Happy February, readers! First, I will honestly say that this month’s blog did not come easy. Often, a relevant and – I hope – exciting topic reveals itself well before my submission deadline. Alas, this one was a grind. I recently returned from vacation and found many reasons to place this particular “to-do” on the back burner. For whatever reason, I wasn’t feeling…oh, what’s the right word…motivated. That’s right, dear readers, this month’s topic, a fundamental aspect of my work and a core tenet of sport psychology, is brought to you by my lack of motivation.* The beauty and the irony.
Borrowing from Sport Psychologist Richard Cox, “It is difficult to imagine anything being more important to success in sport than motivation.” Indeed, without motivation, even the most talented individuals struggle mightily to reach this full potential. Interestingly, this incredibly powerful construct (which has proven to be crucial to far more than just success) is often oversimplified and widely misunderstood. With that: Let’s jump in!
The Desire to Move
Despite its status as a key contributor to growth, performance, resilience, and achievement, motivation in sport is often reduced to an acute feeling granted by an impassioned pre-game speech. While I’m the first to admit that Coach Yoast’s “You make sure, they remember, forever, the night they played the Titans,” will never fail to give me goosebumps, true, long-term, motivation is not a product of inspirational speeches or hoorahs. Sustaining healthy motivation is a much trickier, and far more personal, task than can be achieved by any soundbite.
So what is motivation, exactly? The word is derived from the Latin movere, or “to move.” This is the simple essence of motivation: The desire to move; to take action; to do, as opposed to stay (literally or figuratively) stationary. The specific nature of our motivation depends on from where that desire to move is born. Motivation exists on a continuum from amotivation (or a lack of motivation) to extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation.
Notably, these subtypes are not created equal. While somewhat functional in the short-term, extrinsic motivators like awards, money, and social approval do not sustain us across time and adversity, and can even contribute to burnout and increase injury risk. Meanwhile, intrinsic motivation, motivation born from within, does hold the power to sustain us. When one’s desire to engage in a task is due to the joy of engaging in it, or fulfillment found in the process of the activity itself (learning skills, building relationships, relieving stress, etc.), we’re far more likely to experience stable, ongoing motivation. Intrinsically motivated individuals also reap other benefits, including better long-term learning, more logical thinking, more effective skill application, greater creativity and productivity, and enhanced positive mood. Intrinsically motivated athletes tend to be self-confident and persistent, exhibit higher levels of sportsmanship, and are more likely to glean the positive welfare benefits associated with sport participation.
To be clear, extrinsic motivation isn’t inherently bad. In fact, a sprinkle of it now and again can be quite functional, especially for boring or redundant tasks. Where feeding extrinsic motivators gets dicey is within activities that the individual already finds interesting. For many kids, playing sports starts off as fun. By placing undue emphasis on factors like winning and team placement, this pure internal drive to participate in sport is diminished. Research has replicated this finding repeatedly: When we place external rewards on an inherently enjoyable task, we undermine an individual’s intrinsic motivation toward that task. Since athletes often cite a lack of fun and heightened pressure as primary reasons for leaving sport, doubling down on feeding our kids’ intrinsic motivation for soccer is undoubtedly worthwhile.
Making Motivation Last
Armed with a clearer understanding of motivation’s idiosyncrasies, it’s time to talk about action. Let’s start by addressing those at the center of this discussion:
- Reflect On Why: The most powerful motivators connect strongly with your values. Take time to honestly reflect on your reasons for playing soccer. If your true Whys are largely internal, your intrinsic motivation will likely serve you well throughout the game. If most of your Whys lie outside of yourself (achievements, praise, status), sustaining motivation over the long-term will pose a challenge. In this case, try asking ongoing “Why?” questions (Why do I play soccer? To be the best. Why do I want to be the best? Etc.); enough levels of why, often reveal if/how external factors connect to our internal fulfillment.
- Set Goals: Motivation is hard to come by if we don’t see ourselves progressing toward something – or believe that we can progress toward something. Making progress on a meaningful goal is one of our most motivating experiences. When penning goals with the specific intention to foster intrinsic motivation, a few hallmarks are critical: Set your goals yourself, define a goal on a level that is exciting, frame your goal with approach over avoidance, make it appropriately challenging, track your progress, and set your goals when you’re in a physical and mental state similar to that which you’ll be in when pursuing your goals.
- Embrace Emotion: One of the biggest threats to long-term motivation are the feelings accompanying the adversity inherent to the pursuit of high performance. Poorly navigated frustration, disappointment, confusion, and embarrassment are surefire exits off the highway of motivation. Because avoiding such emotions is futile, building a workable relationship with failure and setback and developing reliable strategies to manage such challenging emotions (like some mentioned here) are crucial to sustaining motivation.
- Cultivate Confidence: Though not synonymous, motivation and self-confidence are closely related. Highly motivated athletes tend to be self-confident (and vice versa). Intuitively, believing that you can succeed and excel in an activity eventually impacts your motivation to engage in that activity. Invest time into shoring up your confidence by committing to quality preparation, hunting good stuff after every practice, and engaging in productive, optimistic self-talk.
While the above individual actions are crucial, cultivating dependable motivation is not that of the athlete alone. The actions and attitudes of the adults in an athlete’s life can significantly encourage or suppress a child’s ability to tap into their intrinsic motivation. With that in mind, let’s shift the lens:
- Lend Agency: For athletes to experience intrinsic motivation, they must feel that they have personal agency in their sport experience (this is especially important for Gen Zers). Kids must believe in their ability to affect their lives through effort. They must feel mainly in the driver’s seat, even if they aren’t entirely. When we own our targets, we are far better at hitting them; we experience greater motivation, happiness, confidence, and overall success. So allow athletes to set their own goals. Give them opportunities for choice. Let them fail, and problem solve. Encourage them to turn to themselves for advice. If we squash a kid’s feelings of efficacy, autonomy, and agency, almost no action they can take will lead to optimal motivation.
- Be Intentional With Feedback: Even the most perfectly crafted goal loses its motivating power if the feedback athletes receive directed toward outcomes and external factors. If we praise or emphasize wins, trophies, and starting spots above all else, our athletes’ intrinsic motivation doesn’t stand a chance. Our job as coaches is to provide both constructive feedback and positive praise aimed primarily at the controllable aspects of their game. Equally important to remember is that competence and confidence are key contributors to intrinsic motivation. Even when delivering necessary constructive feedback, strive to do it in a way that feeds both of these constructs.
- Mind Your Commentary: For intrinsic motivation to flourish, athletes must understand the function of failure. They have to accept the uncomfortable process of growth. They have to be willing to face and manage uneasy emotions. They need to feel competent, confident, and in control. Kids source a massive percentage of their narrative on these topics from the adults in their lives. How we speak about our failure, respond in times of hardship, and manage our emotions shows our kids (biological or otherwise) how they should think and react. Our kids’ eyes are almost always on us; let’s be mindful of what they see.
- Care and Connect: People are far more likely to experience intrinsic motivation in environments where they belong. In these environments, people demonstrate care for them as people and not only allow them to be their authentic selves but value them for doing so. Compared to the other action steps, this one is the simplest and possibly most powerful: Know your kids, care about them, and appreciate them for who they are.
But…What If I’m Still Not Motivated?
Even after committing to the above actions, is it realistic to expect to experience optimal motivation every day? No. No matter how much time we put into stoking and tending to the fire of intrinsic motivation, it is a guarantee that we will occasionally wake up and not want to go to practice (or work, or the gym, or that social outing that now you don’t know why you committed to but seemed like a good idea at the time). We are human; while the degree can be heavily mitigated by the actions above, motivation will inevitably ebb and flow.
So what is the secret? Where do elite performers find motivation on those fateful days? Often, they don’t. They choose to do it anyway. They lean on their big picture commitment and self-discipline instead of daily motivation. Motivation, in this sense, is similar to confidence: Without it, the long-term pursuit of excellence is brutal. Perhaps even futile. But on a random Thursday, while being motivated certainly makes putting in the work more accessible and more enjoyable, it is still possible to show up, put forth effort, and get better without it. So, when you don’t feel motivated, don’t beat yourself up; give yourself some grace and make the uncompromising but straightforward choice to move anyway.**
Despite its critical importance in almost every aspect of human behavior, and central role in sport and achievement, motivation remains a largely misunderstood construct. While this blog provides a small look at a massive topic, it is my hope that you have gained greater clarity around the complexities of motivation, and concrete action steps for you or your athlete to take to cultivate it in a quality way. If each of us – athlete, parent, coach – does our part to build the environments and feed the internal narratives conducive to intrinsic motivation, not only will our kids learn and perform better, but far more importantly they’ll get more enjoyment and fulfillment out of the game. They’ll choose to stay in the game for the sheer love of the game; and, at the end of the day, isn’t that what youth sport is all about?
*My lack of motivation aligns with a widespread trend seen in winter months. Likely due to biochemical changes in melatonin and serotonin that stem from less light exposure across shorter days, winter commonly brings increased tiredness and irritability and decreased motivation. These seasonal changes in thoughts, feelings, and behaviors differentially impact all of us, not only the 5% of people with clinically diagnosable Seasonal Affective Disorder. On top of the actions above, be sure to also get enough light (I know it’s cold, but go outside!) and maintain or establish sound sleeping and eating habits to best boost motivation during what can be a literally and figuratively darker time of year.
**Notably, some days we don’t feel motivated because our physical or mental resources are depleted. Be sure to exercise self-compassion, and listen to your body and mind when they’re in need of rest. If you need a break, take a break!