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.


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. .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.

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. 

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.

Author: Madalyn Incognito

Madalyn spent most of her teenage years training and competing at the national level in swimming. After committing to the sport at the age of 12, she spent the next few years competing all around the country in her main events, which included 50m/100m/200m freestyle, 100m backstroke and 100m/200m butterfly. She has also been heavily involved in the Martial Arts sphere from a young age, training, competing and teaching various styles including Karate and Han Mu Do, as well as Muay Thai which she currently practises. 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.