How To Motivate Yourself In Sports and Life

Published by Ferrante Baseball LLC on

First step toward learning how to motivate yourself is to understand the psychology of motivation. Where does motivation come from and why do some people seem have more of it? I will share with you what I have discovered through my studies and research on this topic, and maybe point you down the right path.

The study of motivation in sports looks at both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators. Extrinsic motivators are external rewards, such as trophies, money, medals or social recognition. Intrinsic motivators arise from within, such as a personal desire to win or the sense of pride that comes from performing a skill. When it comes to motivating children and young athletes to want to perform their best, motivation is vital to their success. If we as parents and coaches understand the different types of motivation and where it comes from, we can have a great influence over the development of motivation and mindset in our children and athletes. So even though extrinsic motivation is necessary to achieve certain goals, intrinsic motivation is best for long term performance in sports because it can drive you to excel over a lifetime and will help you accomplish your goals and dreams.

In the world of sports being motivated to train and perform at your best is crucial for success, but what drives some athletes to train and compete with such conviction and perseverance? Could they be driven by incentives such as fame, money, winning, love of the game, or just for pure enjoyment? For example, if an athlete who is driven by fame, money, winning, and works very hard to achieve these things and does so at an early early stage in their career, what will motivate them beyond that point? From my own experience as a professional athlete and many years of observing other athletes, I have seen this happen many times when an athlete achieves his goals and dreams far faster than they thought possible, and thus struggle to maintain their motivation after achieving their goals. I always thought to myself that they may have lost their motivation and drive to maintain their growth and progress. This would mean they were motivated by primarily external incentives. In order for an athlete to consistently reach their full potential over long the term, it is intrinsic motivation that will help get them to reach their goals over the long term.

Intrinsic motivation is an internal form of motivation. When you strive towards a goal for personal satisfaction or accomplishment, that is intrinsic motivation. Even when working toward a long term reward in developing a business or participating in a competition, the primary motivator that keeps you working toward your goal is internal. Intrinsic motivation is more likely to lead to persistent behavior toward a goal when external motivators are not present or external goals have been reached and are no longer a motivator. For example, a young boy who dreams of being a professional baseball player when he grows up is primarily playing for pure love of the game and can’t imagine doing anything else in life. As this boy works hard and dedicates himself to growing and improving his baseball skills over the years he has much success. His success gives him great feeling of accomplishment and this is an internal motivation to keep going. His success continues through high school when the possibility of being drafted by a major league baseball team is becoming a reality. He is now faced with a question, how much money will it take for you to sign your professional contract? All of a sudden, the game that he has played almost his entire life purely for fun and competition now needs a dollar sign attached to it. He is forced to find an answer to this question because scouts are calling with dollar offers. He discusses this with close friends and family and arrive at a number, one-million dollars! Draft day comes and the boy waits for his name to be called and sure enough he hears name being called in the third round of the Major League Baseball Draft. Soon after the phone rings and the scout congratulates the boy and they begin to discuss the signing bonus the team plans to offer, five hundred thousand dollars. Five hundred thousand dollars? That’s it? The boy says, “no way, I am worth twice that!”. This boy was just offered a substantial amount of money to fulfill his lifelong dream and play the game he loves at the highest level in the world, and turned it down. His intrinsic motivator, the pure enjoyment of playing and excelling in baseball, was replaced by an extrinsic motivator, the money. I am willing to bet the twelve year old version of that boy would have gladly given up his weekly allowance for the same opportunity.

Extrinsic motivation is an external form of motivation and can come when you feel the urge to do something for your own gain or to avoid a punishment. It also comes from an outside demand, obligation, or reward that requires the achievement of a particular goal (Frank, Ph.D, 2018). In sports, extrinsic motivation can be winning the game, receiving a scholarship to play at a university, being drafted into a pro sport and signing for big money, or winning an olympic medal. All of these extrinsic motivators are necessary in order to keep making progress toward that goal, but it isn’t always enough. Many goals athletes set are long term and require many years and thousands of hours of training and preparation, no matter how mentally tough you are as an athlete you will struggle with motivation at times. This is when intrinsic motivation comes into play. When you need a push from within, you can remind yourself to enjoy the process and steer your focus away from your long term goal and back to the process and enjoyment of the sport. That is how intrinsic motivation is the secret to long term success in sports.

Setting Goals and Deadlines

Setting goals and deadlines can be one of the most effective methods when it comes to staying motivated and working toward a desired goal. Research shows that the most effective types of goals are very specific ones. Goals that are made too vague do not provide you with enough information as to what to do. For example, if your goal was to “be a better baseball player” you wouldn’t know exactly where to start. If your goal was to improve your hitting ability to help raise your average from .250 to .300, you now have a more specific area of focus to start on. This type of goal is called an objective goal, which is based on the athletes performance. Another type of goal is a subjective goal, these types of goals are not geared to an athletes performance in sport; these are related to simply going out and trying your best (Kornspan, 2009).

Other forms of goals that help many athletes reach their potential are outcome, performance, and process goals. Outcome goals are related to specific results of a competition or winning and losing. Performance goals are related to specific statistics that can improve an athletes performance, such as the raising batting average example mentioned earlier. Process goals are related to performance goals which are what the an athlete should focus on in the present moment during performance. For example, in addition to a performance goal of raising one’s batting average from .250 to .300, a baseball player may also set a goal to go through the same routine prior to every pitch thrown. Sports psychologists believe that if the athlete focuses on process goals, the less they will worry about their performance and hopefully perform better (Kornspan, 2009). Consequently, an athlete that focuses on setting performance and process goals rather than outcome goals, are setting goals to which they have control over.

If you only focus on the outcome of the act you are performing, and you attach your self-worth to the end result, you will likely be resistant to applying your best efforts and open to learning new things. When you equate your worth with your performance instead of your level of effort, you will prevent yourself from enjoying the process. When your satisfaction is attached to your effort, the process now becomes enjoyable, regardless of the results. In fact, defining your self-worth through your effort rather than your outcome will allow you to stop being so concerned with the results. While you still have goals that you want to accomplish, you are able to focus on the present moment and do your best during the task (Intrinsic Motivation Examples, 2017).

 Development of Motivation

How does motivation develop? Children are naturally born with intrinsic motivation; they explore their environment, discover their abilities, and learn to control their bodies all for personal satisfaction. However these intrinsic explorations will become attached to extrinsic motivators as well, such as parents encouragement or smile. This of course is a very important part of the child’s development because they need to learn so many things and take risks to do so. Without the parents encouragement they may fail to make these necessary explorations. Most children between the ages of one and three tend to develop patterns of exploration where they will look around and discover things around them and then look back at the parent for additional encouragement. In this way children have developed both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation (Frank, Ph.D, 2018).

The course of normal development allows children to find a balance between extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation. Many tasks will be difficult to complete without a proper balance. For example, if a child does not respond at all to external motivators, and he or she needs to do something unpleasant and undesired, that child is unlikely to engage in the desired behavior. The same may occur in the workplace with an employee. A person may have trouble keeping a job if he or she has no desire for the boss’s approval, doesn’t need the money due to the spouse’s employment, and doesn’t obtain personal satisfaction from work. Such a person has neither extrinsic or intrinsic motivation. Comparisons can also be made to the baseball players that I coach, many of them struggle to find their own source of intrinsic or extrinsic motivation. Many, if not all my players have played the game for as long as they can remember, they simply are unaware of the “why” that drives them. Some may just be playing because that’s what they’ve done all their lives and because their parents expect it of them. For some others, they may come to realize their baseball career may not take them as far as they had hoped. Therefore, losing intrinsic motivation to play these final games as if they’re their last, and play to win!

Motivation and Mindset

Another component that can be a huge influence over an athlete’s motivation is their mindset. In the book Mindset, by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., she talks about two types of mindsets, fixed and growth. The fixed mindset is defined by her as, “the belief that your qualities are carved in stone, or fixed at birth and that you only have a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character” (Dweck, 2012). The growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities can be improved through effort and hardwork (Dweck, 2002).

If paired together, the growth mindset and intrinsic motivation can be an incredibly powerful combination for success in any area of life. If an athlete believes that any of his or her skills and qualities can be improved with hard work and effort, and can find enjoyment and satisfaction in the process of learning, growing, and developing, staying motivated will not be an issue. An example of this perfect combination would be the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan. In 1978, Michael Jordan was just another kid in the gym, along with fifty or so of his classmates, trying out for the high school varsity basketball team. There were fifteen roster spots. Jordan did not get one, he got cut. Then he was a 15-year-old sophomore who was only 5’10” and could not yet dunk a basketball. “It was embarrassing not making the team,” Jordan later said. He went home, locked himself in his room and cried. It didn’t take long for Michael to discover his own internal motivation and growth mindset to prove to himself (intrinsic) and everyone else (extrinsic) he could make the team. He ended up doing a whole lot more. Though he was cut from his high school basketball team, he is considered the greatest basketball that has ever graced the court.

Here is a great quote from Jordan’s book, Driven From Within: “To this day, I don’t enjoy working. I enjoy playing, and figuring out how to connect playing with business. To me, that’s my niche. People talk about my work ethic as a player, but they don’t understand. What appeared to be hard work to others was simply playing for me. We were playing a game. Why not play as hard as you can? There’s no pressure in taking that approach. Play to win. Why else would you play? I don’t consider what I do at the Jordan brand working either, because I have a passion for the brand. I could sit around talking about shoe design and fashion all day. You ask me to sit in an office and answer email for eight hours—to me, that is work”. (Jordan, Hatfield, & Vancil, 2007). In his own words, what jordan is describing is without a doubt intrinsic motivation. From my personal experience, training for my sport was not always fun, but when these tough times came I would simply imagine what the training would do for me, what it would allow me to do, the athlete I could become. This kept me pushing forward, my own internal drive.

Proper Balance

There are a few things that can prevent the development of the proper balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation such as; fear and overprotective parents, non-specific feedback, and too much focusing on reward. When parents are overprotective with their children, it sends the message that the world is too dangerous, this can interfere with the development of their ability to take risks. If children learn to become too fearful, he or she will learns to ignore internal motivators of curiosity and self-satisfaction of mastering a skill and instead avoids unknown situations and tasks that could lead to failure (Frank, Ph.D, 2018).

Another possible way to prevent proper balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is by giving non-specific feedback to children. Parents provide their children with a great deal of positive, but non specific feedback for encouragement thinking they are building self esteem and internal motivation. When parents encourage children with comments like “you are so smart” or “you are so good at sports”, they can actually do more harm than good. These types of non specific words of encouragement are not specific enough. For positive benefits to occur, feedback must be specific: “You had such a good game, you must be practicing really hard” or “great job on your exam, I know you studied really hard”. When you provide specific feedback it is best tied to an effort or behavior that the child has control. Non specific feedback may not be perceived as something in their control, and therefore less motivated behavior on the desired outcome. How can being “smart” motivate someone to want to learn more if they are already smart? (Frank, Ph.D, 2018) Non specific feedback can have negative effects on an athlete’s development. If they believe they are naturally gifted, they may not be motivated to reach for their full potential.

Even though extrinsic motivators plays an important role in our overall drive towards goals and rewards, it is used far too often and tends to induce the need for extrinsic motivation. Here’s a story that explains this theory: “This story about an old man who had an empty lot next to his house. Every afternoon the neighborhood children played baseball in the lot. The old man, annoyed by all the yelling and commotion, developed a plan to stop the children from using the lot. One day while they were playing, he told them that he would pay each of them five dollars every day they came to play in the lot. They thought he was a little nuts but were thrilled to be paid to do something they did anyway. After a few days, he told them he couldn’t afford to pay the five dollars but still wanted them to play in the lot, and asked if they would accept one dollar. They grumbled a little but agreed to take the one dollar. A few days more passed and he approached them with an apology telling them that he wouldn’t be able to pay them anymore but hoped that they would still play in the lot anyway. The children responded by refusing to play in the “stinking” lot if he wasn’t going to pay them” (Frank, Ph.D, 2018). This story is a good example of how intrinsic motivation can be altered by incorporating an external incentive, shifting the children’s motivation from pure enjoyment to motivated for the money. Once the money was off the table, their motivation to play disappeared.

Research into the motivation of athletes looks at both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation as the two main types of motivation. Extrinsic motivation comes from external rewards, trophies, money, medals or social recognition. Intrinsic motivation comes from within, a personal desire to win or the sense of pride that comes from performing your best in sports. Though extrinsic motivation is necessary to achieve certain short term goals, intrinsic motivation is best for long term performance in sports because it can drive athletes to excel over a lifetime and will help them accomplish their goals and dreams. As parents and coaches the more we understand how motivation is learned and developed the better we can equip children and athletes with the proper motivation and mindset that will set them up for success in the long run.



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