Athletes will hit the skids throughout their careers, and motivation can suffer as a result. So, what stands in the way of maintaining a high level of motivation? Here are a few of the more common motivation blockers I come across while working with athletes:
1. Constantly comparing yourself to others (or a previous version of yourself)
Comparisons are measuring sticks and ways to determine where an athlete fits in the pecking order. There is a place and value of using these comparisons to help motivation, but taken too far, it can lead to decreased self-confidence, increased frustration, and increased doubt. I recently worked with an athlete who was always making comparisons to himself at a younger age, as well as to his peers who were now doing well in the older age divisions. He was very successful as a younger player, but was currently struggling to find the same level of success. The game changed, his opponents grew, and the things that worked in the younger age groups did not have the same effect in his current bracket. He was really struggling to find his way and he was contemplating hanging it up. The message was simple: he had to develop the skills that would lead to success at the higher levels of competition and focus on his own journey. Additionally, he had to set, and work towards, a completely new goal process.
- Reframe the negative thoughts when making comparisons to others. These rogue thoughts and statements will come, and when they do use neutral/positive statements to redirect attention and focus.
- Create a goal achievement pathway that is focused on skill development at your current level.
2. Unmet expectations (your own expectations, someone else's expectations)
Another common motivation blocker is the role of expectations, specifically unmet expectations. As a mental coach I am supportive of athletes setting the bar high, but I also recognize these individuals do not typically have an appropriate pathway that will help them inch closer to their goals. Without these smaller, bite-sized markers to achieve, athletes can get frustrated and lose sight of their journey.
I had an interesting conversation with a coach recently who suggested that setting goals is counterproductive. His argument - goals that are not obtained can lead to frustration, burnout, and decreased enjoyment. It is an interesting point, but one that I do not particularly agree with. However, it does highlight a vital aspect of goal setting: the need to establish achievable goals that are developmentally appropriate. One of the first questions I ask an athlete is what his/her goals are, and most of the time I get an outcome-oriented answer, or a very lofty expectation that does not seem to fit where the athlete is developmentally.
Parents, coaches, and peers can also play a role in decreasing an athlete's motivation. Words like "talented" and "special" can be difficult labels to live up to, especially as the athlete rises through the levels and the demands become greater and greater. Additionally, statements like "You have to...", "You should...", "You can't..." have an impact on how an athlete looks at his/her progress. For example, a tennis player I worked with recently was struggling to beat players who were below his level. Part of the issue - his dad would always tell him that he "should win easily", or "this player isn't very good". The athlete was pre-loaded with expectations that were not within his control and as a result the pressure would flood in, leading to decreased performance.
- Establish a number of process and task goals that can be achieved in a shorter period of time. Smaller successes will help you stay motivated when tougher times come.
- Focus on where you are in your journey at this stage and work on your self-talk. Flush out the "noise" and engage in more positive or neutral statements.
3. Overly focused on outcomes
I get it, you play to win the game. Ultimately sport is about competition, but what happens if the results are not coming? What if the athlete has just recently progressed to a higher level and is not winning as much as before? There may be a number of factors that influence the results you are achieving. But focusing on those results alone is a quick way to get frustrated and lose motivation. I like to find ways to help athletes "protect" their confidence. This entails looking back on a result and keeping it about the facts, NOT THE EMOTION. Take the good, improve on the not so good, then turn the page.
- Results can be very motivating, but poor results can have the opposite effect. When you are struggling refocus on ways to improve each performance domain.
- Lock into what you can control after a loss. Reflect on what you did well and what you could have done better, then move on. Ironically, this is the same process you should use after a win.