Player’s motivation in tough situations
7 Oct 2020

Stadio Olímpico, Rome, in 2009. Manchester United and FC Barcelona are getting ready to play against each other in the Champions League Final. Barcelona team members are nervous and eager to play, as they have come to this far thanks, among other moments, to the well-remembered goal scored by Iniesta in Stamford Bridge. However, there is still time for an epic moment before the final match that they will always remember.

Guardiola decided to shorten the warm-up and that surprised the team. He gathered everybody in the changing room and asked them to watch a video that has become a must in the history of sport finals overtime. For seven minutes, the video combined Gladiator images with replays from different games of every player. All those actions that got them there to the final, without missing anyone. The amazing soundtrack did the rest. Some say that the players had difficulties during the first few minutes of the match due to the emotional experience, but they eventually started playing and no one could stop them.

Pep Guardiola’s expertise in managing his players’ psychology at that crucial moment (him and Santi Padró’s, who edited the video) is a great example of the importance of motivating a player in tough situations. A not-so-easy job that consists of several stages at different levels. What do we mean by motivation?

What we mean when we talk about motivation

Motivation refers to what encourages a person to stay active and interested in a specific goal. In the case of an athlete, that goal is clear: at a team level, defeating the opposing team in the competition, and at an individual level, delivering the best performance possible. It seems easy, but the process that leads to that state of mind is very complex, as shown in the following image:

Generally, people think motivation comes from two types of incentives: internal and external. Internal incentives are the ones that come from the athlete’s inner self and are usually related to self-realisation and personal growth. On the other hand, external incentives are related to factors such as the recognition of others or the achievement of goals during a competition. Ideally, we should aim for a good balance between both types of incentives, thus making the athlete want to improve every day or develop new skills and, at the same time, seek to test that improvement in high-level competitions to win titles or have a better economic and social status.

Moreover, being motivated to accomplish a specific goal of trying to have the necessary energy and determination to do it. As we mentioned before, in sports, this motivation tends to be driven by two key drivers: the personal one, with the continuous improvement of performance, strategy and knowledge of the game, and the team one, with the pursuit of a goal in the form of titles and victories. A good manager’s strategy should aim at combining the two. But it is not easy. When facing tough situations like the ones related to elite competition, there are several factors that can discourage an athlete, such as low self-esteem caused by the comparison to other players, their own doubts regarding the competition, or the exposure to public criticism from fans and the opposing team. All this can completely destabilise sports performance. As Harter (1978) said, when a person is good at a sport, this situation promotes self-efficacy and, ultimately, motivation to be better. However, if the attempts to improve fail, the motivation will be increasingly lower, and it may even make the player quit the sports practice.

Motivation and emotions go hand in hand, and a sports competition can get athletes in all kinds of moods. An athlete can get really demotivated when injured. In the face of a defeat, certain pessimism can be overcome by setting a short-term goal like winning the next match; however, several defeats or the existence of external factors that affect the athletes’ peace of mind, the work to be done should be more intensive. Nonetheless, demotivation is not always caused by things related to sports. It is hard to keep an athlete highly motivated when there are high demanding expectations or external factors which affects their mood. This is why psychologists in football teams have become so important and of course, the coach.

Training the mind to succeed with the physical demands

In team sports, the coach is key to promote motivation to his players. The player’s sports performance, willingness and motivation will depend on the coach’s personality, convictions, game style and personal philosophy. For this purpose, communication is an essential tool. If they are not able to communicate what they want, they cannot encourage the players in the right way. Not only to make them aware of the importance of motivation at a team level but to mainly make them feel appreciated and useful for the teams’ success. Let’s not forget that there is no motivation without emotions, and self-esteem is a key factor in this process. As Black and Weiss explain (1992), a good sports leader should help the athletes develop confidence at an individual level, as such confidence will be proportional to their motivation.

Although there is a wide variety of training styles, we usually talk about two types of coaching styles: the communicative or collaborative one, and the authoritative or autocratic. The first coaching style is usually highly committed to the task, which infuses to the players higher levels of motivation, lower levels of anxiety and a general feeling of joy during training sessions. They also tend to present insight or vision of the game that does not depend on the final result. However, the authoritative coach has a more egocentric approach, which leads to more possibilities of a player quitting, not only from the team but from practising a sport. Similarly, to what happens in the business world, this kind of managers is less and less common as they bring dissatisfaction to the team and that causes lower levels of individual performance. A motivational coach should encourage positive feedback, explain the goals to achieve as well as increasing its difficulty, or develop and explain the purpose of every task so that the whole team is aware of the need to achieve it. In addition, they should encourage social bonds, interest in learning and promoting communication among the members of this small family.

In short, getting a player motivated in tough situations involves a lot of work at different interrelated levels. It is useless to promote self-confidence if there are no bonds among the members of the team, and so is having a team with high levels of energy, if they do not have a coach able to lead them to achieve the goal. A common goal that, at the same time, involves every player’s personal goals.

Jose Valenzuela



Black, S.J. and Weiss, M.R. (1992) The Relationship among Perceived Coaching Behaviours, Perceptions of Ability and Motivation in Competitive Age-Group Swimmers. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 14, 309-325.

Jones, S. (1978). Effectance motivation reconsidered: Toward a developmental model. Human Development, 21(1), 34–64.

Palmero, F. (2000). El proceso motivacional en Palmero. Psicología de la motivación y la emoción. Madrid. McGraw-Hill, pp, 35-55.


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