What Motivates Athletes?

Sports and athletic competition have been a part of society for nearly as long as humans have made effort to record their own history. While today’s activities no doubt stand in stark contrast to the competitions of our ancestors, it’s likely that the underlying motivations are much the same as they have always been. Although their abilities and approaches differ greatly, most athletes are driven by one of two core desires: an intrinsic desire for competence and capability or the will to prevail over competition.

Those individuals who are motivated by a desire to excel at a particular craft are generally those who can maintain effort more consistently. Whether it’s training, practice or actual competition, these types of athletes often display an affinity for the game or activity itself. In this regard, the motivation is simply to continue improving oneself, which often makes it easier for such athletes to persevere in the face of setbacks and major challenges.

Conversely, athletes whose primary drive comes from besting their opponents often excel in live competition, but they might also find it difficult to maintain the same energy in practice sessions. Without the incentive of victory, the same degree of motivation may or may not exist. In the absence of immediate gratification, pushing past difficult periods such as injuries or personal slumps can be more taxing.

In spite of the cardinal differences between these two types of athletes, common threads do exist. Motivated persons are typically those who feel the need to achieve, and therefore will often take the steps necessary to experience such success. To varying degrees, motivated persons are generally willing to sacrifice in other areas of life in order to focus their energy on becoming more proficient in their chosen activities, separating them from decidedly less-motivated individuals.

Pro athletes are the subjects of more scrutiny than ever before, with much of the attention being placed on those factors which helped to produce their exceptional talents. Coaches in every sport and every part of the world seek out the secret formula — the magic motivator which will turn any capable athlete into a superstar. While there is likely some merit to the idea that motivation comes from within and can’t be taught, harnessing and refining that energy is something else entirely.

This end is often achieved primarily through positive or negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement can be as simple as offering verbal praise for desirable behaviors or as complex as offering rewards for specific goals achieved. Negative actions lean toward verbal criticism, reduced playing time or even revoked privileges. Both are capable of promoting more favorable future outcomes, although the success of either approach hinges on one’s understanding of how best to communicate with a given athlete.

In the world of sports, motivation stands as the single variable which the athlete him or herself can control. Outside elements are capable of influencing any competition, including environmental factors, officiating and the talent level of the opposition. Because motivation ultimately does start and end with the individual, it remains at the heart of athletic success or failure and must be properly channeled in order for competitors to reach their own personal peaks.

Sources: Psychology Today

Psychology Today