Motivation is the stimulus given to athletes to continue with and improve in their chosen sport. Motivation can come from a number of sources: coaches, teammates, supporters, and self-help methods can all be effective means of motivating an athlete to perform.
Motivational techniques are an aspect of the broader branch of sports science known as sports psychology. The mental aspects of sport are now understood to be essential to athletic success. Sports psychology traces its roots to the work of an Indiana University professor in the early 1900s, Norman Triplett, who made a connection between the performance of cyclists who rode alone versus those who rode in groups of two or more.
The effective motivation of athletes is an essential aspect to success in sports of every kind. The motivational requirements of every athlete are as unique as the athlete themselves. The first factor in the assessment of how an athlete may be effectively motivated is the nature of the sport played. As an example, a sport that involves repeated physical contact such as rugby or American football places entirely different stresses on both the mind and the body than does tennis or cross-country running.
The motivation of a team will often differ from that of the individual athlete; teams possess a unique collective athletic personality.
The level of athletic competition is often an important factor as to how the team or athlete can be motivated to perform at their highest level. A team that competes at an international level may possess different dynamics than those present in the members of a youth league team.
The skill level of the athlete, the gender of the athlete, and the age and the relative sophistication of the athlete are all factors as to how the subject athletes can be effectively motivated. The Hollywood style coach, screaming and neck veins bulging, who delivers a "blood and guts," "win one for the Gipper" emotional speech does not have a place in every locker room.
The nature of the training and the competitive seasons in which the sport occurs is also influences the motivational approaches to be taken. The periodization of training is the concept that provides for the division of an athletic year into components, the best known of which are the preseason, competitive season, and the off-season, all of which may be the subject of more finite divisions. The motivational techniques to successfully encourage an athlete to train effectively over an extended period of preseason work or to steer the athlete towards an upcoming competitive schedule are not necessarily the same approaches used to stimulate a best effort on race day or game day.
Motivation is rarely successful as a one-time instrument. Successful motivational techniques are built on the relationship between the athlete and the person seeking to motivate the athlete, usually a coach. If the coach does not know the athlete well, the athlete will not inherently trust the words of the prospective motivator. If the athlete senses that the motivational tools are not sincere or that they are directed to some ulterior purpose, the motivation will fall flat.
Knowledge of the athlete and the existence of a trust relationship between coach and athlete will permit the coach to understand what it is about their athlete's unique personality that will permit motivation to occur. This knowledge will take the coach and the athlete to the activation point, that region of the athlete's persona that will trigger a best effort. Through the relationship, a coach, for example, will know if the athlete (or the team) responds to a visceral challenge, or whether the motivation question is best approached on a more intellectual footing.
Long-term motivation, the practices that are emphasized day to day through the athletic season, often are based on goal setting. The ultimate goal for an athlete may be to compete at an Olympic Games five years hence; the intermediate goals may center on intermediate competitions, and the short-term goals may involve setting a personal training best in the discipline two months in the future. Each motivational goal is a progression that bears a logical connection to the next target. Many athletes have failed to continue with sports where the goals set were either unrealistic or were ill-considered.
With the concept of goal setting comes the notion of reward as a motivator. In elite-level competitors, the pursuit of a lucrative professional career and monetary reward is often a powerful motivator. For recreational athletes, the motivation to complete a tough workout when the athlete is fatigued may result in a reward of a day off from training or an indulgence such as a rich meal that is not normally permitted in the athlete's diet.
The management of stress and its impacts on the athlete are an important aspect of motivational techniques. The ability to overcome the pressures of competition, or the effects of external environmental factors such as family, educational, or employment pressures will often be determined by the ability of the athlete to be motivated beyond the stressful factors to a mental state where the athletic activity is of primary importance.
Successful athletes are able to motivate themselves to perform. For some, this is an innate part of their psychological makeup, and they might only require coaching direction as to how to keep motivated to perform. The technique of positive self-talk that reinforces with upbeat self-analysis and self-imagery is one of a number of ways that the individual athlete can strive to remain focused on training and competition.