What is Motivation?

What is motivation?

Motivation goes past our primitive desires to secure food, safety and shelter. For the majority of us, when we think of motivation, we think of the force that influences our behaviours to move toward, or away from, a desirable (or undesirable) reality. As athletes, your motivation gets you up early, and your lack of it hits the snooze button. In business, your motivation gets you in front of the people you want to help, and your lack of it creates excuses for why you’re not doing it. As a student, your motivation puts in the extra hours of study on the weekend when you could be partying, and you’re lack of it reminds you that P’s get degrees.


Motivation pervades every single area of our life - from health to wealth to our career and relationships. It goes without saying that to master your athletic mindset, and to be an authority in your game, understanding motivation comes first.

If motivation is the force behind initiating, and staying persistent with a task, then it affects every area of your athletic pursuit – not only your sports performance, but your physical preparation, lifestyle choices and ability to bounce back from injury and setback.

At a neurological level, ‘motivation’ primarily exists within the pre-frontal cortex (PFC), the part of the brain that also regulates your decision making and emotions. It comes as no surprise that motivation is so deeply intertwined with how you think, feel and act as it relates to your athletic pursuits. Those who seem to be more motivated also think, feel and act with more purpose, and those with less motivation tend to think with less clarity, feel more inconsistent, and act with less intent.

It could be loosely said that motivation is your ability to think, feel and act with purpose, persistence and intent toward a defined goal. Therefore, to harness motivation, you need clarity on what you want for your athletic career. You need to have a framework for effective goal setting.

Now, if you’re like me, you probably already know what SMART goals are. If you don’t, don’t worry, they have almost no bearing on your success. Smart goals definitely were not used by Usain Bolt, Roger Federer or Muhammad Ali. Can you imagine Muhammad Ali sitting down with a pen and paper going “hmm, let’s set a short term goals that’s specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely.”

No, Muhammad Ali said this instead: “I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was.”

He had already decided he would be the greatest boxer, before he was given that level of recognition. In fact, it’s more likely Ali set the opposite of SMART goals; they’re known as DUMB goals.

  • Dream: If I could be any athlete in the world, what do I dream of being?
  • Unrealistic: What goals can I set that force me to get much better than I already am, so much so that it takes effort, hard work, and commitment for them to become realistic.
  • Model: What system or person can I emulate that will help give me a system for success?
  • Behaviour: What changes in my behaviour do I need to make in order to be the person I dream of being?


Why does this shift in thinking matter?


Simple, if you constantly keep setting goals for yourself that don’t allow you to expand your mental horizons, that don’t give you an opportunity to explore possibility, you’re already well behind. When we interview the best athletes of all time, they consistently say ‘from a young age, I wanted to be the best [insert type of athlete] in the world.’

How are you going to do that if you only ever think small, specific and timely?

It’s simple, you simply can’t.

Despite this, this is the most common trend amongst underperforming athletes. They don’t give themselves permission to dream; they cripple their own ambition for fear of judgement and they play small, often competing in divisions that are below their standard for potential.

Even if they do make it to the top level, they inevitably are the ones who never reach their potential, or, worse still, are cannon fodder for the real players. Like those at the back of the peloton who never see success but are purely there to make up the numbers.

Setting your DUMB goal is the first place to start – it sets you on your path. Then, it’s a case of pulling you back down to an actionable reality that you can engage in everyday. Once you complete your DUMB goal, you need to decide how you want to think, feel and act.


  • The best version of myself regularly tells myself that:
  • If I had to decide on three specific words to describe my general thoughts about the best version of myself, what would they be?


  • The best version of myself regularly feels:
  • If I had to decide on three specific words to describe my general mood for the best version of myself, what would they be?


  • The best version of myself regularly acts in the following ways:
  • If I my actions had to be perceived by others, how would others describe me in three words?
    ____________________________________________________________________________________Upon reflection, you’ll notice that all these things are actionable today.

The three thoughts you put down – give yourself permission to cultivate those thoughts and belief. Remember, it is just as hard to think negatively about one’s self than it is to think positively. Thought is a choice, and if you are commonly over run by negative self-talk that holds you back, give yourself an opportunity to reinforce your capability.

The same goes with feelings – ask yourself what can I do every day to cultivate these feelings I desire? What is one thing that would allow you to feel that way?

And once again with actions – how regularly am I doing these three things? Am i letting my thoughts or feelings stop me from taking action. If so why?

This framework, first pioneered by William James, is perhaps the most simple, but effective strategy I have come across to date.

“The greatest discovery of any generation is the realisation that you can change your life by changing your attitudes.”

If you’re stuck in a rut, if you’re performance is waning, give yourself an opportunity to reflect and apply introspection. Can you identify a trend in your thoughts and behaviours that are reinforcing this reality?

When we address the research into motivation, two primary theories stand out for their effectiveness.

Achievement motivation explores the desire for athletes to enter competition. Usually driven by a desire for recognition, or a need for comparison, achievement motivation hinges on athletes wanting to do better than their competition. All things being equal between two athletes, the athlete who wants to win more, usually wins. Even though this seems like common sense, it isn’t always common practice.

In a group of 30 competitors, you’d be surprised that more often than not, only a handful have set the intention to win, and, have a strategy to do so. As an elite cyclist, I saw this all the time. Not only did they not believe they could win, but they were there purely to enjoy ‘racing’, not enjoy ‘winning.’

Ask yourself, how much am I willing to lose, to win? How much sacrifice am I willing to make to cross the line first? To be on top when the buzzer sounds? How much does that actually matter? For some people, it just doesn’t matter all that much. These athletes are usually much more predisposed to achieving great feats of challenge, rather than being the best at their sport. A clear example could be as follows:

Athlete A wants nothing more than to win the Boston Marathon. Athlete B on the other hand, is more excited that he was invited to participate. Athlete B much prefers the idea of being the first man to run 100 marathons in a 100 days. Athlete A couldn’t care less.

Can you see the difference here?

Athlete B is driven by a different form of motivation – intrinsic motivation. Intrinsically motivated individuals are deeply connected with a strong sense of self-determinism; the idea they are in control of their destiny. They are usually deeply in love with the sport, and connect with the idea that the sport is their identity.

Neither is more important than the other, but should help you determine how you feel about your athletic pursuits. Are you sabotaging yourself because you’re committing to wild feats of athleticism when you’re much more interested in just winning. Or are you continuing to enter competition after competition only to find it’s taking away from what you love – the endeavour itself.

Knowing yourself comes down to the willingness to ask these questions of yourself in the absence of judgement.