What’s really motivating you to perform? Understanding what motivates you is a crucial component of performing well, and when it comes to what motivates you in competitive situations, there are two aspects of personality that are worth exploring: a Need for Achievement (NA) and a Fear of Failure (FF).

NA refers to how naturally competitive we are and how we actively seek out challenges in our sport.

FF explains the way we perceive the possibility of defeat. None of us enjoy losing and sport in general is highly achievement oriented, yet for some, the thought of defeat is more damaging than for others.

Many see defeat as ‘failure’ which results in self-doubt and can affect self-esteem (so is personally damaging and a reflection of our ability). This in turn, can bring on a sense of hopelessness, and have a negative impact on motivation.

Assessing your motivation

We all have elements of both NA and FF - which type do you relate to?

Need for achievement (NA) and fear of failure (FF). Image Credit: Karageorghis & Terry (2011)

Understanding yourself better can be useful when it comes to your approach to competing.

Ask yourself why your sport attracts you and what you hope to get out of it.

Chances are, you don’t fit one type exactly, and may have a moderate level of both NA and FF, which is how many athletes feel. If you recognise yourself in types 1 and 2, your commitment to training and doing well might be flaky - it might be that you need a bit more structured training, or plan sessions with a group, to stay motivated.

If you recognise more of yourself in type 1, you can begin to understand why you start to feel anxious before events, particularly when you’re not that bothered by winning/going well (i.e. a low NA). 

For many, participating in sport is about friendships, personal satisfaction/respect, and exhilaration by being outdoors and moving - if this is you and your need for achievement (NA) is low, recognise it, accept it and enjoy participation for reasons other than winning. This can help you keep a healthy perspective when it comes to entering events and races - it helps reinforce why you do your sport.

If you are a type 3, then motivation for racing won’t be an issue because while you love to win/perform well, you realise that losing/not getting a PB isn’t life changing or a direct reflection of your ability. And you’re potentially persistent and enjoy taking risks.

However, at times you may not find training challenging enough, so setting small, specific process goals, particularly if you’re an endurance athlete (so spend long hours training) could be a good way to help keep enthusiasm for your sport...

Setting 'process' goals

Goal setting is well-proven as a strategy to help athletes improve their performance.

Setting challenging yet realistic goals has been proven to boost motivation, confidence, concentration and to reduce anxiety.

Process goals help you focus on developing or mastering the appropriate skills, techniques, and strategies needed in order to achieve performance goals (e.g. times you need to achieve) and outcome goals (e.g ranking/placement at an event).

Process goals are very much within your control, help you achieve performance goals, which in turn, give you the best chance to achieve outcome goals (which involve others, hence involve elements you can’t control).

What other process goals can you create for your sport?

Here are some examples …

Staying task-focused = a better performance

When we focus on results or the outcome of an event, we often feel anxiety rise like a pressure cooker. Anxiety is typical for those who relate to types 1 and 4, who are motivated by high levels of FF (or both NA and FF), because thoughts often shift to outcomes and ‘what ifs’, fuelled by motivation to NOT fail.

This is where staying task-focused is crucial because it helps you maintain a sense of control by focusing on the task at hand, which in turn feeds self-confidence as you achieve results task by task.

This is why we bang on about controlling the controllables!

By tending to tasks that are within your control, you’ll learn to perceive failure/a poor result due to a temporary factor, not a reflection of your ability - and this will help you maintain healthy motivation for your sport.

Reflect on a past training session or race that didn’t go well and think about why that was the case - I’ve listed a few potential reasons below.

This exercise is excellent when it comes to boosting motivation because athletes find that factors within their control (which caused them to underperform) often exceed those outside of their control - which means they can do something about them - like see a sport psychologist, work on mental training strategies, and improve preparation strategies.

Dealing with slumps/demotivation

First, it’s important to realise that no athlete experiences a steady upward trajectory when it comes to performance! Having great and poor performances is part of sport and normal for all athletes.

The same goes for motivation: we all go through peaks and troughs, times when we feel highly motivated and excited about a specific training session, plan, group ride, single workout. And there are always times when we feel low or a slump in motivation - and often, we’re not even sure why.

Outside influences impact our sport, work/family/routines/relationships/pandemics! impact our motivation, and it’s important to acknowledge and accept this as part of our sport.

Take what you read/watch on social media with a grain of salt - if you’re thinking ‘why is everyone else so motivated and achieving such great sessions/results while I’m struggling with motivation?’, think again.

Everyone experiences highs and lows when it comes to motivation and remember you won’t see poor results posted on Strava when you have the opportunity to post good results - we are designed to protect our egos!

On a serious note, practice self-reflection if you’re feeling a slump in motivation and take a step back. Write down a list of what you’ve achieved to date in terms of training and progress and notice how you feel.

Chances are, you’ll feel a sense of pride and confidence (and often surprise) by just how much you have achieved, despite not feeling motivated in this moment.

Here are some other things worth trying if you're struggling for motivation to get out of the door...

I often remind myself of an ancient Chinese proverb when I’m dragging my feet before a swim or a ride and it helps me feel better: Everything passes - including days where you just aren’t feeling it!

So go easy on yourself, be proactive and re-ignite your motivation, ready for your next goal!

Further Reading

Evie Serventi is a Sport and Exercise Psychologist (BPS Stage 2), triathlete and editor. You can get in touch with Evie at sportpsych@evieserventi.com