Motivation: Winning ways to success

How can the mental attitude that helps sports people win competitions improve workplace performance? Sally O’Reilly finds out.

If only employers could bottle the focus and energy that drives Wayne Rooney to kick the ball into the back of the net, and administer this elixir to their sagging, unmotivated staff.

This may not be realistic, but it could be possible to apply the psychology of top sports performers to motivate people at work, and boost their sense of wellbeing. The message from academics at Sheffield Hallam University is that there are ways of translating the skills and mental habits of high-flying athletes into improved employee engagement.

Research suggests many organisations would do well to take this seriously. In January, a poll of 14,000 employees across 10 European countries by consultancy Watson Wyatt highlighted that more than four in 10 employees are actively considering leaving their current employer.

Meanwhile, research carried out by workplace consultancy Towers Perrin found that most people did not believe their organisation was doing enough to help or keep them engaged with their work. Just one-fifth said they felt motivated and committed to their role, with more than one-third admitting to feeling partly or fully disengaged.


According to sports science website Peak Performance, motivation is an internal energy force that determines all aspects of our behaviour, which has an impact on how we think, feel and interact with others. But because of its inherently abstract nature, it is hard to exploit fully.

Techniques used with athletes include goal setting, with ambitious long-term goals broken down into shorter-term targets that are easier to reach rewards that celebrate their achievement rather than financial rewards (‘man of the match’, for example) and ‘positive self-talk’. This means telling yourself you can do something even if it seems out of reach. All of these techniques can be applied to motivating employees.

Now researchers at the Centre for Sport and Exercise Science at Sheffield Hallam University are directly applying insights gained from working with organisations such as the Royal Yachting Association and English Golf to the workplace.

“While it’s important to help those who are ill to get back to work, it’s equally important to address the issues of people who come in and get their head down, but are still struggling,” says Dr Rob Copeland, senior sport and exercise scientist at the centre.

Looking at issues such as mental toughness and performance under pressure is a priority for sports scientists, and helps to build our resilience at work. For instance, if Roger Federer (pictured above) has to play a match point at Wimbledon centre court, how does he manage to focus? Are there aspects of this single-mindedness that someone can use if they have to give a complex presentation, for example?

Peak performance

“The most consistently high performers are those who can control their own environment,” says Copeland. “In any sport, you cannot control the opposition. All you can control is your own performance.

“To execute a brilliant tennis shot, you must focus on what you are doing. Not the crowd, the umpire, line calls, or anything else. And if the ball is ‘out’, but it’s a bad line call, you have to be prepared for that, and even plan your response.”

Copeland and his colleagues at the centre run a consultancy called Podium Performance, which offers advice based on sports psychology and working with professional athletes to businesses. Sessions include building a cohesive team, developing mental toughness, and creating a winning mind. But rather than getting staff to run round the car park at lunch time, the emphasis is on the psychology of performing well.

“This is not about getting everyone to wear a tracksuit – it’s about looking at the way different people respond to stress and pressure,” Copeland says. “Some people perform well under low pressure others only achieve peak performance when the pressure is really intense.

“In business terms, there are some staff who could benefit from practising working in more challenging environments to do their best work. And there are others who could benefit from better coping strategies to deal with pressure.”

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