Motivation in Sport

Podium Sports Journal have recently published – Motivation in Sport.

It is now available online –

I hope it’s useful

Motivation in Sport

Simon Hartley

Be World Class

Why does a swimmer get out of bed at 4am on a cold, wet Tuesday in December. Why do they drive all the way to the pool and swim up and down for two hours? Why do they then have a bite of breakfast before doing a tough strength & conditioning session, followed by an hour of physiotherapy, a bite of lunch, a meeting with the performance analyst, a meeting with the coach and back in the pool for another 2 hours? What’s it all in aid of? Why do they do all this six or seven days a week for years on end? 

The answer is perfectly simple for many; it’s all in pursuit of an Olympic Gold Medal. That’s what motivates them. That’s their reason. 

The foundation of motivation is the reason. We have to have a reason to do something, or a reason not to. Often we forget the importance of this and we do things out of habit. After a while we start to run out of motivation because we have lost sight of the reason. Sportsmen and women fall into this trap frequently. They often start playing sport because it is fun and they simply love doing it. For many, they then start to become successful and their reason starts to change (Deci, Ryan & Koestner, 1999; Jowett & Lavallee, 2007).

Many athletes find that their motives change over time. When they started out, their motive was simple. They loved playing. Their motivation was simply driven by love and enjoyment for what they did. However, for many, that picture changed. After a while, another agenda appeared. The sport started to give them other things. Winning gave them something new. When they achieved positive results they started to gain recognition and respect from others. For a young athlete, this can start to become the primary motive.  The sport then becomes a vehicle to achieve success and recognition. Their reason starts to evolve and becomes orientated around winning. A lot of coaches might see this as a good thing. Shouldn’t athletes be motivated and driven to win? Isn’t that the point? Surly the athletes that are motivated by winning are the ones who are most likely to be successful. They have a hunger and a desire for success that drives them.

In reality, it can be a double edged sword. What if the athlete is not experiencing success? What if they are not winning? If their reason for participating is to win, the reason could well disappear. If that happens, motivation will evaporate very quickly. I’ve known many athletes to quit their sport because they hit a tough patch. Their motivation wasn’t robust and couldn’t carry them through. The irony is that they will say they quit because they weren’t enjoying it any more. What they really mean is that their enjoyment was tied to winning. When the success dried up, so did the enjoyment and the motivation. I worked with an international swimmer a few years ago who found exactly that. When success and recognition dried up, her reasons to compete evaporated with them.

What are your reasons to compete or coach? Are you genuinely motivated by the love of what you do, or has your reason started to evolve? Often the best way to find out, is to see how you feel if you in the absence of a reason. For example, if you took away winning, would that seriously knock your motivation? If you didn’t have the social interaction of your team-mates, would that dent it? What if no-one gave you praise or recognition? Would you still be as motivated? Those are often the acid tests.

In order to have strong motivation, we need a reason that is strong, robust and compelling. It has to come from within (Deci & Ryan, 2002). It really is very simple; you have to really want it. You can’t make yourself want something because someone else wants you to have it. You will never be truly motivated by the need to please other people. Your motivation has to be genuine and has to come from within. It is not a coincidence that many truly great people have been inspired by their dreams. When they are interviewed, they often talk about the fact that they’ve been following their dreams (Torres, 2009). Many of us don’t follow our dreams. We might think our dreams are silly. We might not believe they are possible. Our dreams might not fit in with everyone else’s expectations or plans for us. We might compromise our dreams for other people. However, our passion, love and dreams are powerful and enduring motives. They are authentic. They are our real reasons!

To find out how to master your own motivation and create a high-performance, motivational environment, download ‘Master Motivation for Sport at     

Simon Hartley is an Olympic Sport Psychologist, Performance Coach and the author of Peak Performance Every Time (published by Routledge).


Deci, E. L. and Ryan, R. M. (2002) Handbook of Self-Determination Research, Rocherster: University of Rochester Press.

Deci, E.L., Ryan, R.M. and Koestner, R. (1999) ‘A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation’, Psychological Bulletin, 125(6), 627-668.

Hartley, S.R. (2010) ‘Motivation: The Driving Force’, Squash Player, 38(4), 22.

Hartley, S.R. (2011) Peak Performance Every Time, London: Routledge.

Jowett, S. and Lavallee, D. (2007) Social Psychology in Sport, Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Torres, D. and Weil, E. (2009) Age is just a number: Achieve Your Dreams at Any Age in Your Life, New York: Crown Archetypes.