661

Deci, E. L., Olafsen, A. H., & Ryan, R. M. (2017). Self-determination theory in work organizations: The state of a science. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 4, 19–43. http://dx.doi.org/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-032516-113108

Deci, E. L., and Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychol. Inquiry 11, 227–268. doi: 10.1207/S15327965PLI1104_01

Grant, A. M. (2008). Does intrinsic motivation fuel the prosocial fire? Motivational synergy in predicting persistence, performance, and productivity. J. Appl. Psychol. 93:48. doi: 10.1037/0021-9010.93.1.48

Johannessen, K. B., Oettingen, G., & Mayer, D. (2012). Mental contrasting of a dieting wish improves self-reported health behaviour. Psychology & Health, 27(sup2), 43-58.

Knäuper, B., McCollam, A., Rosen-Brown, A., Lacaille, J., Kelso, E., & Roseman, M. (2011). Fruitful plans: Adding targeted mental imagery to implementation intentions increases fruit consumption. Psychology and Health, 26(5), 601-617.

Ouellette, J. A., Hessling, R., Gibbons, F. X., Reis-Bergan, M., & Gerrard, M. (2005). Using images to increase exercise behavior: Prototypes versus possible selves. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(5), 610-620.

Predoiu, R., Predoiu, A., Mitrache, G., Firancescu, M., Cosma, G., Dinuta, G., Buchroiu, R. A. (2020). Visualisation techniques in sport – The mental road map for success. Physical Education, Sport and Kinetototherapy Journal, 59 (3), 245-256. https://doi.org/10.35189/dpeskj.2020.59.3.4 

Sarrazin, P., Vallerand, R., Guillet, E., Pelletier, L. G., and Cury, F. (2002). Motivation and dropout in female handballers: a 21-month prospective study. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 32, 395–418. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.98 

Teixeira, P. J., Carraça, E. V., Markland, D., Silva, M. N., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). Exercise, physical activity, and self-determination theory: A systematic review. The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 9, 78. http://dx.doi.org/10.1186/1479-5868-9-78