Mental Toughness Digest for Sport & Performance.
Motivation: The Epicentre of Performance Excellence
By Gareth J. Mole (PSY0001372747)
Anyone who is vaguely familiar with our mental training model (Metuf™) will be aware that in our work as sport and performance psychologists we target what we like to call “The Big Five” mental aspects of performance. As we rarely say otherwise, I am aware we might imply that these five areas – confidence, concentration, communication, emotions and motivation – are roughly equal in importance and usefulness. But they’re not. One of these psychological puzzle parts sits above the rest. It not only dictates the effort that goes into improving the other four, but governs effort right across the spectrum of human endeavours. You guessed it; motivation is the real epicentre of mental toughness.
Motivation pushes us into action towards a desired goal and gives purpose and direction to our behaviour. Synonyms for motivation include, but are not limited to, ambition, desire, impetus, inclination, interest, reason, wish, drive, fire, hunger and determination. Unlike much of the science related to sport and performance psychology, which evolves and updates almost on a monthly basis, the founding principles of motivation have more or less remained the same for a very long time and it’s these ‘tried and tested’ philosophies that we’ll be exploring in this edition of the Digest.
The first principle is that the key to motivation is directional more than quantity based. In other words, someone who spends all day at home, lying on the couch, watching television and snacking on potato chips is not unmotivated or lacking in determination. This individual is highly motivated to spend all day on the sofa. All too often motivation is confused with energy levels. There is no disputing that as humans our energy levels vary, but our motivation is fairly consistent during our lifetime and from one person to the next. It’s the direction of our motivation where the massive variance is to be found.
You could be motivated by billions of different things, but most of these can be chunked into either internal or external influences. Much of the work by the brilliant Edward L. Deci during the 1970s examined the differences and interactions between internal and external motivation and his conclusions have significant benefits for those looking to try and reach the top of their field.
In a sport or performance context external motives tend to be rewards that come with achievements or punishments related to not achieving certain outcomes. These rewards and punishments can be obvious (winning money, medals, trophies, being dropped, a fine, missing the cut) or less obvious (getting praise for performing well or getting yelled at for not) but essentially all have one thing in common – their origins are unpredictable. In other words, the fact your coach didn’t praise you for your last performance may have nothing to do with you. Maybe she or he was just in a bad mood, or just forgot. Internal motives tend to be feelings. For example, a feeling of satisfaction about going to training even though you didn’t feel like it or a growing sense of enthusiasm and excitement as the start of the season approaches. These feelings may be related to external factors such as results or other people, but the key is they don’t have to be. You can feel pride without praise from a coach or teammate. You can improve your confidence without having to win anything.
By way of conclusion it seems only fair to leave you with some ideas about what sports science suggests is the most useful type of motivation. Being both internally motivated and externally motivated is fine, as long as there is a balance between the two. Being mostly internally motivated is also fine as these factors are controllable and highly predictable. However, for those who are mostly or entirely driven by external factors such as rewards or results, heed this warning. These “outside” factors are dangerously unpredictable and therefore you run the risk of your most important psychological weapon – your motivation – being at the mercy of aspects you have little or no influence on.
In order to shine a light on your motivation or that of someone else all you really need to do is ask yourself (or them) a whole bunch of questions. Some of the hardest questions are also some of the most useful in terms of working out if you’re motivated in a useful way or not. It should come as no surprise that these ‘hard questions’ tend to be the ones we, as sport and performance psychologists, ask our 1-on-1 clients on a regular basis. Below are three crackers and if you like, email the answers directly to me firstname.lastname@example.org for some feedback. Thanks for reading.
• How would you spend your training time if locked in a padded prison cell for a day? • How much do your results, other people, the weather and your surroundings impact on your enthusiasm to practice / train? • Why do you compete (what are the reasons behind entering various competitions)?