Athlete Motivation: Desire to win or fear of failure?
Imagine you’re at a soccer game and it’s your turn to take a penalty. You step up to the penalty spot, place the ball on the ground and slowly walk backwards. As you stand there, looking at the ball and the goalkeeper beyond, what’s going through your mind?
Are you thinking ‘I can’t wait to score this penalty’ as you visualize the ball hitting the top left corner of the net? Or are you silently dreading that sensation of failure as the ball flies over the crossbar?
Athlete motivation is a massive area of sports psychology, but one of the major questions is whether you’re motivated by a desire to win or a fear of failure.
When you’re motivated by the desire to win, achieving your goal gives you a sense of joy and pleasure and drives you on to achieve more.
A healthy fear of failure can make sure that we don’t get stuck in our comfort zone and avoid taking too many risks¹. But if you’re only motivated by the desire to avoid losing, winning a match just gives you a sense of relief.
Intrinsic vs Extrinsic motivation
This question of fear or desire also ties in with the concepts of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.
Intrinsic motivation comes from within the athlete, who competes for reasons like enjoying the sport or the desire to win. An extrinsically motivated athlete competes for external reasons like trophies and titles or to avoid disappointing a parent or coach.
Generally, internal motivation results in more consistent levels of motivation, performance and satisfaction with their sport. Some extrinsic rewards can help to boost motivation, but an extrinsically motivated athlete is likely to compete in order to avoid punishment or negative emotions.
This can then lead to higher levels of anxiety, fluctuating performance and problems with coping when things go wrong².
Ego vs Task Motivation
Another way of looking at athlete motivation is whether the athlete is in a task-oriented or ego-oriented environment.
A task-motivated environment is created when the emphasis is put on trying hard and improving performance, whereas an ego-motivated environment occurs when winning becomes the most important aspect of sport.
When junior athletes train in an ego-motivated environment, it can create a fear of failure and trigger avoidance behaviors. Athletes become more worried about what people might be thinking of them and the negative consequences of failure, and this can lead to poor performance³.
Fixed or growth mindset
In Mindset, Carol S. Dweck explores what is meant by a fixed mindset and a growth mindset and how it can help you to fulfill your potential.
Athletes with a fixed mindset see an upper limit to their abilities, a point beyond which they can’t improve any further. Whereas someone with a growth mindset will see every challenge as an opportunity to grow and improve.
If you have a fixed mindset, you’re likely to think that you're more likely to fail at a tough challenge such as scoring a penalty in a high-pressure game. Whereas if you have a growth mindset, even if you do fail to score the penalty, you’ll see this as a learning opportunity and use it as a way to improve next time.
“People in a growth mindset don’t just seek challenge, they thrive on it.” (Dweck, 2006, pg 21)
Ultimately, an athlete’s potential will be more limited if they have a fixed mindset. Once they hit those limits, it’s possible that they will give up on the sport because they feel that they can’t take it any further.
How can you change your motivation?
So how can you change your personal motivation from fear of failure to desire to win?
Goal setting with your coach and parents can really help with this. By setting realistic and achievable goals that still challenge you, you can increase your levels of intrinsic motivation. Experiencing success through your own work and actions can boost intrinsic motivation even further.
Coaches and parents can also help young athletes to move towards a growth mindset. This will help them to see failure as a challenge to be overcome, and reduce levels of performance anxiety.
Once you experience the positive emotions associated with meeting your goals, you’re likely to feel more satisfied with your sport and your performance. You’ll want to experience those emotions over and over!