Get out of your head and into your game: A guide to increasing motivation levels in your sport.

Written by Hayley McAuley


May 24, 2024

Get out of your head and into your game:  A guide to increasing motivation levels in your sport.

As a nation of sport lovers, we watch athletes on the TV, in stadiums and arenas, performing to the best of their ability in their sport but how much do we appreciate the mental and physical effort that it takes to maintain the commitment required to perform at that level?  If you are an athlete, you may resonate with this.  The pleasure and enjoyment that you bring to your audience comes from hard work and determination.

This blog will look at the importance of:

  • Sport motivators – internal and external
  • Goal setting
  • Visualisation

Motivation is a crucial factor in the world of sports, driving athletes to push themselves to their limits and achieve their goals. Whether you are a seasoned athlete or a beginner in your sport, maintaining high levels of motivation can be a challenge.  Regardless of whether you desire to win a championship, set a new personal record or simply improve your skills, motivation plays a key role in determining your success.

What are your motivators?

When people take up a sport, there will have been something about it that sparks their interest.  Maybe the sport is a favourite within the family, maybe they tried it at school or maybe they watched it on the Olympics and were inspired to try it out.  Knowing your motivators is important because when you experience times of low motivation, these are the baselines to come back to in order to help increase your motivation levels.  It is also really important to recognise if your motivators are internal or external motivators.  This can have an impact of your ability to stay motivated, or increase motivation.  Internal motivators mean that they come from the heart, they feed your inner needs.  External motivators are factors outside of ourselves and includes environmental factors as well as expectations of others.  Finding a good balance of both internal and external motivators is key to maintaining a good level of motivation.

Below is a list of some motivators for sport – do any of these resonate with you?

  • Passion for the sport – INTERNAL MOTIVATOR – if you are driven by the love of your sport and the feelings you get when you play it, this is more likely to maintain levels of motivation.
  • Personal goals – INTERNAL MOTIVATOR – this could be, for example, wanting to keep fit, for mental health purposes, achieve a personal best time, master a new skill or winning a game. If the goal is personal and not set by others, the sense of achievement will fulfil your internal reward system and help to keep motivation high.
  • Competing – INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL MOTIVATOR – depending on your reasons for enjoying competitions, this can be both internal and external motivation. If you get a thrill, a rush of adrenaline when competing and the drive comes from within, then this is internal.  If you compete because you want to prove your worth, impress others or want the physical reward of a medal, then this is external motivation.  Both can equally maintain motivation, however, when an external factor isn’t achieved, this can lead to feelings of not being good enough, feelings of failure, which in turn can lead to mental and physical burnout if you push yourself above over your limits.
  • Feeling part of a team/group – INTERNAL MOTIVATOR – if you enjoy your sport because of the connection with like minded others, the friendships that are built and feeling a sense of belonging then this is internal motivation as it is feeding your basic human needs and therefore, more likely to keep you motivated.
  • Recognition and reward – EXTERNAL MOTIVATOR – as previously mentioned, the physical reward of a medal, trophy or even a scholarship is an external motivator. If you seek recognition, status to increase your social standing, then this is also an external motivator.  These factors are incentives to keep motivation levels high, however, there is also the possibility of the over justification effect when being rewarded for doing something that you intrinsically enjoy, can actually reduce the motivation to do it.
  • Impressing family, friends and coaches – EXTERNAL MOTIVATORS – wanting to be successful in your sport because it is what your family want, or because it will impress friends or your coaches indicates that you seek validation from external sources. When this is the case, you are not connected to your internal reward system and when you don’t receive the external validation for whatever reason, this can leave you feeling unfulfilled.


As you can see from the examples above, there are many different motivators to sport.  Maintaining a good balance of internal and external motivators is key although having more internal motivators is preferable.

Being internally motivated in sport can still leave you experiencing a lack of motivation at times and it is important to recognise the context of you situation at that time.

  • Are you tired?
  • Do you have something stressful in your life right now?
  • Are you ill?
  • Have you lost your focus/goal in your sport?

Keeping check on your health is vital and needs to be your main focus.  If the lack of motivation is due to losing your focus, then the following tips can you regain control and increase your motivation once more:


Goal setting

Setting yourself challenging but achievable goals in one way to help increase motivation as it creates an incentive and keeps your internal reward system happy!  There are different types of goals and you may decide to set goals for all of them or only those that suit you.

  • Long term goals – having an end goal is good as this means there is an end point, a focus. However, this can sometimes seem to far away or too big to reach, so breaking it down into smaller, achievable milestones and celebrating each one can help to maintain motivation.
  • Training goals – these may be based on specific parameters such as time, level that you would like to reach, having a set routine.
  • Performance goals – do you wish to perfect a technique, complete a task in a certain time or improve your speed? Maybe you would like to build your strength, increase your stamina or improve your mental focus.
  • Process goals – what processes do you want to put in place in order to perform well in your sport? Would developing a pre-competition routine help maintain focus?  Does your diet and nutrition need change?  Do you want to work on your mental toughness and develop a routine that helps to maintain a positive, growth mindset?
  • Outcome/result goals – this could be about setting goals based on rank, position, points achieved or defeating a particular opponent or team.


Another really powerful and effective way to help maintain levels of motivation is visualisation.  When we imagine doing something or even just a static image of something we wish to achieve, it lays down a pattern for action.  When you visualise yourself performing an action, it activates the same part of your brain that is involved in ACUALLY doing the action, so it’s effectively, a way of rehearsing and practicing. 

Forming a static image of a goal or performing a task is a simple process and can be easily recalled to mind when you need a boost of motivation.  Ensure that the image is specific and detailed.  Make it as colourful as possible in your mind.

Creating a mental video of yourself performing a task or visualising the moment you achieve a goal is forward pacing and sets out the process that requires action.  As your internal reward system likes challenge, seeks pleasure and reward, by replaying this mental video, your brain will prepare to work towards that goal.


I hope that this article has been helpful in highlighting the importance of motivation in sport and how internal and external factors are key to maintaining a consistent level of motivation. Knowing what methods you can employ in order to increase your motivation levels when they are starting to reduce, is where your power to make change begins.


Best wishes

Hayley McAuley


Curious Counselling & Psychotherapy

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Published : May 24, 2024