Athlete Doesn’t Seem Motivated? Here Are 4 Reasons Why

I get a lot of questions from parents in the PerformHappy community about motivation and today I’m talking about why your athlete doesn’t seem motivated.

I think every single month when we do our live Q&A with parents, somebody asks a question about motivation. They say things like “It’s so hard to watch my athlete standing around when she doesn’t even care” or “I don’t know what’s wrong. She used to love it. But now she doesn’t seem like she wants to go.” Or when we’re there, I’m like, “Why are you here if you’re not working hard? Where’s your motivation?”

So we’ve talked a couple of times through those trainings in depth, but I wanted to bring you guys at least the top four reasons why your athlete doesn’t seem motivated.

Now there’s one thing where if an athlete has fallen out of love with their sport, this is going to naturally happen. But what I’m talking about is those athletes who you ask them, “Do you still want to do this? Are you still having fun?” And they’re like, “Yes, I love it. No, I don’t want to quit.” And then they get mad at you for even bringing it up.

But you’re like, “If you love it so much, then why are you sulking around? And why are you not applying yourself?”

It’s so frustrating.

So these four reasons I’m going to give you are for the athlete who doesn’t seem motivated but they’re telling you they still love their sport.

Number One reason athlete doesn’t seem motivated: FEAR

The number one reason why your athlete doesn’t seem motivated is fear. Fear manifests in avoidance when your brain has gone into fight-or-flight. So there’s a threat in your environment. That’s something I could talk for hours and hours on all the potential threats in a young athlete’s environment beyond even the physical nature of their sport. But let’s say that they’re experiencing a fear – fear of embarrassment, fear of failure, fear of not being perfect, fear of not being liked, fear of injury, fear of…you name it.

Then what happens on the brain level? Their brain goes, “Get out of here. Run, run, run, run, run. Get away.” So if there’s a specific skill or a specific person or a specific encounter that sends them into that fight-or-flight, then they’re going to have this natural reaction that goes “avoid.” They don’t want to do that skill. They want to go to this other event. Maybe they have to go to the bathroom or their elbow hurts or maybe they’re really feeling sick right now.

Their brain will throw out all the stops to be like, “Get out of there. Avoid, avoid, avoid.”

So you’re looking at your kid and you’re like, ‘Why has she been standing on the beam for five minutes fixing her hair?’ It’s not because she doesn’t care. Usually she cares so much, which is why she’s even still out there and not hiding in the bathroom.

But she’s in a state of avoidance. That’s the number one reason that people think their kid is not motivated, but they are. They actually really are. They’re just in this place that they’re stuck. And it looks like they don’t care. It looks like they’re not trying, which can be extremely frustrating for parents and coaches.

Well, let me tell you it’s probably fear if they’re telling you that they want to do it and they’re showing you something different. That’s one of the reasons why your athlete doesn’t seem motivated even though she really is.

Number Two reason athlete doesn’t seem motivated: COMPETING COMMITMENTS

The next reason why an athlete’s motivation might look like it’s waning is because of what I call competing commitments.

This is something that keeps athletes stuck in mental blocks longer than they need to be.

And this can be that you’ve got this one commitment on one side that is I want to get my skills, I want to progress in my sport, I want to be great, I want to rise to my potential, I want to impress my coaches, I want to impress my family, I want impress my team. So that’s the one commitment.

The competing commitment is but I want to have a social life and I want to go to that birthday party and I want to do that after-school activity.

So then they start to go, ‘Ah, I want them both.’ So then both of them become a struggle.

Another example of a competing commitment can be the desire to look good in order to get better. You have to be bad at something first, right? You have to try new things and you have to be imperfect.

For an athlete who has come to a certain level where they’re used to being really good, they’re going to have to look bad for a little while, while they’re trying on these new skills or they’re playing these harder opponents or things are getting harder. They’re having to backtrack because they have to build a stronger foundation for bigger, more challenging parts of their sport.

If they are trying to look good, that’s going to prevent them from doing what they need to do to get better.

Another competing commitment is that they don’t want to get out of their comfort zone. These athletes are out of their comfort zone so much every single day, from ripped hands to bloody feet to you name it. They’re so uncomfortable because they’re working so hard, but I’m talking about the emotional comfort zone. And that’s having to stretch beyond what’s already easy for them into ‘This is hard. Can I really do this?’

That’s where the mental toughness comes in. If they don’t have that, then it’s easy to get stuck in their comfort zone. So then they’re like, ‘I want to get better. I don’t want to be uncomfortable. I’m already physically uncomfortable enough. I don’t want to get mentally uncomfortable anymore’ if they’ve had their trust severed or damaged by any kind of negative coaching.

Parents I’ll talk to you at the end about what role you play in each of these things. It can happen with bullies or teammates.

Then they have this commitment to getting better. They also have this commitment to not trusting because they’ve determined that it’s not safe to trust, but they’re going to have to trust their coach, their team and themselves in order to truly transcend and become better at their sport.

So competing commitments can be the cause if your athlete doesn’t seem motivated anymore.


Superhero confidence challenge

Number Three reason athlete doesn’t seem motivated: LACKING INTERNAL MOTIVATION

Number three reason why your athlete doesn’t seem motivated even though they say they love their sport is because they’re lacking internal motivation. So what can happen, especially with a really talented athlete who’s used to winning and is used to getting a lot of compliments and praise, is that they started their sport because they loved it. Then they got all these prizes, cash, accolades, high fives, banners, medals and trophies. And then they’re like, ‘Oh, I do the sport for the trophies.’

Then they might have a bad season or they might have a setback and they don’t get the trophy and they didn’t get the banner and they’re not getting the high fives. And they’re not the best kid on the team because they moved up to a harder team for whatever reason.

Those external motivation factors that they had started thinking that they were performing for have gone away.

So that love for their sport is sort of like a distant thing that they used to have back when sport was easy and fun when they were seven. Now they’re 14 and they’re like, ‘If I’m not getting the prizes, then what’s the point?’

So that’s what happens when you do a lot of external motivating, you start to lose the internal motivation. That is the key to staying with something when it gets hard and for the long-term. And that is a reason why your athlete doesn’t seem motivated.


Number Four reason athlete doesn’t seem motivated: FIXED MINDSET

The fourth reason you athlete doesn’t seem motivated is fixed mindset. So this is a big catchphrase in schools, which I love, but fixed mindset is this all or nothing thinking. These kids who have a fixed mindset come in and they’re like, ‘I am this amount good at my sport. I am this amount smart. I am this amount of money.’ And they believe that they’ve got this hand they were dealt when they were born that says, “This is what you’re good at. This is what you’re bad at. Go make the best of it kid.”

So then they’re like, ‘Ooh, I got lucky. And I’m really talented at my sport. Everybody tells me how talented I am or I’m so smart. Everyone’s always telling me I’m so smart.’

But then what happens is if they have a rough patch, then all of a sudden they’re like, ‘Oh, I am not talented. Does this mean that I was only talented enough up to that point? And now my talent is running out or gone or maybe they were wrong about me? Maybe I’m not as talented as they thought I was?’

Because ultimately they have this feeling that everything they have is fixed and it can’t be changed.

Whereas a growth mindset, which is what I teach in PerformHappy, is completely different. It’s all about that you start where you are, you can improve from there with effort. And if you’ve got a lot of praise coming your way that says you were born to do this that actually can really backfire and create this fixed mindset.

So that then they feel like they’re not good enough. They’re an impostor.

It’s all or nothing improvement. Doesn’t matter if I can’t reach the goal.

So those are the four reasons why kids get that sort of slump, even though they’re saying, “I love my sport.”

That’s why it can be so frustrating.

So here’s what the parents do. To parents, this is for you if you are like ‘That’s my kid.’

Here are the things that you (parents) might be doing that might be actually adding to that:

Creating A Threat

If you have ever created a threat, like an external motivator, that’s like, “If you don’t do your vault by this weekend then we’re not competing or I’m pulling you from the meet!” Or “If you don’t pull it together, then I’m going to not do this.” What that does is it actually creates more fear that they’re going to let you down. They’re going to lose something that they want. They’re not going to get something that they really, really care about.

So when you’re trying to “motivate” them, all that you’re really doing is creating more fear that puts their brain more into that fight or flight and makes them want to get the heck out of there and totally give up.

Being A Competing Commitment

Also if they’re trying to please you, that’s a competing commitment because sometimes they have to do something that you don’t understand in order to make progress. This happens all the time when an athlete with a mental block has to back it up. They have to do something that looks kind of unproductive in order to get productive.

So a parent is like, “You need to stop doing that. What are you doing? You’re wasting my time. You don’t look motivated. You’re not trying.” Even a very well-meaning parent might have that very conversation with the athlete and the athlete is like, ‘Okay on one side I really want to be successful. And on the other I want to make my mom happy. But I can’t do both at the same time.’

Bribing Them With Rewards

The next is you trying to motivate your athlete by offering them ice cream if they score a goal. By giving them an iPad if they get their scale by a certain date you might be like ‘I’m so excited. I can’t wait for you to get it. Here’s a little prize just to sweeten the deal, make it even more exciting for you.’ What happens is then their focus is on the external motivation.

And then when there’s no iPad on the line, they get like, ‘Oh well what’s the point?’ When really all along the whole point has been that they love it and are good at it. It feels good to get better at something, but they’re really being trained to work for the prize.

Praising Talent

The last thing that parents do is praising talent. If you’re doing this, cut it out. Stop praising talent, stop praising intelligence. Instead, like we talk about in PerformHappy with the parents all the time, we praise attitude and effort. And that is it. Attitude and effort because those are the things in a growth mindset that allow you to make progress from where you are to enjoy the journey, which then stokes that internal motivation. And then everything else is just bonus if you’re loving your sport.

So that’s it for today. Those of you who are like my athletes, not motivated,  check through this little mental checklist first, before you go to them and say “Come on, get motivated.”

There are things that can get you motivated if you’re not. But for the most part, these are the four things, the sneaky things that will keep you stuck if you’re not looking out for them.

Is your gymnast struggling with mental blocks or fear?  Check out my FREE resource for parents.