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The Science of Motivation for Athletes | Performance Ground
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The Science of Motivation for Athletes

The Science of Motivation for Athletes

The Science of Motivation for Athletes

Harness the mind to get stronger, better and faster.

Motivation is the ability to initiate and persist at a given task. It is the building block of all accomplishments athletic or otherwise. You could have the best equipment, best coaches, best nutrition and the best environment but if you don’t have the motivation to succeed, all these other factors are meaningless.  To perform at your best in sport you need to have the desire to begin the process to develop and then be willing to persevere with your efforts until your goal has been reached. Motivation to start is the easy part. If you have ever started a diet or planned to get into shape, you are motivated 100% to start, you may even go out to the shop and buy lots of healthy food or a new pair of running shoes. However, the most important feature is the ability to persist with the process when times get tough. Motivation is the biggest difference between being an average athlete and winning an Olympic medal.  There are many things that may influence your motivation to start or persevere with a task but these influences can be categorised into intrinsic motivation (internal factors like drive to succeed or competitiveness) and extrinsic motivation (external factors like prize money, reward and status). In this article, we will talk about the science of motivation for athletes.

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Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation arises when the source of our motivation to perform a task is to earn a reward or avoid punishment. Examples of this may be:

  • Studying because you want to get a good grade.
  • Participating in a sport to win a reward/money.
  • Winning to have status over others.
  • Attending because you want to avoid punishment.
  • Going to the gym because you don’t want to get fat.
  • Coaching because you are getting paid.

In these examples the participation and behaviour is fuelled for a desire to win a reward or avoid punishment. Athletes engage in a task, behaviour or sport in order to get something in return rather than because they enjoy it or find it rewarding.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation occurs when the source of motivation comes from within, when something is personally rewarding or enjoyed for the sake of doing it. Some examples may include:

  • Participating in a sport because you find it satisfying and enjoyable.
  • Signing up to a race because you find the challenge exciting.
  • Helping at an event because you find it rewarding and want the sport or event to go well.
  • Coaching because you are passionate about development.

In all of these examples, one is motivated by an internal desire to participate in an activity for its own sake. Because the behaviour itself is a reward.

Which type of motivation is best?

The research shows that people that are more intrinsically motivated to complete a task have a higher likelihood of reaching their goals. However, the right kind of extrinsic motivation aids this journey. In most instances, there is a combination of both motivation types. Often, someone may start a task driven by external motivation such as raising money for charity, treating themselves to a new pair of shoes or gaining a spot on a team. This kind of motivation gets the ball rolling but the internal motivation needs to be there to persist with the task. You need to enjoy what you are doing. Over time, the external motivation like a cash prize or scholarship become minute compared to your own satisfaction. Even the largest amount of money isn’t enough if you are miserable.

Self-Efficacy and goal setting

When you are motivated to reach a goal, the world is your oyster. You feel good about achieving the goal and have confidence in reaching it. However, one area that most people often fall short is having a plan on how to get there.

You are more likely to stay motivated to reach a goal, if you have a plan in place and have a network of people to support you. Self-efficacy is essentially the psychology of having a belief in yourself. If you believe that you can do something and reach a goal, you will be more motivated to do so.

Setting small achievable goals and challenges along the journey is a sure way to keep motivated. Having the self-belief that you can achieve your goals, even if it requires a bit of hard work, will keep you motivated even through the tough training sessions and rainy days.


If you participate in a sport or you are taking on a challenge, have a go at writing down what is actually motivating your desire to do so. If you are somewhat lacking in the motivation department, make sure that whatever you are doing is still fun and you are enjoying it. Set a goal and let everybody know about it! Challenge yourself but don’t set a target that is well out of reach or you will fall at the first hurdle. Write down the things that motivate you and give you the desire to participate in the task. If there are no extrinsic motivators, create some. Make a bet with a friend on your 10k race time or reward yourself with some new training shoes after you hit a new personal best.  Be realistic with yourself and set up a plan to achieve your goals. This may be seeking a coach to guide you through your training, completing a certain distance each week or as simple as planning your meals for the week. Set small goals week by week or even day by day and make sure that you believe in yourself. If you don’t believe you can achieve your goals, you have already lost.

Ashley Capewell

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