What is the truth about motivation?

What motivates us? Are we really motivated by rewards? And do rewards and incentives lead to higher performances?

The research shows that in the workplace, we need to pay people enough to take money off the table, but for any task which requires engaged thinking, higher pay does not lead to higher performance. Perhaps this is surprising considering traditional bonuses, incentives and performance related pay schemes.

So, in terms of sport and fitness, how does pay and reward relate to performance? Most of us are not professional athletes, so why do we do it? How do we stay motivated to make progress in our sport? As coaches, what can we learn from the science of motivation to support our athletes to stay committed to what they do?

The answers to these questions will be varied and interesting, but useful to know in the current climate. Leaning about motivation can help you to support your athletes to stay motivated whilst in self isolation, amid the uncertainly about future goals, and competitions. Beyond the pandemic, the learnings about motivation can also relate to periods such as the off season, de-selection and through periods of injury management.

So what do we know? The science shows us that there are three surprising factors which drive behaviour:


The more engaged your athlete is, the better they will perform, the research shows that self direction is better. Let them take responsibility and involve them in the decision making. Don’t be overly prescriptive. Your instinct may be to get defensive if an athlete wants to do things their own way. Without full compliance, you may want to withdraw completely, but put your ego to one side, and let your athlete enjoy learning and making mistakes. You can help them with the timing of this of course . It’s much better to work with them in a way which will help to develop them and support them to have autonomy and this will impact positively on their motivation. For example, you may want to share your knowledge and observations or provide feedback, and then coach your athlete on how to use it. Obviously this can be trickier in a group situation, but there are always ways in which you can empower athletes rather than fostering dependence. Remember coaching is about developing athletes and helping them to grow.


We like to get better at stuff. We enjoy learning because our brains like the stimulation and it’s satisfying to make progress.

As a coach you may want to ask questions to draw out the learnings and help your athletes to realise their progress through keeping records and conducting regular testing. Whatever level you are at, recording your training sessions and gathering information about your journey can help with motivation and commitment whilst supporting autonomy. This can be especially useful if you are hard on yourself and get frustrated about your progress.


How am I making a contribution or doing something for the greater good? Your athletes may not demonstrate this thinking in their behaviour, especially at a young age, but purpose and meaning is a big motivational driver. In any sport there are tasks, exercises and training sessions which are less enjoyable or don’t give you the endorphin rush, for example, mobility, rehab and pre-rehab. There may be team events, unpaid or costly trips we’d prefer not to make. Educating and coaching your athletes to see the bigger picture, and the significance of their actions will keep them focused. They may not be paid, but how does their involvement add value to the team?

Athletes, how is your training making a difference to others? Are you a positive role model? Do you inspire or give people hope? How does your training make you a better partner, parent or friend? Can you help others through sharing your experiences? How can you contribute to good causes financially, though volunteering, by writing and sharing your expertise or otherwise?


Meaning trumps everything. You can develop your athletes by helping them to know, remember and see the bigger picture.


Motivation to write

I hope you enjoyed the article.

On a personal note, it can be challenging to stay motivated to write. I don’t get paid for it, it’s time consuming, more taxing then coaching and more tiring than exercise.I often ask myself, if writing is worth the effort. Is anyone reading my work? I question whether it makes a difference or has an impact on anyone’s life? Does it challenge thinking and in the process develop coaches or athletes in any way?

It can be tough when you get little or no feedback, likes or shares, especially when you see the contentless, attention grabbing, posts which go viral. But every now and again I get a message saying how my work has has made a difference and that motivates me. I aim to make a contribution through sharing my knowledge and experience of psychology and sports coaching. I hope that my article about motivation can help you in some way to consider a different perspective, reaffirming, inspiring, or supporting you to pursue what is important to you in your life.


Thank you for the picture Crossfit Games Regional Team Athlete: Lianne Thomas

Follow Lianne on Instagram


If your interested in the work of Dan Pink I spoke about earlier, check out the video for more info on these concepts which can be related into most contexts. Fascinating stuff!