Mental Equipment Syndicated Column – Sep 1, 1996 – Dr. John F. Murray – It has long been recognized that an inner desire and drive is required for successful performance. What is the essence of the quest for dominance? Why do athletes tenaciously struggle to refine technique, improve strategy, and strive for the summit? This month we consider several factors underlying the motivation to achieve, and how these elements may impact performance.

Achievement behavior is traditionally seen as influenced by a blend of “hope for success” and “fear of failure.” In sports, some athletes are primarily motivated to succeed, while others are more inspired to avoid failure. Take a moment to consider which of these two possibilities motivates you the most.

Does “hope for success” or “fear of failure” lead to higher levels of motivation? One traditional theory that has gained empirical support, the McClelland-Atkinson model, holds that the answer to this question depends upon several factors.

The theory asserts that when the “tendency to avoid failure” is greater than the “tendency to succeed,” maximum motivation occurs when the outcome of the competitive event is almost 100% certain (e.g. , winning against a much weaker opponent or losing against a much stronger opponent). These athletes have little chance of losing face, since even a loss to a superior opponent is expected and would not be evaluated as failure. When the outcome of the event is less certain (e.g., ability levels are more similar), motivation should decline, for there is a real chance of perceived failure.

On the other hand, when the “tendency to succeed” surpasses the “tendency to avoid failure,” it is predicted that the greatest motivation occurs in highly competitive situations where the outcome is uncertain due to more similar ability levels. These athletes derive great satisfaction from pursuing success without worrying about the possibility of failure. They are success oriented! They may become bored against much weaker opponents, or display similar reductions in motivation when there is little chance of winning, but when the battle heats up, these are the real competitors.

In my view, it is quite important to develop a motivation to succeed, since the focus is positive, goal oriented, and anxiety reducing. Dan Marino’s father instilled in his son at a young age the value of never being afraid to lose (now referred to as the “Marino Theory”). With that weight removed, athletes are free to aggressively seek success. Modifying the Marino theory slightly, perhaps a slight dose of “fear of failure” is a helpful guard against overconfidence when you are expected to win easily.

Here are a few tips to help you and/or your students develop and nurture the motivation to succeed, whether in tennis, football, baseball or business:

Search for the success elements in every competitive encounter. Short-term performance goals provide an excellent way of identifying factors needed for continual improvement. Attaining these goals provides a rewarding sense of satisfaction, regardless of competitive outcome.

Get excited and enjoy the competition when it is close. Thrive on being challenged, for it brings out your best and allows you the chance to achieve greater victories.

Never be afraid to “go for it!” Whether this involves hitting a decisive topspin passing shot under pressure or throwing a well-timed touchdown pass with 3 seconds left, the habit of assuming control and making things happen is the mark of a champion.

Good luck in your journey toward achievement and success.