Messages to Motivate Athletes

In an article in Psychology Today, Meg Selig—author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success—provides a few brief motivational messages that have been used in motivating athletes to get the most out of their athletic experience.  Parents should have these messages in their toolbox to help their son or daughter get through a rough patch during their high school athletic career.

Do it for love. Selig remembers when well-know figure skating coach Frank Carroll told nervous 18-year-old U.S. skater Gracie Gold the following message when she took the ice for a key performance: “Think about how much you love skating!” And she references a quote from legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson in his book, Eleven Rings: “Focus on something greater than yourself that you love and value, such as your sport or your team.”

Next play. This philosophy is emphasized by Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who prevents players from dwelling on their mistakes.  Selig cites a description by LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, who has adopted the “next play” philosophy, based on Coach K’s beliefs: "(Coach K) yells out ‘next play,’ because he doesn’t want the team lingering too long on what just took place. He doesn’t want them celebrating that incredible alley-oop dunk, and he doesn’t want them lamenting the fact that the opposing team just stole the ball and had a fast break that led to an easy layup. You can take a moment to reflect on what just happened, and you probably should, but you shouldn’t linger too long on it, and then move on to the next play."

Aim for excellence, not perfection. Selig says this is a great motto for an athlete who gets bogged down by never being able to achieve total perfection. Accepting failures and glitches in one’s program is simply part of the process. 

Why not you? Why not us? According to Selig, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson always remembered his father’s question to him, “Why not you?” When he encouraged his Seahawks teammates, he transformed the saying into, “Why not us?”

Create the best possible conditions for success, then let go of the outcome. Selig quotes this statement from Phil Jackson’s Eleven Rings: “I’ve heard echoes of this statement in interviews by Olympians and other successful athletes. Once you’ve prepared mentally and physically for your game, then you are ready to do your best--and your best is the best you can do.”

Cultivate a learning mindset instead of a fixed mindset. Many young athletes believe that it's talent that counts, says Selig, and as a result, they don’t put in the hard work needed to overcome deficiencies, hone a skill to excellence, or develop the mental strength and flexibility to bounce back from failure.  For these athletes, Selig encourages that the parents and coaches reward effort rather than talent and reframe failure as an opportunity to learn.

Use setbacks as motivation. Can athletes use their failures as a springboard to success? Selig writes, “If you read the sports page, you’ll find that almost every sports team uses a significant loss to motivate themselves to improve in the coming year.”

Keep your self-talk encouraging. Selig emphasizes that positive self-talk must be geared to the athlete’s own and she offers these phrases as mantras for athletes to say to themselves: “I’ve done it before; I can do it again, “or “I’m going to trust myself,” or “Whatever happens, I’ll do my best.”


Meg Selig is the author of "Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success." She also wrote "Habit-Changers Were Olympians...And Many Are." Click here to read the article in Psychology Today.