Throughout my riding life, I’ve always found motivation to probably be one of the trickiest aspects of sport psychology, and one that not many fully grasp. It’s a direct influencer of performance, but for most it comes and goes with no understanding as to why and how. Many look hard for it but simply cannot find enough of it, and others without trying have too much of it! But what if it wasn’t as complicated as we think, and what if I told you, you can influence it and control it like any other controllable factor of preparation. What makes some get up at 5am in the winter and go for a ride in the rain, and others sleep in as soon as they hear the drops on the roof? What makes some persist for years until they reach success, while others stop just before reaching the top?
In this article we will explore more of what motivation is, where it comes from and how to get it, and crucially to keep it! We will also look at how it relates to confidence and character.
Motivation is the foundation of all human behaviour, whether that be in sport, or life in general. It’s the ability to initiate and persist in a given task. Motivation is to want something; and then start and persist in the process of getting it.
Motivation is a crucial factor in performance, as it’s one of the factors in preparation that we have absolute control of (like training, diet, rest, etc.), and therefore something we can actually train and improve on.
There are 2 basic types of motivation, namely: Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation, simply put is the motivation that comes from within. It’s related to the self-efficiency belief, which is the perceived ability to perform at a certain level, it’s a person orientated view, and it also has strong genetic ties, as some are naturally more motivated to perform certain tasks and others not. Extrinsic motivation is motivation that comes from outside of the person and is based on the result of the action or effort alone, the expectations or pressure of others like parents, coaches, or even the crowed; or the money and status the victory may result in.
As we can see from the above, motivation is either from internal or external influence. Now which is better?
Well, at first glance we can say that the extrinsic is obvious as it’s more direct, but for long term sustainable motivation which leads to confidence, we need to find intrinsic motivation. Because as soon as the result is not the desired, we have no foundation on which to build our motivation and confidence on; however, if it’s built on a deep conviction to be the best we can be, and even more so on personal character, then it’s a strong foundation that is to a certain degree resilient to failure.
Do you see how this also relates to the fear of failure? If we are intrinsically motivated, we have no fear of failure, as failure doesn’t define us, rather our character and conviction defines us and guards us against negative thoughts.
Another key point to raise on why intrinsic motivation is better, specific to a sport like cycling, is that it’s often a very lonely sport of suffering with very little reward. We chase PB’s and KOM’s rather than gold medals and recognition, the difference is paramount when looking at the types of motivation. No one can train and race in a sport like this with only extrinsic motivation! A deep desire from within is needed.
Do you also see how confidence and motivation are almost one in the same? If you are confident, you are motivated to perform at the level you believe you are on (whether this is accurate to your actual level you are on is irrelevant at this point), and if you are motivated, you are often more confident in your abilities.
These 2 in turn also equate to a high expectancy level, which may be good or bad depending on the situation; a high expectancy level can be good if the athlete has a good chance at winning, and it’ll therefore improve preparation and engagement, and even give more satisfaction in the result. However, if they do not have a good chance, a high expectancy may lean too much on this extrinsic motivation factor or expectation, and therefore cause a negative reaction if they don’t perform at the level of the expectation.
Now we also need to ask the question, what causes a lack of motivation, and what does this lack of motivation cause?
Well it depends on where your motivation comes from, if you are intrinsically motivated, then your motivation levels will be relatively stable, and a decline will usually be gradual. So the cause, whether that be stress from personal life, gradual decline in performance or enjoyment, etc., it’ll be easy to pin point and address. If it’s extrinsic, then it’s more often than not poor performance, or any sudden negative factor.
This lack of motivation usually causes withdrawal or lack of engagement, lack of commitment, and a tendency to give up in a high pressure situation. The last point shows how motivation, or lack thereof, is clearly related to, and a crucial ingredient to mental toughness. So a small obstacle might appear bigger to someone who is not highly motivated and confident in their ability to overcome it.
The results of good intrinsic motivation are clear form the above: higher levels of confidence and self-belief, mental toughness, and engagement in both training and racing; all which equal higher levels of performance! It’ll even improve your technical skills on the road or MTB, as you’ll have more confidence to take risks, and be more engaged to react to the outcome.
It’s also got to do with the expected outcome of your efforts, a balancing act in a way – will the effort I put into training be worth it at the end?
Then subsequently, will it cause victory? Now this is not necessarily the correct attitude to have, as the question should rather be, will this effort cause me to improve? Regardless of the outcome of the race, victory or failure, the 2nd question allows an athlete to see the benefit of putting in the effort in training, as they will be better than before; whereas in the first question, any little doubt, which is inevitable in high performance, will cause motivation levels to drop, and therefore engagement levels too; and too much of that will cause lack of confidence, and an eventual total withdrawal.
Now what all athletes want to know: Where do we find motivation?
Well, it’s an active and not a passive, which means it’s not a constant, but it’s dynamic and something we need to constantly work on and remind ourselves why we do what we do. It’s honest, and only you know the details of it, so you need to ask yourself the hard questions and go find it!
What makes you tick?
What makes you enjoy it, the training, the racing, the suffering?
What makes you want to seek improvement and be the best you can be?
As the old saying goes: the hard part isn’t getting to the top, it’s staying there. So how do we keep it?
It’s a process of reminding ourselves of the answers to the above questions to build the foundation, setting measurable goals, and like any other controllable factor, keep working on it. Look into yourself to find intrinsic motivation. You require discipline to keep it, and that’s why not everyone does.
A key point I’d like to raise, and draw this article to a close, is that an athletes internal motivation should be built on a sound personal character (your inner network of values, morals and beliefs), and a deep inner conviction for continuous improvement and to be not only the best athlete, but best person you can be – in sport, and in life. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, success isn’t measured by one static individual result, but rather by how much an athlete improves over a given period of time. Therefore that should be the main aim in developing an athlete, in early stages of competition, right through to the highest level – creating a person of character first, and then an athlete. This will create a sustainable motivation built on a solid foundation that will last longer than only a sporting career, and create a holistic human being, regardless of the results of any competition.
“Sport doesn’t build character, it reveals it” – Heywood Broun
To end of, here are some quick tips to build and maintain sound motivation:
- Ask the right questions and build the right foundation of character
- Set goals for continuous improvement
- Most importantly, enjoy it! A happy athlete is a successful one, regardless of the result
Matthew de Freitas