The Theories of Motivation in Sports

Hockey players with coach in locker room, smiling

Athletes participate in sports for various reasons, from a hunger for physical activity and competition to the joy of belonging to a team. Coaches can improve the team's performance by finding the right motivation for each situation and player. Specific motivational theories exist that apply psychological concepts to sports for increased drive and performance.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation is motivation that comes from an outside source. Some of it is tangible, such as financial or other material rewards, including trophies or medals. Tangible extrinsic motivation is not necessarily ideal for athletes who become too focused on materialism at the expense of other aspects of sports. Intangible extrinsic motivation includes praise, recognition and achievement, which can often be enough to motivate athletes.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation comes from within the athlete or player. It includes a natural desire to overcome challenges and enjoyment in the repetition of a skill. These factors can remind athletes why they participate in a certain sport -- especially during grueling practices. Intrinsic motivation is often best supported by a series of goals, whether they're enhanced skill sets or victories in competition.

Theory of Vitality

The theory of vitality dictates that vitality influences the future capacity for performance. An athlete has a baseline vitality with which to work and won't stray far from that point. Actions or effects affect that vitality and either thwart or satisfy the player's needs. For example, if a player is extrinsically motivated and praise isn't forthcoming, the player's vitality sinks and he loses motivation. Similarly, if a player loves a game and keeps winning at it, her intrinsic enjoyment is satisfied, her vitality rises and she is motivated to continue.

Sandwich Theory

The sandwich theory motivates athletes to correct or improve without destroying their sense of enjoyment, pride or inclusion as an equal team member. You can use this theory on yourself by noticing your positive contributions to your team, too. When crafting criticism, sandwich the need between positive reinforcement. Doing so motivates athletes to put forth the necessary effort for improvement because their larger extrinsic or intrinsic needs are being met.


Amotivation occurs when players lack motivation, which happens for a few reasons. Sometimes, the player has no sense of capacity and truly doesn't believe he is capable of performing the way that's required. Other times, the player doesn't understand the connection between the actions required and the desired outcome. In these instances, coaches and trainers can build self-esteem by carefully building skill sets. Another solution is conditioning athletes to understand how their improvements in technique can benefit their overall performance or their team.