Motivation In Soccer – The Soccer Virus – Implications For Players, Coaches And Managers


“If managers, coaches and players themselves, can’t handle the motivational issues faced by footballers, at the highest levels, all attempts to achieve success will be in vain”.

During this past few soccer seasons barely a week has gone by without questions being raised against the motivation of professional footballers. This issue came to a head with the poor performance of England’s football team in Denmark, and was re-affirmed by the lacklustre performance against Northern Ireland. My interest in motivational malaise is primarily focused upon Premiership players for two reasons. Firstly, and not surprisingly, the Premiership attracts more interest from the media and secondly because, believe it or not, the issue of motivation is more paramount amongst Premiership players. So who is it that is asking these questions? There are many sources of such commentary. Premiership players themselves comment openly upon the motivation and professionalism of fellow players. Ex-professional footballers express surprise and disappointment with the motivation of today’s crop of stars. Managers and coaches seek to justify an apparent lack of motivation because players are physically and psychologically drained. The media continually challenge the motivation and professionalism of players. As for the fans, whether it is in the stadium on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, or on evening phone-ins, the players are often castigated as overpaid, overweight and uninterested. This seems to be a little unfair and even paradoxical considering footballers are heroes to many. It is also worrying because the possibility is that football will marginalise itself from the very fan base that supports it.

Symptoms: Motivational Malaise is easy to identify – Players can’t raise their game on a consistent week in-week out basis – Lacklustre performances against mediocre opposition – Players not performing to standard -Confusion amongst coaches, players and crowd as to how such highly paid players can’t seem to be bothered and hungry enough to win.

The Mistake: Looking for another explanation. Whilst injuries, tiredness, training facilities, international disruption, ‘lack of two or three players’ etc may play a minimal part – a highly motivated team will wipe the floor with a team lacking hunger and motivation. Obviously there is a limit to this, but the exceptions are few and probably short lived!

So what is going on? Why are these questions being raised, particularly against Premiership players who ostensibly should be very highly motivated, especially as they receive thousands of pounds every week in return for their services? However, that is where the problem lies! A virus, the ‘Soccer Virus’©, is attacking soccer. A highly active and aggressive pathogen that is getting as far into professional football as it can. The outcome…it is slowly but surely damaging the motivation of professional footballers to perform a sport they initially turned to because they loved it. The Soccer Virus is a major problem and only those clubs and players who successfully deal with it will be able to reap success in the coming years!

I remember years ago as an undergraduate studying social psychology, being fascinated by a few lectures on motivation. A distinction was drawn between ‘intrinsic motivation‘ and ‘extrinsic motivation’. Intrinsic motivation refers to the stimulation, drive and curiosity to do things, which comes from within. Younger children are engrossed in biology classes because they are intrinsically curious and want to understand what frogs are made of; people learn to cook because they are fascinated by the smells and flavours that result from putting various ingredients together; and children love playing football in the park because they want to control a ball, see how far they can kick it, place the ball in the top corner of the net, see how many times they can keep it up in the air, live a fantasy of being a great footballer. I remember I wanted to study psychology because people fascinated me and I needed to understand why people did the things they did. This is what we call intrinsic motivation. It is that natural curiosity, drive and passion to discover something, do something and do it well.

On the other hand extrinsic motivation comes from the outside. People are also motivated to do things because they expect to receive rewards – money, praise, status, promotion etc. Children are rewarded in school by gaining good grades and by passing examinations; cooks and chefs get jobs and can earn excellent salaries, many footballers get paid very highly and get contracts or contract extensions. However, the problem arises when we realise that there is a link between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and performance.

The more extrinsic reward we receive for our performance at whatever task, the more we are vulnerable to lose our intrinsic motivation“.

The more children are rewarded for passing examinations the more their fundamental curiosity to learn, and enjoy the learning process is threatened. Similarly, the more footballers are paid for performing on the football field the more their basic passion, curiosity for learning and improving is threatened, and the more difficult it becomes for them to hold onto their inherent desire and passion to play football. Let us remember also, before we all get sanctimonious and take the moral high ground, footballers are no different to the rest of the population in that the way they think, act and behave is determined by an interaction of personal factors (their personality, attitudes, beliefs, values etc) and contextual factors (the environment they live in, the people they live and work with, the situations they find themselves in etc). Personal history, friends, culture, the media etc mould individual desire and ability. This is not to say professional footballers are victims, but also they are no more guilty than the rest of us faced with the same opportunities and social forces.

Whilst this is a powerful claim, and may seem a little difficult to grasp for a few people, it happens and it is happening within football. There is a virus spreading through the world of football the outcome of which is a motivational malaise. Players struggling to motivate themselves, managers and coaches puzzling as to why they find it hard to motivate players, or indeed why they need to motivate players, fans struggling to understand why highly paid footballers don’t seem to want to play or just aren’t up for it. So what, you may ask? The implication of all of this is that it is those clubs, and players, who are able to successfully defend themselves against this virus and control, reduce or eradicate it that will succeed, and continue to succeed, as football grows throughout the 21st Century.

Why a virus? Well many viruses are too small to be seen by the naked eye, and up until recently it was difficult to see what was happening within football. For over thirty years professional football had been going through a period of slow but significant change. However, about nine years ago the first visible signs of this process were becoming apparent. Salaries paid to professional footballers began to escalate markedly and for a small number of footballers this enabled them to reap enormous financial benefits. Clubs paid the wages, fans wondered, other players wondered, and the seeds were sown. Extrinsic motivation (money) began to take on a level of significance that up until then it had not done. Players still wanted to play football (and still do) because they were good at it, they loved it, and they got a buzz every time they played. However, when football became more commercial and massive financial gain was there to be had, the balance began to shift. This virus was working away behind the scenes, slowly but surely threatening, challenging and occasionally eroding intrinsic motivation. Certain players, if they admit it, began to struggle to rekindle that passion, love and desire. Once one player loses this passion it rubs off on others who may also question what they are in this rapidly changing game for? However, now it is becoming apparent and now is the time to address it.

Are you at risk?

Is your club at risk, indeed, what are the risk factors? There are many underlining causes and processes involved and these are a few.

1. The problem can arise, when the relationship between the performance of the task and the reward is not appropriate, it is not meaningful. If a player’s performance on the pitch is not commensurate with the money he is paid this is one of the risk factors.

2. Certain players are probably more at risk than others:

  • Those who have become dependent upon financial reward that has now been removed or lowered
  • Those for whom financial reward has now become almost redundant because they have so much disposable income
  • Those whose psychological and emotional make-up leaves them more vulnerable to external influence
  • Younger players whose skill propels them into the limelight and who receive excessively high externally driven adulation
  • Those whose reference groups (friends, colleagues, family etc) buy into and promote the importance of extrinsic rewards

3. Critical mass. If a club has too many players who are at risk of this motivational malaise it could tip the balance and begin to permeate throughout the club. As with any virus, once it gets hold it multiplies and expands at a much rapider rate. This needs to be addressed.

4. Look at the motivation of players throughout the whole of the season. January and February are particularly significant months. It can be cold and dark and none of the significant end points are in sight. That is the time when intrinsically motivated players will show their motivation in the way they train, play and live for football. Those relying upon extrinsic motivation may struggle to keep it going.

5. How hard do you have to work to motivate yourself? How hard are you having to work as a coach to motivate your players. Intrinsically motivated players are hungry. They want to train; they want to learn, they want to play, (play being the operative word).

6. How much of a problem do you or your players have getting hooked into extrinsic rewards and motivations? How much significance is given to salaries, enormous homes, cars, holidays overseas, mid-season breaks etc.

It can take quite a while to grasp what the Soccer Virus is all about and to understand how pervasive it can be. However, the argument has logical appeal, and it is wiser to explore it than to deny it.

OK so what are the solutions?

  1. First and foremost have a quick check through the listing above to see if you are top heavy on risk factors. If so, do something to sort it out.
  2. As with any virus it is critically important to understand the context within which the virus is spreading. For example, in order to control the spread of HIV within a community it is essential that health practitioners understand the attitudes and behaviours of those at risk and what factors are liable to increase their risk. The same is true in football. We need to acknowledge that football is now much more of a commercial enterprise than it was twenty years ago. Football is big business and the profits to be gained by running and maybe selling a successful football club are significant. Some players, managers and agents do earn significant amounts of money as a consequence of their involvement in football. It would be foolish to think we could turn back the clock and create a game in which football players are representative of, and similar to the people who stand on the terraces every week cheering them on. That has all changed and it is impossible to return to that state. However there are solutions that will inhibit the spread of this potentially debilitating virus.
  3. As with many epidemics ‘awareness raising’ is one of the first interventions. Almost everyone knows that smoking causes cancer and this is the result of a massive awareness raising campaign that seems to be reducing the amount of smoking across the globe. That HIV might kill you is an awareness raising campaign designed to promote sensible sexual behaviour and reduce the spread of AIDS. By acknowledging that an uncontrolled escalation in the use and importance of financial and other extrinsic rewards will have a negative impact upon the motivation of those who choose to play the game is a starting point.
  4. Coaching at a team and individual level should be geared toward raising and enhancing the intrinsic motivation of players to perform. Emphasise individual mastery, ensure that fun is a critical part of the whole football experience, protect players from the damaging effects of a game that is increasing seen as a commercial vehicle through which a privileged minority can make financial gain unrelated to their performance on the pitch. Ensure that players continue to view football as a game that has personal meaning for them. Ensure that your club does not attract or develop a critical mass of vulnerable players.
  5. As with any virus it is all about building up the immune system so that the virus is rejected when it first makes contact. If it has already made inroads develop interventions designed to reduce the impact and recreate a sense of passion, curiosity and desire amongst players. Let the love of football win through.
  6. This isn’t just a phenomenon peculiar to football; it is permeating throughout contemporary society. The whole phenomenon of ‘celebrity’ is a classic example. The desire and expectation of short term, immediate extrinsic reward. Success at the press of a button, or success as a result of having performed well in front of a TV audience and a panel of judges over a period of a few weeks. This could have a shattering effect upon the intrinsic hunger to learn how to play a musical instrument, become an integrated member of a band, craft your trade over a period of years in front of audiences who will give honest and informative feedback as to whether or not you are any good, and thus enable you to hone and develop your skills and capability further.

The time has come to treat football with the respect it deserves. After all it has provided millions of people the world over with an outlet for their passion, a sport to play and enjoy, and for those who play professionally, an income that is potentially great. We can’t turn the clock back to flat caps and teams comprised of men from the local area. The time has come to get to grips with this virus, accept that it exists and do all we can to regenerate the passion, vitality and excitement that brought us all to the world of football in the first place.

Source by Dr David Johnson

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