Motivation in Sport: the key role of attention


Introduction: motivation and its role in sports performance

Andrea is a teenage golfer. Golf has always been his passion and he has been identified as a player of national interest by the Italian federation. Although everyone recognises his good technical skills, his teacher is constantly complaining to his parents about his laziness, and they in turn are struggling with the same issue regarding school.

Daniel is a twenty-year-old tennis player looking for an opportunity to make the big leap into professional sport. He has abandoned his studies to focus on this dream, giving up any alternatives. After a period as a junior, when he achieves excellent results, he begins to experience a lack of energy, which even prevents him from training regularly.

Manuel is a young professional footballer who plays in the Italian Serie B. He earns well, is still considered promising and in a good season he might shine and move on to greater things, but he is intimidated by the competition, unable to establish strong relationships with his coaches and on the pitch, he plays safe, failing to show his true potential.

These three snapshots of athletes taken at different stages in their development prompt a deeper analysis of the factors that allow abilities gained to be expressed. Motivation is one of these factors and we can trace it to the explicit or implicit reasons that encourage us to act in a way that achieves our best performance. Because technique and physique are not enough, nor quite often is a natural predisposition: that subtle factor that many call talent is often so subtle as to raise doubts about whether it really exists.

Extrinsic and intrinsic motivations in sport

A complete understanding of what drives people to act in a consistent and sustainable way over time is an objective that has long been pursued for its practical usefulness, especially in the world of work. If employees are motivated, the productivity of their performance at work improves. If most employees are motivated, the company can rely on achieving greater productivity.

Despite the many scientific studies carried out over decades, which make different kinds of suggestions, the topic is still debated because of the difficulty of generalizing about impulses that are largely irrational and hard to direct without running the risk of manipulation.

When you ask competitive athletes of any level directly why they do sport, you essentially get two answers: because I like it or because I want to win. Getting an honest answer to this simple question provides the fundamental basic information needed to understand the mentality of athletes and how they employ their mental energies.

Athletes who answer “because I like it” seek positive sensations in sport that make them feel good, reinforce their identity, and satisfy the image they have or would like to have of themselves. Obviously, they also do it to win, but victory alone doesn’t motivate them enough to explain the sacrifices they make in training and competing. This kind of motivation is called intrinsic by scholars because it arises and is cultivated within the person.

Athletes who reply “I do sport because I want to win” are instead seeking external confirmation of their abilities in competition. It is the victory or the thought of victory, rather than their sensations during the competition, that makes them feel good, reinforces their identity, and satisfies their idea of themselves. The search for external confirmation defines this type of motivation as extrinsic.

Like any generalisation, this division between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations is a basic model that risks being far removed from reality. It is very common for athletes to fluctuate between seeking positive sensations and seeking external confirmation. This often prevents us from identifying a clear prevalence of one over the other. However, when there is a prevalence, because the athlete has made a conscious choice, and reinforced it over time, then it is evident that an athlete driven by intrinsic motivations achieves better and more sustainable results over time compared to one driven only by extrinsic motivations (victory, money and fame).

The importance of attention in competitive performance

Doing something because I like it or because I want to win defines how I use my energy. It is an aspect of awareness that often remains invisible to athletes, who tend to be focused on more rational aspects related to their determination to achieve a certain kind of results. However, willingness is not enough to win: the right conditions have to be created to achieve a performance that increases the chances of victory. Where do you start creating these conditions? Precisely by looking at the way your resources are used.

Athletes who are consciously driven by intrinsic motivations are able to focus more easily on the small gestures that gradually build the result. It is precisely these gestures in fact that generate energy and motivation, returning the positive sensations that the athlete is looking for.

Those who are instead driven mainly by the result to be achieved risk transforming a goal into an obsession that turns their desire for success into an obstacle to performance. Every mistake that hinders success risks weighing on their shoulders like a brick, while every good performance risks loading them with too much pressure and responsibility.

In these very common cases, many athletes tend to further reinforce the obsession with success, rather than trying to develop a broader vision of the factors that relate to motivation.

As the scientist Daniel Goleman writes in his book “Focus”, it is not the thought that is decisive, but the attention to our actions that determines the effective use of our abilities. As such, attention is defined as “the hidden driving force behind excellence”.

Mental training techniques in sport

Attention can be trained in many different ways, but mental training techniques without complete awareness are just a pointless search for magic formulas. Only athletes who are aware of their resources and the mechanisms for achieving optimal performance can train effectively on a technical, physical and mental level. A specific training method cannot be expected to bring improvements if athletes are not clear about why they are using it and what direction they are going in.

Attention training can also be included in physical and technical training, simply by paying particular attention to listening to feelings during these activities. Listening to feelings allows you to limit thought, promote natural and instinctive action and maintain your focus on the gestures made moment by moment.

Visual training is also particularly important. Scientific research has highlighted how effective use of vision has a direct impact on attention: an attentive tennis player looks at the ball at the moment it hits the racket, the centre forward does the same with the ball despite being disturbed by the defender, and the best Formula 1 pilots are those who can keep their eyes on the braking point while at the same time using the entire field of vision to counter the attack of the pilot behind them.

Specific visual training can be structured with or without the use of technology: the simpler the training, the more athletes can take it with them in every situation. In this respect, video games, videos, simple games with balls or fingers and breathing techniques can help the athlete before or during the race. Mental training is always personalised with the athlete’s involvement.

The importance of motivation in young people

Sport is an important training ground for life, where you can experience, in a protected environment and with precise rules, difficult situations that help you grow and mature. It is a shame therefore to read the statistics on how many teenagers give up sport. Participation in sport in fact peaks around the age of sixteen, a delicate age in which sport could also provide an important blueprint for other aspects of people’s personal life.

One of the factors that contribute to young people abandoning sport is certainly the excessive amount of competition in many sports environments. If you’re good you can compete, otherwise you’re left on the sidelines. In an age of great changes, which are in themselves a source of pressure and in which there are increasing educational demands, an excessive focus on results generates a dramatic drop in motivation.

The right environment has to be created for people who want to experience sport outside the world of strong competition. Athletes however need to be prepared in such a way as to improve their awareness of the resources they have and the most effective way to use them, so that they can manage the natural tensions of sporting challenges in a positive way.

Sports demotivation and burnout

The mental health of athletes is increasingly at the centre of public discourse, as a result not so much of greater awareness of the topic as of the cases of high-level athletes abandoning their sport or having to take prolonged periods of rest to regain a satisfactory level of mental and physical balance. The extreme pressure of expectations linked to results, which can affect anyone, not only high-level professionals, can generate a chronic state of activation, an inability to regain a level of physiological tension and a constant wear and tear of mental energies.

Sports clubs today make professionals available to deal with these situations, but real prevention activity is what is needed. The key is always self-awareness and knowledge. Informed athletes work on their resources, know their limits, remain focused on their gestures and see the result as a consequence, rather than as an objective to be achieved at all costs. It may seem paradoxical, but this kind of prevention helps to ensure the quality and sustainability of results. Furthermore, it preserves the essential capital of the sporting world: the athlete, the sun around which everything else must revolve.

Author of the article: Mental Coach Stefano Nicoletti 

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