Balancing Your Motivation For Success

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There are two main sources of motivation. Generally speaking, motivation can come from the outside, such as the motivation to win medals, receive financial rewards, and attract attention from the media. This is known as external, or extrinsic, motivation because it involves participation in sport for some kind of reward that is external to the process of participation. On the other hand, athletes who participate because they enjoy the process—that is, they find sport interesting, stimulating, and enjoyable without being preoccupied by external rewards—are predominantly internally, or intrinsically, motivated.

The Flow Exercises below will assist you in applying concepts of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to your own athletic performance.


The highest level of intrinsic motivation is known as flow. Flow is typified by complete immersion in an activity to the point that nothing else seems to matter. Hungarian psychologist Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has led much of the work in this exciting area, which has intrigued sport psychology researchers in recent years.

Flow occurs when there is a perfect match between the perceived demands of an activity and the perceived ability to meet the demands. During flow, you lose self-consciousness and become one with the activity. This creates a state in which you are intrinsically rewarded by the movement patterns involved. Flow is seen as the ultimate experience among the sporting community. Many athletes and coaches refer to flow as being “in the zone,” “on song,” or “in the groove.” It is an optimal psychological state and a deeply pleasurable experience.

Flow can enrich your life and make you want to persist at your chosen disciplines with greater intensity. Several introductory flow exercises are included below. You will need a pen and paper to complete them.

Motivation Tip 1: Create an Immersion Effect

Sit down in a place where you are unlikely to be disturbed. Close your eyes and take a few long, slow, deep breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth until you feel completely relaxed. Recall a time when you were performing at the very peak of your ability, when everything just seemed to click into place. Spend a few minutes trying to recall every detail about that experience. When the experience feels really lifelike and you are entirely immersed in it, open your eyes and write down everything that characterized it: how you felt inside, what you were thinking, how other people were reacting to your movements, how you were controlling the environment, and so on.

Likely, your mind was completely clear and you were focused entirely on the task at hand. Using your checklist, recall the feelings associated with peak performance and flow just prior to your next performance. Engaging in this process will enhance the likelihood of your entering a flow state.

Motivation Tip 2: Plan And Chart Progress

It is now widely recognized that the most effective way to set goals is to have some overarching objectives (e.g., winning an Olympic medal) that are underscored by numerous medium-term and short-term process goals. It is no coincidence that the secret to entering flow is to immerse yourself in the process of your activity. Over time, persistent focus on the process brings about successful outcomes such as winning Olympic gold medals. By process, we are referring to the nuts and bolts of your discipline: mastering the skills, working on your mental toughness, and attaining appropriate fitness levels.

We suggest that you keep a training or activity diary in which you list your major goals on the first page and strategize, review, and monitor your progress from day to day, week to week, and month to month on subsequent pages. Be sure to adjust your initial goals if they turn out to be either unrealistic or too easy. Many athletes like to check off goals achieved as they progress through each week because this gives them a sense of accomplishment. The next time you go into a training session, be sure to have recorded in advance exactly what you expect to achieve. Get into the habit of making brief notes before and after each training session to keep you firmly focused on the most important components of your performance. Don’t just think it, ink it!

Motivation Tip 3: Use Positive Self-Talk

Positive self-talk is one of the most tried and tested strategies among sport psychology interventions. It is used to maintain concentration and to induce optimal arousal. We use three types of self-talk in our work with athletes. The first type is known as task-relevant self-talk, and as the name suggests, it involves a focus on the task at hand. A professional boxer uses the statement “guard up, chin down” to reinforce his posture. The second type is known as mood-related self-talk, which should affect the way you feel. A female rugby player came up with “Wham bam thank you ma’am!” to encapsulate the ease with which she would dispossess her opponents of the ball. The third type is known as a positive self-affirmation statement. The most famous exponent of this type was the great Muhammad Ali, who told himself “I am the greatest” so many times that even his opponents became convinced of it.

Motivation Tip 4: Seeing Is Believing

All great achievers in history are characterized by having a clear vision of what they wanted to achieve; as the old Chinese proverb goes, “If you chase two rabbits, you will catch neither.” Structured imagery, or visualization, is the key that will unlock your potential and turn your dreams into reality. Imagery allows you to see in your mind’s eye the outcomes you wish to bring about. By recreating these outcomes using multisensory images (sight, sound, touch), you greatly increase the chance of attaining superior performance because images program muscles. The more vividly you can create images and the better you engage each of your senses, the more effectively you will prime your muscles for superior performance. This holds true in all spheres of human achievement.

This article was excerpted from Inside Sport Psychology, by Costas Karageorghis and Peter Terry, published by Human Kinetics. Inside Sport Psychology covers the most effective methods of enhancing sport performance and preparing mentally for competition, and it explains which techniques are most appropriate for certain situations in sport. It is an ideal resource for athletes and coaches wishing to incorporate modern psychological techniques into their everyday practice. Learn more about motivational techniques.

Comments 1

  1. This is such valuable information that if it is administered everyday as suggested in this article and done often, victory is just moments away.

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