26 November 2015


Daniel Gallan

Every job, no matter how glamorous, can get tedious from time to time. So then how do they do it? How do those elite athletes who reach over 100 caps for their country or compete in multiple Olympic Games stay hungry and focussed over many years in the same sport? Of course the pursuit of glory is a driving factor, and motivation comes easy when things are going well, but every athlete goes through dips in form and enthusiasm. This is when motivation can be used as a tool to set things right. CONQA Sport speaks with Professor Pieter Kruger, Performance Psychologist for the South African national rugby team, the Springboks, and debunks a few misconceptions surrounding sports psychology, and finds how motivation affects performance in elite sport. 

The Oxford coxswain (r) motivates his team as they row against Cambridge at the annual  Boat Race between the two prestigious universities. Motivation can be used as a tool when a team or individual is not performing well and reminds struggling athletes of previous successes.  Image supplied by Action Images.

The Oxford coxswain (r) motivates his team as they row against Cambridge at the annual  Boat Race between the two prestigious universities. Motivation can be used as a tool when a team or individual is not performing well and reminds struggling athletes of previous successes. Image supplied by Action Images.

You might not remember the first time you heard it, but you surely know that you have. Some defeated captain or star player sidles up in front of a camera, awkwardly avoids eye contact with the interviewer, and with an anxious shrug of the shoulders simply says, “They just wanted it more.”

Glib statements like this make every fan cringe and the most ardent supporter blood curdle. Doesn’t other team wanted it more, you must be joking? This millionaire athlete, representing his city, province or nation lost because he didn’t want to win? This sports star living a dream life couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm to put in a committed performance? Clichés are one thing but this takes the cake.

The idea that athletes lack motivation irks us because we assume they would unconditionally strive for the perfect performance every time they compete. Though this is almost always true, it is important to note that for many athletes, certain matches or events are not deemed as important as others. In a previous article, retired Springbok, Victor Matfield, said that the matches he played for the Bulls in the Currie Cup and Super Rugby were not as important as the ones he played for his country. That is understandable as the focus was always going to be this year’s Rugby World Cup.

In a long season like Major League Baseball, where teams play 162 games before the postseason begins, athletes are physically and emotionally incapable of giving it their all each and every match. When the St Louis Cardinals, who have the best record in the 2015 season so far, are up against the struggling Cincinnati Reds, many of their athletes might have an eye on upcoming fixtures against the New York Yankees. These are still professional athletes and proud individuals who always want to win, but to expect them to approach each game with the same gusto is idealistic.

That is why both athletes and coaching staff need a lift from time to time. Job satisfaction might be an issue as all elite athletes struggle with form and consequently get harangued on social media and by the press. Perhaps he or she has become far too acquainted with the bench and grown dissatisfied with a lack of opportunities. Whatever the reason, an unmotivated athlete is not running at full tilt. Enter the sports psychologist.

Before attempting to unravel the mystery of motivation, it is important to dispel a few myths surrounding sports psychology. As Professor Pieter Kruger, Performance Psychologist for the South African national rugby team, the Springboks, says, “Most people see the role of a sports psychologist as being a motivator.” He says that any direct attempt to motivate a team would probably be less than 5% of what he does. Instead, his main aim involves implementing and monitoring performance processes which impact how a team or individual will perform under pressure.

“Motivation is a by-product of getting performance processes in place,” he says. “The performance processes will set specific performance goals, and motivation can be seen as the will to pursue these goals, with a specific direction and drive, while keeping composure.” Whenever you hear someone say, “the other team wanted it more”, it would probably be a more accurate statement to say, “the other team was better at executing their skills in a composed manner while under pressure.”

What can be perceived as a lack of motivation could be viewed as a manifestation of a lack of confidence. Confidence is paramount to peak performance and an athlete lacking confidence would understandably appear apprehensive when compared to a colleague or opponent swimming in self-belief. From a neuropsychological perspective, according to Kruger, confidence is a function of memory.

When the brain is able to recall previous situations where it has successfully executed a skill or action that is required in the moment, it is able to exude a confidence that allows for an uninhibited game. This helps executing those performance processes more effectively which in turn impacts motivation.

“True confidence comes from reviewing and reminding yourself of the work you have put in and revisiting the times when you have actually mastered the specific skill or executed it well under pressure,” Kruger says. He warns though that the problem with confidence being a function of memory is that sometimes it is not something you can easily fast track. This is where an extra little motivation can be used as a tool to help speed up this process.

This can come from a number of sources; close family and friends, senior players, coaching staff, or the psychologist himself. The challenge is filtering out all that negative feedback that invariably comes with poor performances. This is even more challenging in the modern era where any wannabe pundit or self-proclaimed expert can spew vitriol directly at the athlete or coach. As Kruger points out, in a normal work environment, a person might get one or two performance appraisals a year, and almost certainly just in the presence of their immediate employers. How would your motivation be impacted if your every move was scrutinized and criticised?  

Kruger explains that in the Springbok camp, and indeed most professional teams, players are aware that the wheel turns and criticism could be directed at anyone at any time. Subsequently, encouragement can always be found from a teammate, even from one competing for the same jersey.

For players carrying tackle bags or water bottles, motivation is a variable that needs to be addressed.  These athletes might not be starting, but they are competitive individuals who yearn to contribute and earn a regular place on the field. “This is one of the most difficult aspects to deal with in professional sports,” says Kruger, who was involved in a lot of the discussions surrounding team selection with Heyneke Meyer at the recent World Cup. “These are not light-hearted decisions. Not even the so-called experts on TV can agree about who the best player for each position is. I work with these players to focus on their own individual goals and make sure that they stay in the best possible frame of mind to be ready to take the opportunity if or when it comes.”

Professional athletes and coaches don’t stumble on a career path or find their way into their profession through happenstance. They are involved in a sport they love and in a field they have worked tirelessly to be a part of. When a Springbok rugby player pulls on that green and gold jersey, he does not need to be reminded of the significance of that by Kruger and his team. Apart from the pride that comes with representing one’s nation or club, most athletes crave to be the best and their relentless pursuit of perfection drives them onwards.

“Not a single professional player that I have worked with would ever run out on to the field thinking they will just go through the motions and not care about their performance,” says Kruger. “Often (when in poor form) they may even try harder, leading to overcompensation, which could lead to further mistakes.”

Sport is riddled with clichés and overused terms. Some are soul warming and endearing and stir up feelings of nostalgia. Anything referencing another team or player “wanting it more” is not one of these terms and should be scrapped from our vocabulary entirely. Every athlete and coach wants “it”. That is why they’re involved in elite sport. Instead of scratching the surface with a tired platitude, anyone interested in why a team lost or an underdog triumphed should instead examine the performance processes and attribute success or failure to a team of individual’s ability to execute them under pressure. 

CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016.