Reinventing Motivation for Remote Success

by Janzen Harding

It’s a tough time to be a competitive athlete.

Due to COVID-19, professional athletes are facing fan-less stadiums, entire seasons have been postponed or cancelled, and many high school athletes are wondering whether they will get a chance to compete for a championship or play for recruiting scouts. Training schedules have been disrupted, routines have been rearranged, and many of the support systems that keep athletes motivated have been displaced. When some of the major components of sports that drive athletic competition and ambition have been stripped away, how can athletes stay motivated?

There are two types of motivation: extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation comes from factors external to the athlete. Think of extrinsic motivators as tangible incentives to either attain a reward or avoid a punishment; they can include championships, trophies, recognition, a coach’s high-five, a teammate’s criticism, or even post-game pizza celebrations.

Extrinsic motivators are some of the most effective and heavily relied upon support systems for athletes. Have you ever raced faster because someone was running in the lane next to you? Or have you ever begrudgingly gone to the gym just because you had a partner counting on you to meet them there? Extrinsic motivators can add incentive and accountability.

When the trophy is removed from sight, external motivation can take a serious hit.

Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, comes from inside the athlete. Unlike extrinsic motivation, intrinsic motivation occurs when an athlete engages in a practice or activity because it is personally rewarding or the activity itself is its own reward. A runner experiences intrinsic motivation when she chooses to run “just to feel the wind in her hair” and a weight lifter might throw on extra plates for the personal sense of accomplishment.

While intrinsic motivation might not be as effective as extrinsic motivation in getting an athlete up at 5 am to train, being intrinsically motivated does have one major advantage: it is often unaffected by external factors.

COVID-19 protocols have essentially put most extrinsic motivators on hold for competitive athletes. Social distancing has changed coach and teammate interactions. Uncertainty about season schedules has put dreams of championships on pause. Expectations for future athletic opportunities or questions regarding scholarship have been altered or jeopardized. When the trophy is removed from sight, external motivation can take a serious hit.

So, when extrinsic motivation wanes, how can we ramp up our intrinsic motivation to help us achieve the same results?

The key is to externalize our intrinsic motivators. Instead of relying solely on intrinsic motivation, we leverage it to create external motivators.

Here are three ways to accomplish this.

Set Achievable Goals

One of the most effective ways to externalize intrinsic motivation is to create goals that are reasonable and highly achievable. Research suggests that bigger and longer-term goals are most achievable when they are cut down into smaller, more feasible ones, and this is an especially helpful approach when the future is uncertain.

It also helps to make your goals tangible. For example, when a rock climber sizes up a cliff, his intrinsic goal is to reach the top. In order to attain that goal he maps out his route, planning out his exact moves. Once he begins climbing, his focus narrows to executing the immediate next move; each handhold that he reaches for is an external goal. By stringing together smaller, more specific goals, he is able to reach his ultimate goal of reaching the top.

Short-term, highly attainable goals are the key to achieving longer-term, bigger goals.

Create External Rewards

Attaining your goals will bring an internal sense of reward which boosts intrinsic motivation, but should also carry an external reward of your choice. Rewards don’t have to be extravagant and should not be counter-effective to achieving your overall goal (for example, “cheat days” when trying to lose weight).

Rewards can be simple pleasures that you reserve for goal achievement celebration, like a rest day after you hit a personal record, getting to watch a particular movie after increasing your free-throw percentage, wearing a favorite pair of socks for mastering a new skill, checking off a box on your calendar for another day’s effort…take your pick.

When you attach an external reward to your goal, you’ll be surprised how more motivated you become.

Make it a Team Effort

While interactions between teammates and workout partners have been affected by COVID-19 regulations, the accountability factor that each can provide remains crucial to staying motivated.

Share your goals with a teammate or friend and ask them to keep you accountable. Knowing that you’ll receive a text at the end of the day asking whether you tackled your goal for that day can be massively motivating. By outsourcing your accountability, you will be more inclined to pursue your goal in order to win approval and avoid disappointment.

This system works even better if you become their accountability partner, allowing for some competition in goal-achieving.

Short-term, highly attainable goals are the key to achieving longer-term, bigger goals.

This is the time to dig in deep. Most athletes have heard the axiom that sports are 90% mental, 10% physical. Now is the time for mental strength building. If we can start by mustering intrinsic motivation, we can progress by transforming it to extrinsic motivation.

Set achievable goals, create external rewards, and make it a team effort. Remember, circumstances won’t make you a better athlete. You will.