Understanding Motivators in Sports

Motivators in sports are often misunderstood. At young ages, athletes can be driven by the wrong types of motivators that can end up making athletes depressed later in their careers. Good meaning parents and coaches, in an effort not to disappoint you, athletes, can reward them incorrectly.

By the time athletes come to work with us in our programs they have a small understanding of what motivators in sports are, but they may not know how to generate their own motivation, how to use outside factors to help drive their motivation.  And ultimately, how to continue finding enjoyment in their sport no matter what their results may be.

So let’s first start with this…

What is Motivation?

According to the dictionary, the word “motivation” is the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way.

An interesting thing to see is that interest in the word “motivation” has spiked since 2015.  Seems that way back in 2007 we didn’t care all that much about motivation, but what I’ve noticed is that as depression and anxiety have risen, so has an interest in finding meaning and staying motivated in all we do.

Even for our athletes, some of who have really big goals and aspirations, they too are aware that the everyday grind of living and training can be a drag on motivation and that finding different motivators in sport can help them along the way.

Now that you know the definition of motivation, it’s important to know that there are two types of motivators in sport.  The first one comes from you and the second set of motivators comes from outside of you.

They are called “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” motivators.

What is Intrinsic MotivationMotivators In Sport: How Athletes Can Use Them To Their Advantage

Intrinsic motivation is probably THE most important motivator in sport. It is the type of motivation that comes from within…you.  The drive to do a thing without any other reason than to do it for “doing” sake.

Many athletes first get involved with a sport because a parent, a friend, a sibling introduces them to the sport.  However they get started, athletes who are intrinsically motivated continue with the sport and that intrinsic motivation falls into three types:

  1. To know or to learn.
  2. To accomplish personal goals
  3. To experience exciting sensations (adrenaline rush anyone?)

Young athletes don’t necessarily know this at the time (especially #2) but #3 is a big factor in enjoying a sport. 

The rush that comes with landing a new trick or executing a new skill feels great!  The reward of practice comes when an athlete gets to do something new and exciting. Maybe they score a goal or make a save.

Flow: A Powerful Motivator In Sport

When athletes are intrinsically motivated they are starting to tap into these cool biochemical processes that lead a person to what is called…flow.

Popularized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book titled Flow, athletes find that whether it’s in a game or in a practice, they are happiest when they are learning and achieving and tapping into the cool neurochemicals that reward us when we are doing this thing.

Flow is ultimately one of the best motivators in sport.

From his book Flow: 

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990, p. 3)

When athletes start to push themselves to a point where what they are trying to do is just outside their level of ability, that’s when they hit that flow state.  If they can get there on their own…awesome.

Something to consider for our athletes, however, when practices or games fall outside of that state (either too hard or too easy) an athlete falls out of Flow and motivation falls apart.

On one end of the spectrum, athletes can feel incredible fear and anxiety.  On the other end of the spectrum, they get bored.  That is why coaches and parents need to be aware of the goals athletes sets for themselves, or the demands that come from practice or gameday’s are appropriate.

Too much and an athlete gets scared.  Too little and an athlete gets bored and starts wondering what’s for dinner.

What Is Extrinsic Motivation?

Extrinsic motivation comes from motivators that are outside of the athlete. 

Here’s a partial list of extrinsic motivators:

  • Trophies
  • Trips for ice cream after practice or games
  • Being with friends on the field
  • Social status
  • Money
  • Food
  • Stuff (equipment, clothing, etc)
  • Avoiding punishment from parents or coaches or teammates
  • Scholarships
  • Media attention or social media followers
  • Coach pressure
  • Not playing or being benched
  • Points scored.  Games won.  Olympic teams made

Extrinsically motivated athletes play because they are driven by these external rewards and then they obsess on the results of their competitions.  If they have a good result…great!  But if they have a bad result, they are hanging on by a thread and ready to quit at a moment’s notice.

Extrinsic motivators in sport are out of your control and they are also not very stable.  They can change at any time and they are difficult to rely on.

The Problem with Extrinsic Motivators For Athletes  

Well-meaning parents and programs heap external motivators on athletes for any number of reasons.  

We have the ability to dress our little soccer players like the best players in the world.  With the same jerseys and cleats.  The same is true for ice hockey and baseball and any other sport you can imagine.

We can make tiny competitions look like the Olympics and parents tend to gladly dive into all that “stuff”.

The problem here is that you can take an intrinsically motivated athlete and start to distract them with all the “stuff”. 

Athletes who were “just happy to play” are now disappointed when the next event doesn’t have all the extra bells and whistles.

Extrinsic Rewards Are Often Unavoidable

We often hear people say that they would do something even if they didn’t get paid for it.  Intrinsically motivated athletes would say the same thing.  They’d be happy to play and compete even if there were no fans in the stands, no jerseys to wear and no medals to be won.  

But in reality…

You wouldn’t have an Olympics without gold, silver, and bronze medals.

I love watching the Super Bowl and seeing the Lombardi Trophy.

Or, did you know…the oldest contested trophy in sport is thought to be The America’s Cup in sailing, but it’s actually these very cool Carlisle Bells that come from horse racing and have been competing for since 1599!

The age and prestige make these ancient trophies some of the strongest motivators in sport.  The long history.  The heritage.  To win one of these trophies to have your name etched to some of the most revered names in these sports and that’s a very, very powerful motivating force.

What is great about sport is that we compete to be the best, and when we are, we are now part of a select group of competitors and there is an immense pleasure to be had in that accomplishment.  

There is also great sadness when we don’t reach that goal.

Extrinsic rewards, by themselves, are not good or bad.

But how we focus on those rewards can actually do the opposite of motivating us.  They can actually de-motivate an athlete.

By focusing on external motivators you are actually not focusing on what is happening at the moment. You are thinking of something in the future.

The reward is actually distracting the athlete from doing their best, at the moment.

How Intrinsically Motivated Athletes Deal With Setbacks

When athletes are intrinsically motivated they are focused on goals that involve their own personal mastery.  They care about the outcome but they know that the result is based on their own personal improvement in certain areas.

If you want to know more about those areas you can check out my free course on an Athlete’s Three Key Abilities

Intrinsically motivated athletes are better suited to deal with setbacks. They are able to connect those setbacks to areas of their training or mental preparation quickly and easily, and they can then improve on those areas and usually enjoy improved results rather quickly.

How Extrinsically Motivated Athletes Deal With Setbacks

Extrinsically motivated athletes, when met with setbacks, tend not to deal with the issues very well.

They tend to blame others or other things outside of their control.  They tend to give up knowing that, “they aren’t going to win anyway.”

Parents and coaches who focus on external motivators, like winning or trophies, tend to miss the opportunities to help their athletes.  And because they’ve only focused on outcomes as opposed to process, their words of encouragement fall flat when then finally say things like, “You did great! You did way better than last time!”

Whatever, mom.

How Do Elite Athletes Use Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivators In Sport

A study of elite track and field athletes showed that elite athletes actually use a combination of extrinsic AND intrinsic motivators.

First…these athletes already had an unusually high self-belief in their abilities.  They wouldn’t already be elite athletes if they hadn’t come this far with some solid internal motivators and solid results.

Second…their sport was a significant part of their life.  Their world revolved around their participation in their sport and everything else came second. (I’ll discuss this a bit later but your environment can also be a very strong motivator in your sporting life.)

Third…the goals they set for themselves were partially based on their extrinsic goals but were also made with a very healthy dose of self-determined process goals of things they needed to do to make those extrinsic goals happen.

And that’s where many young athletes fail.

They hear their favorite athletes talk about how they always wanted to compete in the Olympics or play in college or play professionally. It would seem, incorrectly, that having really big goals are a good motivator in sport, but it’s not completely.

What they fail to realize is that when those “elite” athletes were their age, they had set smaller goals based on where they were…at the time.

Yes, those big goals were there, but those smaller, micro goals were what was driving them.

It was the daily habits driven by a strong internal drive that got them to those extrinsic athletic goals that we see on TV or online.

How To Increase Intrinsic Motivation?

I worked with an athlete last year who was a national caliber athlete in her sport.  She had started competing at a very young age and her room was filled with every trophy, medal, and ribbon she had earned since she started her sport.

I joked that her room looked like a fire-hazard it had so much ribbon hanging on its walls!

With all that past success this athlete was suffering from a lack of results in the last few years and it was weighing on her mentally.

“I don’t know what’s wrong.  I’m just not getting the same amount of hardware I usually get” she said sadly.

After some digging, I realized that at her new age group, there was less “bling” awarded just because she was older.  Instead of awarding medals and ribbons all the way down to lower places than when she was young.

She also competed in fewer competitions because the events were larger and filled with better athletes.

The lack of ‘stuff’ she had to put on her walls wasn’t due to a lack of results (although there was some room for improvement) it was partly due to lack of ‘stuff’ being given.

She also hadn’t gotten a new roller-bag like her friends had gotten this year which was partially due to her parents putting their foot down and saying, “Enough, we don’t need to buy a new bag EVERY year.”

That may seem like a small thing, but what I was noticing was that this athlete had been extrinsically motivated her entire career, and now that the “bling” wasn’t coming hot and heavy, it was affecting her performances and she wanted to just give up on it all.

Sadly, this isn’t an uncommon practice.  Athletes quit all the time because of extrinsic motivators that go away as they get older.

What I told this athlete is that while ribbons and medals and other trophies are strong motivators in sport they can also distract an athlete.

My recommendation was to start to box up some of the bling she had hanging in her room and to keep only the ones that represented the really big accomplishments.  

I didn’t want this athlete to lost track of the times when she had overcome adversity to win an event.  If all those medals and trophies sit up there it becomes noise. The impact is lost.

Over time she removed some of the medals, ribbons and trophies and left only the ones that reminded her of incredible personal moments.

We know that intrinsic motivators are some of the most powerful motivators in sport, so by looking at one of these trinkets and reliving the moment and really feeling what it was like to win, she is wiring in those deep-seated memories and would be able to tap into them again in the future.

By making that shift those items in her room went from extrinsic motivators in sport to deep, impactful reminders of intrinsic motivation.  A much more powerful message.

How To Help Athletes With Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation?

While some athletes, just reading about their own motivators in an article like this, can now adjust their own goal setting and realize how they’ve been motivated all along, others may need a little help.

Parents and coaches can help athletes with their motivation in a number of ways by encouraging intrinsic motivation while using extrinsic motivators appropriately.

Here are some quick ideas:

Eliminate Unnecessary Extrinsic Motivators

You can probably make a quick list of motivators that you should no longer be using.  Start by eliminating them in an appropriate fashion.

Goal Setting and Goal Getting

Going back to my earlier comments about the Flow book by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, athletes get to that flow state when they are doing things that are just outside their comfort zone, but not too far.

That’s why if athletes are participating in events that are too hard for them they are going to get knocked out of flow.  On the flip side of that, if they aren’t being challenged enough then they are going to be bored.

So while it’s ok for athletes to set outcome goals, like, “I’m going to win my next event” That’s all well and good if that event is appropriate for them.  The last thing we need is an athlete setting unrealistic goals.

It’s ok for athletes to set outcome goals but they need to be appropriate for them.

If an athlete is seven, it’s great for them to say they want to play professionally someday, but setting a smaller goal like making a regional team may be more appropriate for them.

The big goal can be so far out in the future that it isn’t motivating enough.

That being said, parents and coaches can help an athlete by having them set process goals that will help them reach that larger goal.

Goals like: attending every practice, avoiding sugar, doing all my homework before practice, etc.  These are all small micro-goals that, if done correctly, should help the athlete reach their extrinsic goal.

One of the aspects that drives my work with athletes in our mental performance programs is understanding these process goals because my coaches didn’t use them with me…at all.

It’s one of the missed opportunities in my athletic career and I make sure none of my athletes get lost without setting process goals.  With process goals, it’s easy to set achievable benchmarks that help boost self-esteem.

These types of benchmarks are especially important if an athlete is injured.  By turning inwards and staying focused on the process they can feel good about themselves along the way. The result might not be there yet but they are putting in the work necessary to get better.

Using Extrinsic Motivators Appropriately

In team settings, we want to reward effort over results.  But a team that doesn’t acknowledge its best efforting players doesn’t seem like a team at times.

Teams have their hierarchy’s and it is possible to reward them without making the rest of the team feel like a bunch of bums.

The key to rewarding individuals within a team is to keep the rewards rather…how should we say…small.

Firstly, no money should be attached to any rewards.  This can bring on undue competitions within the team which can pull apart an otherwise good bunch of guys and girls.

Things like Most Improved Player or Man of the Match or having a hard hat that goes to the hardest working individual for that game or practice are nice.

These types of extrinsic rewards should be attainable to all members of the team.  This can be a great team-builder when the “runt of the litter” comes away with the prize.  The whole team can rally around him or her and make them feel a significant part of the team.

Individually, I think it’s ok to have extrinsic rewards but they need to reinforce great habits and not sabotage them along the way.

Think of a person dieting who rewards themselves with an extra-large pizza on Sunday after a solid week of dieting.  That whole week of work had been undone by the reward.

A small ice cream might be appropriate.  Or a night at the movies (without the popcorn of course).  Or maybe a new video game.  Or a teammate gets to clean the gym, or a roommate does the laundry.

You can have some fun here and be creative, but remember, keep it light and rather “token”.

Understanding Environment: A Powerful Motivator in Sports

This may seem a bit odd, but one of the things that can really put a damper on motivation is the environment with which they train or compete.

We’ve all had experiences where we got to play in a very cool venue, but our everyday venue may be a bit…off.

Athletes have to understand that no matter what the environment they have to rise above it.  

I share the story of Novak Djokovich who grew up playing tennis in a drained swimming pool and who went on to become one of the best players of all time.

I had the opportunity to work with a very talented group of Canadian tennis players who played in a state-of-the-art facility.

To all the coaches who came into work with these athletes, we all said, “This facility will keep them from being great.”  It was too clean.  Too perfect.  Too state-of-the-art.

It’s important to remember that how you embrace your environment can really change how you train and compete.  If you can overlook short-comings and use it as a tool to help you get better, you will turn that outside environment into a powerful internal driver. But if you aren’t careful it can turn into an extrinsic de-motivator.  One that makes you think, “I’ll never make it out of this place.”

Passion: The Motivator That Helped You Fall In Love With Your Sport

As athletes get better they are often thrown into programs that now become restrictive.

What was once just enjoyable and fun now has external forces that “require” you to do certain things.

Maybe you need to train at certain times and not others.  Maybe you need to move away from home.  Maybe you have to start drug testing or other rather invasive procedures.

Now things are getting “serious”.

But if “serious” becomes very restricting then motivation can disappear.  Now the questions arise, “is this all worth it?” Only the athlete can decide.  This is where values and performance may start to clash.  Being aware of this potential can make a huge difference.  

This is where breaks in training can really come into play. 

When motivation starts to suffer, taking a break away from the grind can really help an athlete.  Sometimes just a little time away can make a massive difference.  As I like to say…

“There is no such thing as burnout.  But there is such a thing as ‘under-recovered’.”

An athlete who is well-rested and recovered tends to have plenty of motivation even if their results aren’t great.  A well-rested athlete can think clearly and can often help themselves to get into that flow state where time stands still and they are completely immersed in what they love to do.

Understanding Their Self-Explanatory Style of Self-Talk

In his fantastic book “Learned Optimism” Dr. Martin Seligman talks about the Self-Explanatory style.

How an athlete talks to themselves can be either motivating or de-motivating.  You can have a result in practice or in a game that is perfect for their development, and yet, the way they describe it to themself can be really pessimistic and demoralizing.

Athletes who are hard on themselves can suck the motivation right out of their best results.

While this is a whole ‘nuther topic…if an athlete talks to themselves in a negative way then they’ve almost lost before they started.  They may sabotage their best results by not giving themselves enough credit.

While that is something to consider after good results, the next idea is a way to talk positively going into a competition or even a practice…

I used a keyword phrase when I was competing that I got from a favorite song of mine.  The phrase was “grace under pressure” and I would say that phrase and think about what it meant.

That one phrase helped me in so many situations and reminded me of who I wanted to be as an athlete and as a person.  


When you begin to understand motivators in sport you begin to realize that every athlete has an incredible amount of potential that can be unleashed by tapping into their intrinsic motivation and can be stifled by extrinsic motivators.

While using extrinsic motivators is ok in moderation, we want to maintain an athlete’s intrinsic motivation so that, when times get tough, they have the energy and the tools to make it through.

Over the years we’ve worked with athletes who have had to become aware of the effect of extrinsic motivators in their career and learn how to get back to the intrinsic motivators that helped them fall in love with their sport again.

With some creativity, parents and coaches can modify these techniques and increase an athlete’s motivation and their ability to overcome challenges and reach their goals.

More Mental Performance in Sports Articles:

You’ll enjoy my article 11 Mental Skills For Today’s Athlete

When athletes finally get to practice they’ll want to know: Why Deliberate Practice Matters

And did you know that when an athlete gets to Game Day it’s not time to think? Save the thinking for practice.

Leave a comment! We read them all 🙂

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