The motivational dynamics of sport

The 34th President of the US, Dwight D Eisenhower, once said that ‘motivation is the art of getting people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it’. And as Dr Costas Karageorghis explains, recent research suggests that he wasn’t far wrong. Even better, changing your attitude towards training and competition can significantly enhance motivation.


Motivation is an internal energy force that determines all aspects of our behaviour; it also impacts on how we think, feel and interact with others. In sport, high motivation is widely accepted as an essential prerequisite in getting athletes to fulfil their potential. However, given its inherently abstract nature, it is a force that is often difficult to exploit fully. Some coaches, like Portugal manager Luiz Felipe ‘Big Phil’ Scolari, appear to have a ‘magic touch’, being able to get a great deal more out of a team than the sum of its individual parts; others find motivation to be an elusive concept they are forever struggling to master.

What is it that makes individuals like the 45-year-old sprinter Merlene Ottey, who competed in her seventh Olympics in Athens 2004, churn out outstanding performances year in, year out? Elite athletes such as Ottey have developed an ability to channel their energies extremely effectively. Indeed, motivation is essentially about the direction of effort over a prolonged period of time.

There are numerous approaches to the study of motivation. Some are based on schedules of positive and negative reinforcement (eg BF Skinner’s and Ivan Pavlov’s behaviourism) while others focus on an individual’s sense of mastery over a set of circumstances (eg Albert Bandura’s self-efficacy theory). This article explores the constituents of motivation using a contemporary approach, popularised by Americans Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, known as self-determination theory, which emphasises the role of individual choice.

The article will also outline some of the key findings from recent literature and provide four evidence-based techniques relating to the enhancement of motivation. You will be able to tailor the motivational techniques to enhance your participation in sport or the performance of others. You will learn that motivation is a dynamic and multifaceted phenomenon that can be manipulated, to some degree at least, in the pursuit of superior sporting performance.

Different types of motivation

One of the most popular and widely tested approaches to motivation in sport and other achievement domains is self-determination theory(1-3). This theory is based on a number of motives or regulations, which vary in terms of the degree of self-determination they reflect. Self-determination has to do with the degree to which your behaviours are chosen and self-initiated. The behavioural regulations can be placed on a self-determination continuum (see Figure 1 below). From the least to the most self-determined they are amotivation, external regulation, introjected regulation, identified regulation, integrated regulation and intrinsic motivation.

Amotivation represents a lack of intention to engage in a behaviour. It is accompanied by feelings of incompetence and a lack of connection between one’s behaviour and the expected outcome. For example, an amotivated athlete might be heard saying, ‘I can’t see the point in training any more – it just tires me out’ or ‘I just don’t get any buzz out of competition whatsoever’. Such athletes exhibit a sense of helplessness and often require counselling, as they are highly prone to dropping out.

External and introjected regulations represent non-self-determined or controlling types of extrinsic motivation because athletes do not sense that their behaviour is choiceful and, as a consequence, they experience psychological pressure. Participating in sport to receive prize money, win a trophy or a gold medal typifies external regulation. Participating to avoid punishment or negative evaluation is also external. Introjection is an internal pressure under which athletes might participate out of feelings of guilt or to achieve recognition.