Understanding Motivation: Turning Goals And Ambitions Into Reality

‘Victory always starts in the head. It is a state of mind. It then spreads with such radiance and such affirmation that destiny can do nothing but obey.’  ~Douchan Gersi.

People are unique and because of this, their motivation is utterly unique too. Some people seem to be extremely motivated and let nothing stand in the way of achieving their dreams, while others appear to be far less motivated and quit when things get tough. There are also large variances in what it is that motivates people. Of course, there are scientific explanations for this which we will discuss later on, but first, let’s consider why the majority of us do not manage to turn our goals and ambitions into a reality.

We all have 24 hours to spend wisely each day and that time is ticking away from the second we open our eyes. Subtract the time you spend at work, sleeping, eating and doing household activities and this is the time you have left to work towards your goals. Now think about what you want to accomplish during your life and make a list. Next to each item on the list, write the HONEST amount of time that you dedicate to achieving this each week. Pick the most important and relevant goal you have on that list, circle it and commit yourself to achieving it. We all have goals and ambitions in life, but you cannot hope to make them a reality if you put no effort into making them happen.

Motivation and Sport

Motivation represents one of the most important variables in sport. It is one of the key elements that will facilitate performance and a positive experience in the sporting world. Motivation is defined as follows:

‘The hypothetical construct that is used to describe the internal and/or external forces that lead to the initiation, direction, intensity and persistence of behaviour.’

There are two widely accepted kinds of motivation: Extrinsic and Intrinsic.

Extrinsic Motivation:

Engaging in an activity as a means to an end and not for the activity’s own sake. In other words, the individual does not persist with the activity for the enjoyment of it but the reward they will get from doing so. For example, a regular gym goer who dislikes the gym but desires a better physique.

Intrinsic Motivation:

Engaging in an activity for itself for the pleasure and satisfaction derived from participation. In other words, those who persist with an activity for love of the activity itself and the positive feelings they gain from participating.

There are many explanations as to why motivation is so unique to each individual. Below are some of the theories which go some way to explaining why we are (or are not) motivated to persist with sports and activity.

Instinct Theory

Instinct theory states that people are motivated to behave in certain ways because they are evolutionarily programmed to do so and that our innate feelings; attachment, play, shame, anger, fear, shyness, modesty and love are behind motivation in all aspects of our life.

Drive Theory

According to Clark Hull (1943, 1952), humans have internal biological needs which motivate us to perform a certain way.  These needs, or desires, are defined by Hull as internal states of  tension which must be reduced.  A prime example would be the internal feelings of hunger or thirst, which motivates us to eat.  According to this theory, we are driven to reduce these desires so that we may maintain a sense of internal calmness. These ‘needs’ include:

Need for Autonomy:

Those who desire to be the origin of their behaviour.

Need for Competence:

Those who desire to interact effectively with the environment.

Need for Relatedness:

Those who desire to be connected to significant others in their interaction with the environment.

In the context of sport, this could be linked with the hormonal shifts caused by exercise which make us feel happy and content. Lack of activity can cause us to feel depressed and lethargic.

Arousal Theory

The arousal theory of motivation suggests that people take certain actions to either decrease or increase levels of arousal. When arousal levels get too low, for example, a person might hit the gym and/or socialise with friends. When arousal levels get too high, a person will look for ways to relax like yoga or enjoying a hot bath. According to this theory, we are motivated to maintain an optimal level of arousal, although the ‘optimal’ level varies based on the individual and their environment.

Humanistic Theory

According to the Humanistic theory, we are driven to achieve our maximum potential and will always do so unless obstacles are placed in our way. Those obstacles are basic biological needs such as food, water, shelter and sleep.

Abraham Maslow (1970) described this theory using a pyramid diagram depicting the Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow stated that humans have specific needs that must be met, and if the lower levels of needs go unmet (basic requirements) then we cannot possibly strive for higher level desires.

On the lowest level of the pyramid are our basic physiological needs, as stated above. The level above this represents our need for safety, the mid level our need for belonging and love, above this our esteem needs and at the top of the pyramid is our desire to meet our full potential. Depending on what motivates an individual, anything from the mid-level upwards can encourage participation in sport and activity.

According to Maslow, no one has ever reached the top of this pyramid. We strive to reach the top of it and this is what motivates us to continue. Reaching self-actualisation means that you have a complete understanding of who you are, a sense of completeness and a knowing that you have reached your limit physically, mentally and socially. Maslow believed that to have actually achieved this goal was to stop living because there would be nothing left to strive for.


Kerr JH, Motivation and Emotion in Sport: Reversal Theory, 1997.

Trail GT, James JD, The Motivation Scale for Sport Consumption: Assessment of the Scale’s Psychometric Properties, Journal of Sport Behaviour, 2001, 24(1):108-27.

Vallerand RJ, Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation in Sport, Encyclopedia of Applied Psychology, 2004, 2, 427-30.

About the Author

Job Role Sports Nutritionist and Social Media Coordinator Qualifications Bsc Sport and Exercise Science Steph has a competitive athletic background which spans 19 years. As a child she performed with the English Youth Ballet and had performed on the West End stage by the age of 10. Her enthusiasm for sport and fitness continued to grow as she did, encouraging her to learn more about nutrition and training. She began using her knowledge and personal experience to help others when she began coaching at the age of 16. From here, she went on to study Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Essex during which time she also received the Most Promising Newcomer Award from her University to mark her outstanding contribution to sport. During her first year of study she was introduced to partner stunt acrobatics and artistic gymnastics. After one year of dedicating herself to a lifestyle revolving around her sport, she was training with the best team in the UK who are currently ranked fifth in the world. Steph has worked in both the private and public sector coaching children and adults from grassroot to elite level as well as providing them with cutting edge advice on how to reach their goals. Steph has received awards for her choreography and has competed nationally and internationally meaning that she can back up her scientific knowledge with a wealth of experience. As our resident Sports Nutritionist, Steph is here to provide the most current and evidence based fitness, health and nutrition information to help you reach your health and fitness goals.
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