Elite athletes: why does the ‘fire’ burn so brightly?

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Background and Purpose:What drives some athletes to achieve at the highest level whilst other athletes fail to achieve their physical potential? Why does the ‘fire’ burn so brightly for some elite athletes and not for others? A good understanding of an athlete’s motivation is critical to a coach designing an appropriate motivational climate to realize an athlete’s physical talent. This paper examines the motivational processes of elite athletes within the framework of three major social-cognitive theories of motivation.Method:Participants were five male and five female elite track and field athletes from Australia who had finished in the top ten at either the Olympic Games and/or the World Championships in the last six years. Qualitative data were collected using semi-structured interviews.Results and Discussion:Inductive analyses revealed several major themes associated with the motivational processes of elite athletes: (a) they were highly driven by personal goals and achievement, (b) they had strong self-belief, and (c) track and field was central to their lives. The findings are discussed in light of recent social-cognitive theories of motivation, namely, self-determination theory, the hierarchical model of motivation, and achievement goal theory. Self-determined forms of motivation characterised the elite athletes in this study and, consistent with social-cognitive theories of motivation, it is suggested that goal accomplishment enhances perceptions of competence and consequently promotes self-determined forms of motivation.

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