Motivation and Athletic Success

Human motivation is an inspiring and challenging topic. Why do people take the actions they do? Traditionally social scientists have looked for reasons of economic rationality, assuming that people make logical and perfectly considered decisions in their own rational interest. We all now know this is false, just as the theory of “efficient markets” was shown to be flawed in the recent global credit crunch. People often seem to be pack animals, following a herd reaction of greed or fear rather than accurately quantifying and then acting on their own interests.

Furthermore, most psychological studies reveal that people have naturally skewed perspectives.The fear and pain of a loss (of money, for example) is always greater than the desire for a gain. Human beings are naturally defensive and cautious people, which was almost certainly a very useful trait in our primeval state on the African savannah. More positively, and inspired by some beautiful and civilised (or perhaps instinctive) belief in reciprocity, people will often do good things even when the expectation of direct payback is low.

So what really explains human motivation, and how can it be inspired and nurtured? Top sports stars often focus on self-talk and neuro linguistic programming (NLP), and many believe the mantra that “thoughts are things” and that outcomes can be determined by inputs. One of the premier architects and practitioners of NLP is of course Anthony Robbins, who has gained fame and fortune through his inspirational books, seminars and motivational audio programs.

In general the components of human success are surely based on skill and subconscious mastery, above all the ability to perform relentlessly under pressure. Think Roger Federer on the tennis court, or Lance Armstrong, a man whose physiology was uniquely suited and adapted to the rigours of a cycling lifestyle and honed by incredibly focused and persistent training. Social scientists and writers have attempted to prove that birth date is a prime indicator of athletic success, since those with birthdates early in the New Year will excel in their particular athletic cohort. Malcolm Gladwell takes up this theme in his astoundingly good book “Outliers”. Other indicators suggest that parental involvement in competitive sports contributes a genetic or cultural advantage, or at least provides an influence to focus in that particular direction as a career.

Yet the nature and nurture issue still matters: for human psychology and attitude is clearly pivotal. Belief matters and a deep conviction that success is both possible and achievable is surely essential to success at any sport.