Motivation in Professional Sport: A Key to Success

In previous years, psychology in sports has experienced a great rise. It become almost impossible to imagine the everyday work of a professional football club without the presence of a sports psychologist. From my humble experience (trust me on this one), what psychology can do for a professional footballer in a short period of time is far from the ability of any strength & conditioning coach. We are also witnessing an increasing incidence of cases of severe anxiety and depression among professional athletes. For that reason, the first article in 2021. is the guest blog post from our contributor Marta Tutić, Sports Psychologist. Below we convey her thoughts on motivation – a key factor that can make a significant difference between a champion and an average player.

Motivation is a key determinant of behavior in any sport. It is a complex construct, with athletes having diverse and dynamic motives for initiating, directing, sustaining, and terminating effort. Athletes can be motivated by internal or external factors, or a combination of both, which may vary by context and time.

Achieving goals can become a powerful motivator in athete’s life. A lot of people live for reaching their goals. That need is their motivation to accomplish different challenging tasks effectively and quickly. Those athletes with a high need of achievement tend to work harder than their teammates without it and they are also more future oriented. Their plans include numerous goals and because of that they are able to delay gratification longer than others. As David McClelland, american psychologist, said achievement-based people tend to make sacrifices and make their goal their “life,” so they work around the things that may not be related to their sport, academia, or whatever they are motivated to do. They spend their time learning how to get better and be effective.

Psychology of motivation offers two types of motivation – intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation refers to doing an activity for the pleasure and satisfaction derived from participation. Extrinsic motivation encompasses behaviors that are linked to a separable outcome, and comprises four behavioral regulations: integrated regulation includes behaviors that are congruent with an individual’s self and value system (for example basketball player who participates because sport involvement aligns with his values); identified regulation represents actions that are performed out of choice, though they are not attractive in and of themselves (for example football player who does strength work because, even though he does not like it, he understands it contributes to his performance); introjected regulation exists when a person internalizes, but does not endorse, external forces (for example gymnast who competes to avoid feeling guilty or ashamed); and lastly external regulation refers to behaviors that are regulated by external sources (for example swimmer who engages in training in order to get recognition from parents or coaches).

Extrinsic rewards are an elementary component in competitive sports.  Extrinsic rewards, when used correctly, can be beneficial to athletes. However, overuse of extrinsic rewards can actually de-motivate athletes and negatively affect their performance.

If athletes work on their intrinsic motivation, they will be better in focusing in the present, to be aware of what is happening „here and now“. It will allow athletes to maintain a consistent level of motivation through the season and they will be more focused during practise. It is important to mention that by working on athletes motivation, they will experience less stress when difficult times come and mistakes are made.

In sport psychology, social-environmental factors are of a high importance and they are called the motivational climate. Those factors are innumerable in the sport context, for example teammates, audience, sport structures… Following the logical sequence, the coach is considered to be one of the most important figures who builds motivational climate in the team.  The coach is tasked to offer support and consider the perspectives of the athlete. Both helps athletes to be self-determined and adaptive.

The motivational climate has a strong influence on motivation, through its impact on the basic psychological needs of autonomy and competence. These needs are essential for psychological growth, integrity and well-being of athletes. While the competence is known as a belief that an individual can successfully accomplish a task, autonomy involves freely choosing an action that aligns with individual’s values and their connection with others.

There is much evidence about associations between motivation and important outcomes in a range of life domains and aspects. Motivation is related to interest in performance, productivity and persistence in sport. Nowadays, there is a mainstream interest in athlete mental health, particularly at the elite level.  Elite atheletes have privileged position is society and they experience huge amount of pressure on and off the field – from their family and friends and also from coaching stuff and audience. Involvement in sport does not imply immunity from poor mental health and lack of resilience. Resilience is not something all of us are born with. It is something we have to develop through life. If athletes lack resilience, they might dwell on problems, feel victimized, become overwhelmed with popularity and turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as alcohol or other substance use. Having all that in mind, we are sure that athletes are surely losing their motivation for sport and achievement.

It can be difficult to stay motivated throughout the competitive season. Depending on the sport, training session can be long, exhausting and monotonous. As season is lengthy, there are ups and downs through the year. Athletes invest a lot of time and energy to overcome different obstacles on the path to achieving their own and goals of the team. Most common obstacles are injuries, which increase pressure and discomfort. The basic goal for athletes is to challenge itself to the high level, so the pressure and discomfort of competition become a known entity.  Elite athletes push in training to the point that competitions seem easier mentally and physically. By doing that, they are developing the mental toughness.

The most common question sport psychologist get from athletes, no matter which sport they are in, is how to stay motivated during the challenging periods. Some of the most important things are having a purpose and maintaining and improving concentration. A purpose or a goal kept in athletes mind can give athletes a reason to put additional effort in practice, despite the challenges they face. It is important to find your „why“ and it can help you endure difficult circumstances. Concentration and the ability to focus under pressure is what elite athletes do best. Pro athletes cannot afford to let distraction take over their mind and to make errors at critical times during the game or match. Single difference between professional and worldclass athlete could be ability to stay focused during challenging, intensive periods of play! In that sense, this ability could be a career and life changer.

One of the most important thing for athlete is to create personally meaningful goals. Idea is to challenge yourself to improve one aspect of performance each practice or training session (technique, conditioning, physical skill or mental skill). Laddering or „chunking“ is a technique where we break down certain tasks into smaller units and try to fit them into the yearly plan. Smaller steps make it easy for athletes to see their progress, and seeing progress makes athletes want to keep going. 

When athletes set a goal, they should visualize it down to the details. Visualization helps people to see the goal, feel it, hear the sounds that accompany the end result and success.  Many researches shown that elite athletes visualize their performance ahead of time — right down to the smell of the sweat dripping down their face as they cross the finish line or when they score a goal.

Having all this said, here are some important take home messages for all the athletes (and their coaches):

  • Work on your mental health, improve mental skills and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you feel you need it. Using the services of a Sports Psychologist can significantly affect your performance.
  • Working on your mental skills is a life-time investment!
  • Be aware of how you feel and what you feel. Knowing your feelings is the starting point for solving potential problems.
  • Don’t be ashamed of your weeknesses, pay attention which signals your brain and body send you. Weaknesses are an integral part of human beings. Talk about them, work on them and seek help on how to turn them into strengths.
  • Step by step and you will become more confident and you will enjoy playing your sport more. Confident player is a successful player, and vice versa.

Marta Tutić is a Sport Psychologist from Belgrade, Serbia under education in Gestalt psychotherapy. She implements knowledge from studies in psychology and Gestalt psychotherapy into work with athletes and coaches. She attended practise in the field of psychology in Italy and Spain. In 2019. Marta worked with Basketball Club Partizan, Belgrade as a sport psychology intern.

“I see sport psychology as a challenge, because this segment of psychology is not developed enough in Serbia and I would like to make a positive change.”

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