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Understanding Motivation and How It Affects Performance

Motivation is key to the performance psychology puzzle, dependent on fundamental human needs. If those needs are not met, an athlete’s passion for sport and their self-esteem can suffer.

triathlete looking out at the water at sunrise
Photo courtesy Kenny Withrow

Motivation is commonly understood as those inner thoughts and feelings that start, guide, and maintain our actions toward our goals. It fuels our desires. Like most coaches, I find the topic fascinating and I have been eager to learn more about the psychological processes that drive athletes to stellar performances.  

However, every yin comes with a yang, and as it turns out, some of the same psychological processes that drive performance can also lead to athletes missing training, dropping out of races, avoiding competition, or even withdrawing from the sport completely. It appears that motivation has both a light and dark side. The same force that propels athletes to amazing performances can also compel athletes to unhealthy compulsive behavior, and even engage in illegal drugs or other nefarious activities.  

Motivation is a complex subject that has been studied for hundreds if not thousands of years, and yet it is only in the past three or four decades that we have begun to shed light on some important nuances that help us know how to harness or stoke this force. 

We are going to explore the underlying mechanisms of motivation, dive into some performance psychology, and consider a few athlete case studies where these ideas come to life. From there, we will unpack how we, as coaches, can use this knowledge to better understand our athletes, and work with them to get the best out of different motivational approaches. 

An athlete’s motivation can lead to burnout

To become the best in the world at anything takes a huge amount of motivation and ambition. For a 10-year period in the late 1990s and early 2000s Canadian triathlete Peter Reid was one of the most successful long-distance athletes on the planet, having won the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii three times and placed second three times. Reid was known for his incredible work ethic and his dedication to improving his craft.  

During this halcyon period, it might be surprising to hear that he also had times where he found himself completely bereft of motivation. He walked off the run course at one championship race, reportedly saying, “I just couldn’t think of a good enough reason to keep going.” Still, at other times, he was so motivated that he suffered “burnout” from significant bouts of overtraining, the full extent of which he kept secret from his coach.  

An athlete’s motivation can kill their joy for sport

For Great Britain’s Evie Richards, her dreams came true when she was selected for the Mountain Bike World Championship at just 16 years old. She mused, “My life is incredible; I just want to be able to do this forever.” She moved to Manchester to join the British Cycling Academy and within a short period of time those feelings started to change: “I was obsessed with riding and winning, but at the same time I lost the enjoyment of getting on my bike. I always put so much pressure on myself to succeed because I did not like losing and felt embarrassed if I didn’t do well.” 

This led to unhealthy levels of performance anxiety. She said: “I would be physically sick before races, and during them. There were lots of times where I didn’t even finish because I got myself so ill.” Her focus on performance at all costs created a situation where she felt she needed to be lighter and became obsessed with her weight. “The only way I could see things getting better was if I trained even harder, but that just made things worse,” she said. 

An athlete’s motivation can come at great personal cost

This can happen at any level of sport when there is a focus on performance, take the example of Tina, a 40+ age-group triathlete, working full-time (who we’ll reference here by a pseudonym for the sake of client confidentiality). Tina found success in triathlon, winning many local races and performing well at European and World Age-Group Championships.  

Despite these successes, Tina has experienced debilitating performance anxiety in the build-up to races, she is often racked with self-doubt, and feels an incredible sense of relief (rather than satisfaction) after winning a race.  

Tina manages to maintain a high training volume, sometimes squeezing in three sessions a day despite the demands of her day job. This limits recovery time and she has had to take time off on occasion to deal with illness caused by inadequate recovery or overtraining, which in turn causes her anxiety over not training.  

Athletic success seems to have come at a great cost for Tina as she has found it very hard to maintain any form of social life outside of her training group. While her employers celebrate her successes and hold her up as a sporting role model, they have also started to question her commitment to her job.  

In these three case studies we see highly motivated athletes producing great performances, and yet their motivation to perform is somehow skewing their perspective and creating unpleasant and unhealthy mental and physical experiences. How does taking part in a sport we love shift from healthy competition into an absolute obsession?  

Passion and the pursuit of performance 

Performance psychologist Bob Vallerand and his colleagues have been researching exactly this kind of question. They have developed a theory called the Dualistic Model of Passion, which is rooted in another well-established model of motivation known as Self-Determination Theory. 

Vallerand’s model identifies two types of passion, harmonious and obsessive. As the terminology infers, passion, although hugely energizing, does not always lead to mental or physical wellbeing. 

When passion is harmonious, it leads to positive feelings of being in control, along with the flexibility to engage or disengage in any chosen activity, causing virtually no conflict with other areas of a person’s life.  On the other hand, obsessive passion creates feelings of compulsion and a rigid persistence that tends to create conflict with other areas of a person’s life. I often refer to this skewed perspective as “must-havation.” 

Obsessive passion often leads to negative feelings about engaging in the activity and guilt about how the use of that time causes missed opportunities, such as training sessions that cut into family time. As Vallerand and his colleagues suggest: “Passion can fuel motivation, enhance well-being, and provide meaning in everyday life. However, passion can also arouse negative emotions, lead to inflexible persistence, and interfere with achieving a more balanced, successful life.”  

This is the type of obsessive passion seen in the three athletes above. An understanding of Self-Determination Theory can help us recognize the different types of motivation that underpin this kind of behavior and explain how it becomes internalized as part of a person’s identity.  

Our fundamental psychological needs must be satisfied  

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) was researched and developed originally by psychologists Richard Ryan and Ed Deci. SDT suggests there are three fundamental and universal needs that precede all motivation, and these basic needs must be satisfied for an individual to experience psychological and physical well-being.   

text-only graphic displaying three basic psychological needs
  1. Autonomy: the freedom to act with volition and choice, without a feeling of compulsion or control. 
  2. Competence: the need to develop potential and feel effective in one’s environment. 
  3. Relatedness: the need to experience mutually satisfying social relationships. 

These needs are not usually front of mind, but when they are not met, problems arise. Many people engage in activities like sport as a way of meeting and satisfying these needs.   

The motivation continuum

SDT suggests there are three different categories of motivation ranging along a continuum—amotivation, extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. An individual’s motivation is based on the degree to which they act out of self-determination, i.e., feel the freedom to act with volition. 

There are many reasons why we start to get involved in a sport. As children we engage in sport primarily because it’s fun, it provides a lot of pleasure. The reward we get is the joy of taking part, this is intrinsic motivation. As adults we may choose to participate in a sport for lots of different reasons or rewards—to meet others, to experience health benefits, to support a partner, or just to be active. 

At the other end of the motivation continuum is amotivation, which is the least self-determined and would suggest a state lacking motivation or desire to engage in any specific activity. 

In the middle of these two categories lies extrinsic motivation, which comprises four subsets. External and introjected regulation are considered “controlled,” while identified and integrated regulation are categorized as autonomous.  

When motivation is driven by pressure

Controlled motivation describes behaviors that are driven by perceived external or internal pressures. External regulation refers to the pressure felt to comply with perceived demands and expectations from significant others, like coaches, sponsors, or work colleagues.  

Reid described how he felt pressure to perform from his competitors, including his training partners, the media, and his sponsors. The reward of self-esteem from winning a race provided positive relief in the short-term, but the feeling of pressure to perform returned. 

Introjected regulation is the internal pressure we put on ourselves to avoid feeling guilty or to maintain our self-esteem. Richards described the feeling of embarrassment if she didn’t do well. So, athletes might put pressure on themselves by setting high performance goals. If the goal is achieved, it bolsters self-esteem. If not, athletes might be hard on themselves and feel that they have let themselves or their team down. This can often result in “I’m not good enough” self-talk. 

Tina described feeling a strong sense of guilt over missing a training session, but she also identified negative emotions while training if she felt she should be doing something else.  

Obsessive passion is developed by internalizing these types of experiences through controlled motivation. Richards and Tina seem to also benefit from contingent rewards in the form of social acceptance and self-esteem from sporting successes. However, the downside is the insidious performance anxiety and feelings of embarrassment or guilt if they don’t believe they have measured up to their expectations. 

When motivation is driven by agency 

Autonomous motivation describes behaviours that are freely chosen but the reasons one might choose them differ.  

Identified regulation is behavior that the individual values because it is personally important to them. For example, the athlete is drawn to the health benefits or the social connections that sport can provide. 

Finally, integrated regulation is behavior that is consistent with both the sense of self and one’s personal values. In other words, the athlete sees their sport as part of who they are. For example, they might identify as a cyclist, runner, or athlete and feel positive about themselves because of this. 

Harmonious passion is developed from the internalization of values and behaviors through the autonomous motivations. In other words, individuals have greater levels of volition when engaging with a passionate activity, and only investing time and energy as they feel appropriate.  

Harmonious vs. Obsessive Passion

Harmonious passion 

You control your passion, self-regulation
Compatible with the rest of life 
You are able to engage or disengage freely

Motivation is self-perpetuated, it provides meaning, and enhances well-being. 

Obsessive passion 

Your passion controls you, compulsivity 
Conflicts with the rest of life 
You are rigid and persistent in pursuit of goals 

Motivation becomes skewed, which can undermine well-being and identify.  

Further research has found evidence that athletes with obsessive passion rely largely on their passionate activity to experience self-esteem. Variations in performance levels can trigger associated shifts in their self-esteem. People with harmonious passion do not experience changes to self-esteem based on performance. In the context of work, it may be easy to see that having a bad day in the office doesn’t make you a bad person, but in the context of sport, athletes with obsessive passion often think a bad workout means they are a bad athlete.  

RELATED: How to Harness or Stoke Motivation

Motivation is fluid and complex 

There is a danger that we may see extrinsic motivators as good/autonomous or bad/controlled but depending on the context both can be good or bad. For example, it’s good for an individual to consider their identity as an athlete as a positive contributor to self-esteem, but in the context of an injury or retirement from sport, this identity can provide a difficult barrier to overcome. Similarly, we regularly see athletes respond to the pressure of world-class event with a record-breaking performance.  

Further complicating things, we can be motivated by a number of these categories at the same time and experience them in a different way at different times. I am sure you have been thinking about your own motivational experiences as an athlete or those of the athletes you coach. 

Directing athlete motivation and passion toward the goal 

So how do we as coaches help athletes reach their performance goals while experiencing harmonious passion for sport? How can we prevent athletes from becoming obsessive? How do we leverage our understanding of how healthy motivation works in working with our athletes? This is what we will be explore in the next article. 

We will also learn what helped Reid get back on the course, what helped Richards overcome her thoughts to become a world champion, and how Tina has learned to create more balance in her life and overcome performance anxiety. 

For a deeper dive into self-determination theory, check out the Center for Self-Determination Theory.


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Verner-Filion, J., Vallerand, R.J. (2018) A longitudinal examination of elite youth soccer players: The role of passion and basic need satisfaction in athletes’ optimal functioning, Journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise 39:20-28