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Motivation and Psychological Skills for Optimal Performance

This is an excerpt from Rowing Science by Volker Nolte.

By Penny Werthner, PhD

Competing in sport at any level, whether at a national championships, World Championships, or Olympic Games, is challenging, and working toward the goal of winning or setting a personal best is even more difficult. An athlete or crew must work together with their coach to get everything right on a specific day and time, after many long hours on the water and in the gym. The pressure and expectations can be enormous. So, how can we ensure a best performance under such stressful and challenging conditions? First, with excellent physical and technical training; second, by implementing strategies to stay healthy, sleep well, and eat well; and third, by ensuring athletes are psychologically ready for both training and competition.

The purpose of this chapter is to discuss this third element—psychological readiness for training and competition—from two perspectives: first, by creating an environment that ensures a mentally and physically healthy career in sport, and second, by learning the critical psychological skills that must be developed to achieve an optimal performance at all levels of competitive sport. In order to ground our discussion of psychological skill development for optimal performance, we will begin with a brief exploration of the constructs of human motivation, psychological resilience, and growth mindset, and then discuss the specific psychological skills that, when well learned, will ensure best performances on a consistent basis.


Human motivation is a topic that has been well researched in the literature. Within the sport literature we are often looking to understand what motivates young individuals to participate and continue in sport—or their reasons for getting discouraged and dropping out. Motivation, as a psychological construct, remains relevant for any level of competitive sport, but particularly at the current moment, because the COVID-19 global pandemic resulted in the cancelation and postponement of many competitions, which, in turn, very much altered the training plans of athletes, coaches, teams, and sport organizations.

Key Point

We understand motivation as the process that initiates, guides, and maintains goal- oriented behaviors, which can involve social, emotional, physiological, and cognitive aspects.

For example, an athlete may be motivated to work hard to make a national team with the help and support of their coach and parents.

Motivation and Self

Early research by Deci and Ryan (1985; 2008) and Roberts (2001) highlights some of the key aspects of how we understand motivation. One theory, Deci and Ryan’s theory of self-determination, addresses the notion of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation as well as delineates three core needs that facilitate self-determined growth: a sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy refers to the need of individuals to feel they have choices in their lives, competence refers to the need to learn and gain mastery, and relatedness refers to the need of an individual to feel a sense of belonging.

Key Point

You can develop autonomy, competence, and relatedness in your own athletes with the following tips:

  • Encourage them to design a workout and debrief on its effectiveness (autonomy).
  • Ensure they are asking questions and listening in order to understand technique as they become more technically skilled (competence).
  • Create regular social occasions such as pizza or game night so the team can get to know each other outside of training (relatedness).

Another theory of motivation, achievement goal theory, has been researched by Roberts (2001), who wrote of two possible orientations that might be held by an individual—task and ego. Task orientation refers to a focus on mastery and ego orientation refers to a focus on one’s performance primarily as it relates to that of others. Much of the early research encouraged an emphasis on a task orientation, through which one is more intrinsically motivated and focused on the mastery of, for example, rowing technically well. Over the years, our understanding of motivation has built on these concepts and become a bit more nuanced, as some research has shown that many successful athletes show both task and ego orientation and utilize what works well depending on the environment (Roberts, Treasure, and Kavussanu 1996).What this means is that many successful Olympic-level athletes have learned how to manage and motivate themselves both intrinsically (“let’s see how strong and fast I can be”) and extrinsically (“let’s win the race,” “let’s be the best on the national team”). But to be clear, this is learned behavior over many years!

Key Point

You can grow motivation in young athletes with the following tips:

  • Create an environment in which you individualize training whenever possible and provide regular feedback to each athlete on both what they are doing well and what needs correction.
  • Encourage each athlete to focus primarily on their own boat skills or their crew, what their job in the boat is, and how to improve themselves technically. This keeps the focus and motivation on individual improvement.
  • Understand that athletes will always compare themselves to their teammates—it is inevitable in competitive sport—but know that for most athletes, that comparison often leads to too much stress. Your job as a coach, certainly with young athletes, is to highlight personal improvement; that is what will keep your athletes loving their sport.


More recently, Dweck (2006) and Duckworth (2016) have written about the mindset of success and the concept of grit, respectively. Dweck’s growth vs fixed mindset comes from extensive research on how mindsets influence motivation and success in life. Her argument is that a mindset is simply a belief, and those individuals with a growth mindset believe they have choices and that they have an ability to learn and change. Angela Duckworth’s work on the concept of grit defines grit as passion and sustained persistence, regardless of potential rewards. She writes of characteristics such as courage, conscientiousness, perseverance, resilience, and passion.

Key Point

The ability to develop and grow from adversity is truly exciting. Development occurs in our sport systems when athletes are encouraged to question, to struggle, to learn, and to train the key psychological skills necessary to develop a mindset that sees adversity as a challenge.

One final concept to consider is psychological resilience, defined as the ability to adapt positively in the face of stress and adversity. In sport it means that an athlete has a level of self-confidence and optimism that helps them persevere in the face of the ever-present stress of high-performance competition. The research on psychological resilience is extensive and has evolved from thinking of resilience as a trait—and therefore mostly unchangeable—to a group of characteristics that can be nurtured (Fletcher and Sarkar 2012; Fletcher and Sarkar 2013; Galli and Vealey 2008; Sarkar and Fletcher 2014). As of late, this includes an acknowledgement that social support plays a role in how one develops resilience (Ungar, Ghazinour, and Richter 2013).

Fletcher and Sarkar (2012) have done extensive research on resilience in the world of sport and note that competitive sport, by its very nature, is full of stress and adversity. Athletes at all levels of competitive sport are exposed to a number of unique stressors, such as injuries, qualification processes, selection to teams, wins and losses, financial concerns, and coaching issues. These authors and others argue that the development of resilience in athletes will lead to improved sport performance. Fletcher and Sarkar (2016) developed a resilience training program for individuals performing in high-pressure domains that included individual evaluation of the stressor as a growth opportunity and the knowledge and practice of optimism, proactiveness, and intrinsic motivation. The authors also propose that an environment high in both challenge and support facilitates the development of resilience.

Developing Motivational Tools

What is critical, and at the same time exciting, about a discussion of motivation and resilience in sport is that the core needs of self-determination theory, orientation to goals and how we set and assess them, and psychological resilience can all be developed. Dweck, Duckworth, and Fletcher and Sarkar strongly emphasize this possibility of developing a challenge or growth mindset. Athletes are capable, as human beings, of altering beliefs and learning skills that will help them persevere and grow as they face the stresses of high-performance competition. This ability to develop and grow from adversity is truly exciting. However, what is needed to ensure that development occurs is for coaches and sport systems to foster an environment that encourages athletes to question, to struggle, to learn, and to train the key psychological skills necessary to develop a mindset that sees adversity as a challenge. This ensures both a healthy, competitive sport environment and great sport performances.

There has been extensive research in the field of sport psychology on the critical skills that ensure optimal performance. In 2007, Jones, Hanton, and Connaughton interviewed eight Olympic athletes, three coaches, and four sport psychologists to try to understand the attributes of an Olympic or world champion. Although this was a small study, the attributes identified fit well into what we know anecdotally is required to excel in Olympic-level sport. The attributes were categorized into four dimensions: attitude or mindset, which includes a belief in oneself and a clear focus; training, which includes goals as motivation, controlling the environment, and pushing hard; competition, which again included belief in oneself, focus, and controlling the environment as well as regulation, handling pressure, and awareness of thoughts and feelings; and finally postcompetition, which consists of handling both failure and success. These findings solidified the authors’ definition of mental toughness as “having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to, generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sport places on a performer and, specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure” (247).

As the authors note, it is also critical to recognize that mental toughness may fluctuate throughout an athlete’s competitive career and that all athletes must continually work on the various skills and attributes that make up the framework of mental toughness.

A more recent metastudy by Anthony, Gucciardi, and Gordon (2016) on the construct of mental toughness highlighted the need to expand our thinking to include a better understanding of how an athlete and their environment interact, how an athlete must proactively work to develop the attributes of mental toughness, how the environment (including coaches and teammates) may foster or hinder the development of these attributes, and how an athlete’s mental toughness may indeed fluctuate over time due to adversity.

More Excerpts From Rowing Science