How to build motivation

American sprinter Michael Johnson, winner of five Olympic gold medals and eight times world champion, summed up the importance of motivation this way:

“My best motivation has always come from the sheer joy of running and competing, it’s the same thrill I get like I’m a 10-year-old kid. Have you ever met a 10-year-old who is nauseated by what he is doing? You have to find your initial motivation, which is why you will become an architect. This is the secret of perseverance.”

Sporting activity should enable the establishment of an attitude that can be summarized in the following sentence, “It is because of my commitment and the pleasure I take in it that I become better and better at what I do.” Activities motivated by an inner drive are based on the subjective perception of satisfaction derived from performing a given task. Therefore, any external intervention that tends to reduce this perception in the athlete will negatively affect his or her motivation. This is the case when an athlete strives only to receive a material (winning a trophy) or symbolic reward (“I’m doing this for my parents or coach who will be happy this way or because I will be more admired by my classmates”). Sport performance thus becomes merely a means to another end, which becomes, instead, the real end of the action: the young person does not act for the pleasure the activity itself provides him or her but to receive a certain recognition. Therefore, external reinforcements that encourage the athlete to attribute his participation to external motives reduce his internal motivation. Operationally, the coach should not make use of reinforcers that are perceived by the athlete to be more important than athletic participation itself, but should provide helpful suggestions to increase the sense of satisfaction the young person derives from the competitive experience.

Indeed, it has been documented that athletic achievements that are perceived as the result of personal internal factors such as skill, dedication, and commitment rather than external factors (luck, limited ability of opponents, favorable referee decisions) are associated with moods of satisfaction and pride.

However, the external reinforcements that an athlete receives also play a positive role. For example, with children who have not yet had any sports experience or with adults who have little sports experience. In such cases external reinforcements concerning the provision of sports equipment or gadgets, or social support derived from practice are elements that encourage participation. The same is true for economic rewards obtained by top athletes as recognition of their sporting value.

Every coach knows that setting goals is essential to stimulate motivation and improve performance. In this regard:

Working on defined and accepted goals helps improve the overall atmosphere and emotional climate of training. There is a reduction in problems related to tardiness, group laziness and lack of discipline.
Athletes, even the youngest, increasingly enhance their autonomy and learn to take responsibility for their own choices. Determination to achieve goals and to develop to their full potential is increased in this case
The coach’s leadership is accepted by the athletes through increased personal credibility;
Finally, despite the relevance that goal setting plays in increasing performance, there is also another reason that makes it necessary on the part of the athlete. For if sport and competition have a social value, consequently every individual has the right to succeed. Certainly in sport at the absolute level, the struggle for success is for the podium, and those who can aspire to this kind of achievement prepare themselves aware of the difficulties they will encounter along the way.

Then there is the success of everyone, of those who have set their goals properly and work hard to achieve them. Every person involved in sports has a responsibility to achieve for himself or herself personal success. This is the case of someone who wants to run the marathon in 4 hours; if he succeeds, he will have won his race.

Observing children engaged in sports activities not organized by adults should teach adults something very important, and that is that when they do not achieve the goal they have set for themselves, the children take it down a notch, learning from their mistakes and trying again. After a series of such adjustments and trials, success is guaranteed. The opposite happens when they succeed instead, they raise the level of difficulty of the goal. In other words, this means that in an almost spontaneous way young people modify their goals by always moving them to the limit of their possibilities. In this sense, mistakes are used as an integral part of the learning process and are not interpreted as failure.

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