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.

We’re only just starting to understand just how big a role motivation plays in … well …. everything.

Why Is Motivation So Important?

The simple answer is that motivation underpins all the other aspects. Think about it. When you are motivated, everything is easier. And when your motivation drops suddenly these same tasks seem much harder.

It also plays a huge role in longevity. The higher the motivation, the longer (in years) you’ll want to continue in your sport/performance area.

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, environmental, and/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 to the ability they are happy with. Then they have to have the freedom to choose to do the task. In other words, they are not being forced into it. Finally, having a sense of connectedness with others helps a lot. This is the social element of sport that can be so powerful. Winning and losing with your mates basically.

We know that by meeting these three major 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 has 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 vital. Not just for the psychologist, but for the client as well. Why not stop reading for 5 minutes and just list 5 reasons why you do what you do?

Time To Think
Time To Think

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.

Intrinsic Motivation

An athlete or performer who is intrinsically motivated does what they do for their own sense of personal satisfaction. If you listed any of the below, then this suggests you are internally or intrinsically motivated.

  • 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. Therefore it 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 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 as well as lower emotional and exhaustion burnout.

If you’re wanting to stick around in your area of performance for the long run, I suggest boosting your intrinsic motivation. One obvious way to go about this is to work with a qualified sport psychologist or performance psychologist. Click here to browse our current team and get in touch if you’d like to learn more about working with one of us.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsically motivated performers put in the work more 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. How many of the reasons that you listed above are external rewards? If at least one, ask yourself how your motivation would be impacted if it was taken away.

Too Extrinsically Motivated?

A nice analogy to explain the pitfalls of being too extrinsically motivated is like building a house on weak foundations. Think of the internal reasons why you do your sport as being the foundations. Essentially, what everything else is built on.

They are less glamorous and often invisible. But they are absolutely crucial to make sure the house on top is safe and secure. In this analogy, the house itself with its fancy solar panels and double-glazed windows represents the external motivators. It basically works like this:

  • Only internal motivators – fine
  • Both internal and external motivators – great / ideal
  • Just external motivators – potentially problematic

Visualisation for Motivation

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?). Visualizing intentions (the actions or processes we wish to perform) from the first-person perspective can have a positive effect on motivation. Basically, 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 well-being as an athlete or a performer. This allows 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.

Author: Madalyn Incognito

Madalyn is passionate about improving sporting performance through psychological practice and research and she was ultimately motivated to pursue a career in performance psychology as a result of her own experiences growing up as an athlete, where her eyes were opened to the ways in which one’s mental state can impact on their performance, and how psychology can be utilised to improve performance across a range of competitive settings. Madalyn’s first-hand experience inside the pressure cooker of High-Performance Sport combined with ongoing learning and practice as a provisionally registered psychologist means that she was the obvious choice to join the Condor Performance team at the start of 2021.