What Motivates an Athlete?

Winning trophies, improving themselves, or demonstrating their abilities to others. What is it that motivates athletes? Find out here.
What Motivates an Athlete?
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 09 June, 2023

Serena Williams, Lionel Messi, Rafael Nadal, and Usain Bolt. Many of these people are considered extraordinary for their achievements, ability to excel, and exceptional abilities. But, what motivates these illustrious figures? Where do they get the talent to reach such incredible milestones? And, can anyone apply the same psychological approach to achieve their own goals? In fact, what motivates an athlete?

If there’s one figure that exemplifies the power of motivated behavior, it’s an athlete. It isn’t easy to find that inner push and driving impulse that prevents them from giving up and encourages them to push their physical condition to the limit. The key lies in training their mind to provide their brain with large doses of passion, direction, and enthusiasm.

But, how do they do it? How do they nurture their motivation so that it doesn’t decline as the days go by? We’re going to find out.

“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.”

-Mahatma Gandhi-


A simple definition of motivation would be energetic and persistent goal-oriented behavior. Thanks to this internal force, behaviors are initiated and directed toward specific goals, in a stable manner over time, without a decline or loss of desire. But, for this dimension to take shape, it’s not enough just to ‘want’ something; other atomic components are needed.

The journal, Motivation and Emotion published research that highlights a series of psychological processes that stimulate motivated behavior. They’re as follows:

  • Emotional factors: Hopes, desires, and longings.
  • Social variables: The environment, culture, values, and inspiring references.
  • Cognitive elements: Thoughts and/or ideas that catalyze the achievement of goals.
  • Biological variables. Dopamine, serotonin, and adrenaline orchestrate these motivated behaviors.

In the world of sports, motivation is key. That’s because, thanks to this internal impulse, the athlete maximizes their efforts to face fatigue, pain, or anxiety. In fact, only if we have minds impregnated with this psychological filter will we manage to align our lifestyles in tune with the goals we long for.

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Climbers representing what motivates an athlete
Motivation sustained over time allows us to reach great heights and achieve personal goals.

What motivates an athlete?

What makes an athlete sacrifice so many areas of their life for the discipline in which they train and compete? What is it that makes an athlete capable of enduring so much suffering? It’s often said that these men and women are made of sterner stuff. However, in reality, they’re simply driven by nothing more than hopes, enthusiasm, and desire.

As a matter of fact, athletes are motivated by specific aspects that science has been studying for a long time. They’re detailed below.

Only athletes oriented by intrinsic motivation achieve success.

Goals (extrinsic motivation)

A study published in the journal, Motivation in Sport Settings discusses the role of goals in sports motivation. It claims that extrinsic motivation, understood as the desire to achieve external rewards, is a cornerstone in sports. It consists of the following elements:

  • Winning prizes.
  • Winning competitions.
  • Obtaining recognition.
  • Achieving economic benefit.
  • The need to conform to the expectations of others.
  • Avoiding ‘punishments’. For example, disappointing their coach, environment, or fans.

Passion and personal improvement (intrinsic motivation)

Extrinsic motivation offers valuable reinforcements, but intrinsic motivation provides direction and leads an athlete to success. Clarkson University, New York (USA) states that this dimension activates the individual toward non-instrumental ends. This consists of the mere pleasure and enjoyment of a task, which guides certain behaviors.

In reality, any athlete who directs their efforts, to a greater degree, based on intrinsic motivation, will significantly reduce their anxiety. It helps them drop many external pressures and give priority to the internal sphere.

Therefore, from an intrinsic point of view, an athlete is motivated by:

  • The desire to surpass themselves.
  • The pleasure of beating other opponents.
  • An innate passion for their specific sport.
  • Possessing family and personal memories associated with the sporting activity.
  • A feeling of self-efficacy and competency in the sport.
  • Having fun. Experiencing intense sensations and an adrenaline rush.
  • Aesthetic pleasure. Being outdoors, seeing a scene like a soccer field, a basketball court, a racing car, etc. Sport is a motivating spectacle.
Soccer players symbolizing what motivates an athlete
A motivated athlete remembers the reasons for which they strive every day.

The reinforcement of sports motivation

Many athletes, almost without knowing why, lose their motivation. Their performance drops, they stop going to training, and they lose focus, dedication, and even desire. Indeed, motivated behavior is an internal mechanism that isn’t stable and even less automatic. It’s not enough simply to ‘feel like doing something’ for motivation to emerge.

Consequently, sports psychologists are extremely important in these competitive environments. Thanks to them, athletes recover their lost internal energy and are able to rise again and give their best in competitions. But, how do they feed their lost motivation? Let’s find out.

When the athlete loses motivation, they should set themselves simple, short-term goals that are positive and enriching.

1. They take care of their mental health

Research conducted by the University of Limerick (Ireland) emphasizes the importance of attending to the mental health of athletes at all times. Motivation drops and will wear out if the athlete suffers from depression, anxiety disorder, or trauma. In fact, although some people see sport as a channel to heal their emotional problems, not all perceive a clear or stable benefit over time.

We only have to think of the case of Simone Biles, the gymnast who withdrew due to the psychological trauma caused by the sexual abuse of her coach.

2. They remember the reasons why they’re competing

An athlete must remember on a daily basis why they’re competing. They work so hard in their particular sporting discipline, they must clarify what justifies their dedication. Is it for social recognition? Is it because they’re passionate about it? Or, is it because they want to improve themselves? What short- and long-term goals do they want to achieve?

3. They’re committed and have positive thoughts

Sports involve effort, sacrifice, and even pain. One way for the athlete to push their goals even further is to accompany them with positive self-affirmations. For example, by telling themselves “I can achieve it”, or “I’m going to make myself proud.” “I’m going to try extra hard and see what I can do”.

Motivation doesn’t arise on its own. In many cases, it appears when activity or training begins without any desire. Sometimes, the athlete just needs to move their body and have a positive mindset for enthusiasm to arise. The results come when they commit themselves to their responsibility in body, mind, and heart.

4. They start with small goals

James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits (2020), highlights the importance of starting change through simple actions. This involves setting simple and rewarding goals to regain motivation. As we perceive how we’re advancing, our minds become excited and we can see higher purposes on the horizon. This mechanism is also applicable to the sports field.

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The environment also motivates the athlete

Athletes who’ve lost motivation can always try leaning on their training partners. In fact, the environment or figures that make up a part of their sports discipline can serve as guides, promoters, and mediators. They can help them recover their desire and energy.

As you can see, athletes are motivated by a wide spectrum of factors that are dominated by both external and internal aspects. Above all, to achieve success and give the best of themselves, they must work on the personal sphere. This is where passion and enjoyment, two elements that are capable of turning on the most powerful of human engines live.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.