“No pain, no gain!!!”
“How bad do you want it??”
“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing!”
Above are three quotes regularly heard at sports practices and games, and all three are designed to increase human motivation in order to play sports at a high level. The idea is the more fired up you are to reach a goal, the better and more sustained effort you will exert toward the goal. While this approach sounds good on paper, there are questions relating to how effective this strategy really is, and if there are boundaries and thresholds athletes and coaches should observe so that motivation is experienced at an optimal level? While being motivated to reach a future goal is great, being hyper-motivated might actually impede chances for future success.
Human motivation is defined as an internal process that makes a person move toward a goal. Athletes are often motivated to play to their highest potential and win championships, but that motivation can, at times, actually hinder future progress and success. Setting goals and and working daily toward goal achievement could be viewed as healthy motivation, but what happens when athletes obsess and take their motivation to the extreme? Is “more always better” when it comes to human motivation? Herein is where the question becomes a little murky, as I have worked with a number of clients that have experienced unexpected issues relating to their obsessive motivation. In these examples I have witnessed mood swings, anxiety, agitation, and aggression when extreme motivation meets up with tough opponents, losses, injuries, or any other factor that thwarts future progress and success.
Motivation, focus, and anxiety
When examining motivation, it’s also important to broaden the discussion to include how motivation interacts with energy, arousal, and getting in the zone? One immediate observation is that when we get really, really pumped up to succeed, often our bodies become overly-aroused, tense, and tight. While those characteristics might be helpful with some sports, athletes who compete in sports that require fine motor skills (i.e. pitching a baseball or shooting a basketball) may want to examine whether those qualities are helpful or harmful to athletic performance? When athletes make unforced errors because of their own intensity, it can lead to even more frustration, higher arousal, and eventually a less-than-optimal outcome.
Another potential ramification of extreme motivation occurs when athlete set very specific, absolute goals — like winning a championship. When second place simply isn’t acceptable the margin for error decreases, creating the potential for a big letdown and perception of failure. A better, healthier way to go is to set specific, measurable, controllable goals that athletes can reach without luck or the help of others. Examples of these kinds of goals might include specific amounts of weight to lift, shots to attempt in practice, or a target body weight to achieve. The idea here is that if you are meeting your personal (controllable) goals, you will have a much better chance at also reaching your outcome goals (i.e. winning a championship).
Developing a strong motivation is a key element when examining peak performance, but it’s important to note that there may be a threshold where hyper-motivation can actually become counter-productive. When athletes experience extra anxiety, or when human arousal spikes to the point of compromising fine muscle movement, it may be time to step back and re-evaluate the game-plan. Rather than setting goals that demand perfectionism, try to instead set realistic, controllable goals that will lead to goal attainment, as well as confidence and motivation toward future goals.