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The importance of developing a sense of purpose in athletes

The importance of developing a sense of purpose in athletes

5 min read
  • Sport psychology

What is the purpose you’re working towards in your sport? Some people dream of athletic success from a young age, whereas others don’t always realise why they’re taking part. If you’ve done your sport from a young age, training and competing can become something of a habit and you might have lost sight of your goals – exactly why are you doing what you do?

Developing a sense of purpose can take a long time and it doesn’t always come easily. But when it is used correctly, having a sense of purpose can motivate you to become the best athlete you can be. But what exactly is a “sense of purpose,” why is it important, and how can you develop it? Here’s what we know…

What does it mean to have a sense of purpose?

Having a sense of purpose means having a set of clear reasons for doing what you do. It’s the feeling that your life is goal-orientated and has direction – you know where you’re going and what you want to do.

In sport, you might have goals such as winning a big competition that you’ve always dreamed of, or making a world-class team. While these are still reasons to participate, goals related to a sense of purpose are “more stable and far-reaching”. For instance, your sense of purpose in sport could be to have a successful career, or to stay fit and healthy.

Purpose is driven by achievement. Having goals makes us want to work hard to attain them, and it’s that hard work that gives us a sense of purpose.

Internal motivation links closely with developing a sense of purpose. People who have those clear reasons for what they do tend to work hard because of a true interest in their goal, rather than working because they have to. You are also more likely to maintain your goal strivings if you find internal pleasure from trying to achieve them.

Why is it important to develop a sense of purpose in sport?

Those with a greater sense of purpose usually have greater goal engagement and resilience to stress.

When we are more engaged in our goals, we are more likely to achieve them, and this is a key part of doing well in sport. As for creating a greater resilience to stress, it’s good for you to be able to bounce back when things get tough and keep training like the great athlete you are.

As we mentioned earlier, creating a sense of purpose leads to high levels of internal motivation – you become engaged in your sport because you love to do it, and because you want to get that sense of achievement. Being intrinsically motivated is associated with greater persistence and lower dropout rates, meaning you’re more likely to continue in your sport and achieve your goals.

Ultimately, having a sense of purpose puts things into perspective, helping to protect your self-esteem and giving you the strength to carry on achieving. It helps you stay optimistic about the future because it will foster a growth mindset, meaning you won’t be affected as much by setbacks – you know you’re working towards something and it’s going to take time.

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How can you develop a sense of purpose in sport?

There are lots of ways you can find your sense of purpose in sport and strive to become the best athlete you can be. Here are just a few that we know will help…

Set clear goals

Athletes with a sense of purpose set clear goals that are defined by what matters to them.

But don’t just focus on the big picture. Short-term goals are a good way to increase motivation, because we like to feel as though we’re achieving something. They give us an ongoing sense of purpose and let us know that our long-term goals are on track.

You could also try setting SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound) with your coach that are in line with your sense of purpose. This will help you monitor your progress and provide a means of fulfilling your self-set sporting purpose.

Look for support from your coaches

Searching for a sense of purpose can be quite a stressful and daunting experience. It’s useful as an athlete to be supported through the process of finding reasons for doing what you do, and your coach can help to guide you in these times.

While it’s nice to have this support, pay attention to the high expectations that your coach might have of you, as this will give you something to continue striving towards. Without these expectations, you will have less of a reason to want to perform to a high standard and your sense of purpose could diminish.

Engage in self-reflection

Reflect on your journey so far and where you want to go next. This will help to create a sense of purpose because it helps you realise the process that you’re going through and what you want to strive towards.

Question what you are willing to put effort into, as this will help inform your sense of purpose and decide what it is you are going to aim for.

Be curious about your own interests

Try to discover what it is that you are interested in and what exactly you want to achieve. Is there an important competition that you’ve watched before that you’d love to compete in yourself? Training to compete in this could become your new sense of purpose as an athlete.

Watch other athletes and take inspiration from what they can do to form your own goals and create your own sense of purpose.

Final thoughts

A sense of purpose is a complex concept, and it can take years to develop. As you start achieving your goals, this purpose may change over time and it will be up to you to keep striving for excellence.

Developing your sense of purpose in your sport comes with a whole host of benefits, and we hope that our tips will give you the strategies to exploit them.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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