The Need to Win
Bruce Ogilvie says with many athletes winning becomes an absolute obsession. In four decades of following sports, much of it as a psychologist, he’s seen some explosive performances. One of the biggest motivators, he says, is when an athlete is on the verge of a dream, like winning the Stanley Cup or the Wimbledon tennis tourney. One tremendous force is precipitating expectation that the dream or the goal can be realized. It becomes like standing at the edge of the cliff and you leap out and realize your fullest potential. It’s as though you see the potential realization of your dreams.
An Olympic gold medal is apparently as important as life itself for some athletes. Gabe Mirkin, who wrote The Sports-Medicine blog, polled more than 100 top runners and asked them if they could take a pill that would make them Olympic champions but would also kill them within a year, would they take the pill? Incredibly, more than half the athletes said they would indeed take such a pill.
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Tutko worries that an increasing number of athletes have unhealthy drive because of the way sports has changed. We’ve put too many perks into sports. There is a lot of money and notoriety and a lot of nationalist pride. Winning has become too important because of these perks. If an athlete has a feeling of inadequacy, the sports world is a place to prove themselves. Many athletes don’t seem to have an understanding of their games. They’re too preoccupied with winning.
Types of Motivation
Besides wanting to win, what motivates some athletes to try so hard? Psychologists usually break motivation down into two areas: intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (external). Examples of intrinsic motivators are athletes doing something for the challenge or excitement of their sport or the achievement of goals, while extrinsic motivators are things like social approval from peers or playing for big contracts and trophies. According to William J. Beausay, retired president of the Academy of Sports Psychology, there are seven motivations for athletes, each influenced by a combination of several at one time:
• Money. It’s a heck of a motivator early in a career (especially to provide for family), but becomes less so as an athlete makes more and more.
• Ego. It’s the need we all have to feel important. In psychology we say ‘You never get enough of that wonderful stuff.’ That usually means sex, but that’s actually No.
2. Our greatest need is to satisfy our egos.
• Camaraderie. It feels good to be one of the guys.
• Expectations. They feel like they must live up to the expectations of others.
• Achievement. Some athletes simply have an innate need to get things done.
• Excellence. It’s a need to be the best at what you do.
• Love of the game. Some athletes just love what they do so much, they can’t give it up.
Over the long haul, it’s impossible to motivate people unless they motivate themselves, according to psychologists Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan, who founded a human motivation program at the University of Rochester. People think about how to motivate as something you do to someone else, Ryan said. Our theory is that the readiness to be motivated exists and it’s a matter of facilitating that natural process. People are most motivated and do their best work when they are engaged in activities, such as sports, simply for the feelings of excitement, accomplishment and personal satisfaction they yield, Deci said.
Of course, the best athletes seem to have the strongest self-motivation. But where does it come from?