What Motivates Elite Athletes? And Why We Need To Fix Things by "The Prof"

As I write this today, Lance Armstrong has moved from 10th place to 3rd place in the 2009 Tour de France. News of the day had Armstrong engaged in controversy – noting that he did little to help his teammate Alberto Contador. In fact, some insiders noted that Armstrong’s move a deliberate revolt against Contador. Regardless of what happens on this year’s Tour de France, we know two things about Armstrong. First, he is a modern superman – even his ability to compete on the Tour is amazing. Second, he came back for only one reason -- to try to win his 8th Tour de France. As much as I would like it, Armstrong will never say – “Hey, I came back to help one of my teammates win because they did so much to help me.”

I know I am in the minority, but just once I want Lance to support someone else’s success. Instead, his comment tells more: “I won the Tour seven times and I merit respect.” Obviously, he is correct. He is an elite athlete and his record seven Tour de France titles deserve all sorts of respect. He is absolutely motivated to win; and he is willing to suffer all sorts of physical rigors to win.

Lance Armstrong differs little from other elite athletes. Walter Peyton. Steve Yzerman. They are all highly motivated. They want to win, and they will suffer to do so! As Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Roger Clemons have shown, some athletes are even willing to take steroids to do so! Long-term physical abuse for short-term physical gain. These athletes, stupid as their actions are, are motivated!

Obviously, most professional athletes are self-motivated. They know what they want to accomplish and why they want to accomplish it. Some athletes are simply so gifted that they will be successful no matter what. Terrell Owens comes to mind immediately – he moves from team to team; and, although he cannot keep a job, he can always can find another job. This year, he is in Buffalo playing for the Bills: although Buffalo is hardly a nesting place for celebrities, it is there Owens will run, and catch, and whine. Owens seems almost disinterested; still, he finds employment because his skills are so outstanding.

Some athletes like basketball’s LeBron James are, on one hand, tremendous physical specimens but, at the same time, are pushed by some inner drive to succeed while other players are not. Even at 24 years of age, James is driven – he works hard and has the strength of character to be successful. He leads by example. You get the feeling that LeBron is one of those players who simply love their sport so much (Michael Jordan is another) that they would be satisfied with just enough income to allow them to play.

Many athletes, even in sports like professional basketball or football where college is almost a must, are rumored to “graduate” without being able to read. Such athletes have little else going for them, and seem to have few academic “gifts.” They are motivated by “what else is there to do?”

Some athletes seem not to be interested in measurable achievements. They want to enjoy themselves. Looking back at the old Oilers, one would name Glenn Anderson as one of those players. He loved playing, really was one of the “boys on the bus,” and seemed unmotivated by money or fame. Of the current Oilers, Dustin Penner seems to be the quickest study, bright enough to offer ironic answers during interviews, and smart enough not to be driven by purely sports goals. (Perhaps there is a correlation between being intelligent and knowing that, in the long run, there is more to life than hockey.)

Obviously, hockey is not the only sport where one can literally see an athlete’s motivation. Tennis might seem an odd example; but, us oldies recall seeing John McEnroe stomp around the court fighting for his life, or Jimmy Connors push and pull his way through matches. (Conners, with less skill than so many others, was the top men's tennis player in the mid-1970s and ranked number one for a record 159 consecutive weeks).

But, as Jimmy Connors once noted, there was no money when he started playing tennis, so he went out to be the best player he could. For him, winning was everything. Money didn’t count, because it couldn’t. The fans didn’t like the sport any less because the athletes were making less money. Speaking of tennis, female tennis player Martina Navratilova holds the record for the most singles titles won by a professional tennis player. She admitted that money was an incentive, but claimed to be in the last generation of tennis players who cared about “the purity of the game.” For her, tennis was about playing and winning.

It would be wrong to deny that some athletes are driven to become rich and think sports will get them there. These athletes are all about the money. But, in today’s over-priced market, even within this group others have a different goal. For example, in last month’s NHL Draft, Montreal Canadiens’ draftee Louis Leblanc will be going to Harvard. He is not alone, because Minnesota Wild fourth round pick Alexander Fallstrom – also Harvard. These young men, I am sure, hope to become professional hockey players in the NHL. But, in the meantime, a free education at perhaps the best university in the world is not a bad deal. For them, the choice is a no-brainer (or, should we say, a “big-brainer?”)

Some, and perhaps Gretzky was one, were pushed to be the best in the world or to beat records. More modest players know their limitations and aim for personal bests. Some athletes play because sports defines who they are. As Tom Cruise said in Jerry McGwire, sports “completes them.” Think of Mark Messier – the consummate leader. Where would he have thrived except for hockey? Anyone who has listened to California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger knows that his start as a bodybuilder and success as a Hollywood action hero differ little from his political life. He was successful because, early on, he knew who he was and what he wanted.

So what? What does all this talk mean? In an earlier blog, I encouraged Edmonton fans to attend Edmonton Energy (International Basketball League) games. The competition is great, and the players play for – the owner says - $110 Canadian per game. CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos’ salaries, except for Ricky Ray’s $400,000, are low. In fact, CFL’s salaries are so low that, under the collective bargaining agreement, the league is forbidden from disclosing the salary of any individual player. In the CFL, few can deny that the players play hard: but the CFL’s minimum salary is $39,000. Clearly these players are not motivated by money.

My point is that the system is messed up. When a doctor or teacher or almost any hard working Canadian earns less than 1/100 the salary of a hockey player, something needs to be fixed. When money turns people into whiney brats, something needs to be changed. When players are bartered like pawns by management who fails to consider human emotions, we all suffer. What becomes common soon becomes accepted. In a system where humans (fans and players) are prized less than money, things are just not working well enough.

As a professor, these are not the values I want young people to learn – and, my point is that they don’t have to. There are plenty of examples where elite athletes play for motivations other than money – Edmonton’s IBL Energy, Edmonton’s Eskimos, etc. It is now time to ask others to do so. Let us fix things before our young grow up with expectations that no one can fulfill – not even money.


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