Athlete Motivation in Sport

Athlete motivation is the intensity and direction of one's efforts in sport. Each participant wants to gain something from the sport, such as improving skills, being with friends, experiencing excitement, or just having fun. Understanding motivational theory can help coaches guide athletes to can enjoy greater success for longer periods of time. 

Why do you participate in sport or physical activity? You probably participate for more than one reason.  Let's look a a few popular theories and how to apply them.

Theories on Athlete Motivation

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs explains what motivates and fulfills us in life.  A person's needs range from basic physiological needs to self-actualization, as shown on the pyramid.  According to the Maslow, we can not move to higher levels on the pyramid without having the lower level needs fulfilled.

A very basic application of this theory is that if physiological needs (having food, sleep) are not met, the athlete will not be interested in achieving in sport or gaining self-confidence.  When physiological needs are met, we can transition up the scale to safety, belonging, gaining self-esteem, and finally reaching our potential.

Attribution theory is about how athletes explain their successes and failures. Attributions affect our short-term and long-term expectations.  Wins and losses are due to causality, control, and stability, according to this theory

  • Causality can be due to one's own efforts (internal factors) or as a result of something like little challenge from the competition (external factors). 
  • Control factors can either be within your control (such as mental preparation) or outside of your control (such as weather conditions).
  • Stability factors are either stable (the consistency of performance) or unstable (luck).

Athletes who believe that their performances are due to stable-internal factors that are under their control are likely to experience sporting success.  Those who attribute their competitive outcomes to unstable-external factors that are out of their control tend to experience failure. 

Self-determination theory proposed by Deci is perhaps the most popular motivational theory. It suggests individuals pursue self-determined goals to satisfy their basic psychological needs for independently solving problems, interacting socially, and mastering skills.  When these needs are fully satisfied, athletes are optimal motivated. However, when these needs are not met, they experience deficits in both motivation and well being.

Self-determination theory considers these basic psychological needs:

  • Competence: seeking to control outcomes as master skills.
  • Relatedness: the universal to be connected to others.
  • Autonomy: the universal desire to be independent and act in harmony with one’s integrated self.

If these universal needs are met, the theory argues that people will function and grow optimally.  To actualize their inherent potential, the social environment needs to nurture these needs.

Applications of Athlete
Motivational Theory

With applications of these motivational theories, coaches can improve the athlete’s performances as well as persistence in a sport by doing the following:

  • Monitoring and altering attributional feedback. 
  • Giving athletes choices in decision making.
  • Making the athlete aware of their progress.
  • Vocalizing messages that relate to effort and ability.
  • Aligning sport experiences with social values and norms.
  • Fostering a supportive team environment.
  • Showing each athlete that he or she is an important part of the team.
  • Making practice effective and challenging to foster visible results.

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