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8 Great Motivating Messages that Guide Superstar Athletes

For Olympic-sized motivation to achieve any goal, use these 8 mantras.

Image by Stux, pixabay, CC0
Source: Image by Stux, pixabay, CC0

How on earth do athletes handle it when they’re in the Super Bowl, the Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament, or any big competition? How do coaches keep their players motivated and focused under stress?

Here are eight brief motivational messages that superstar coaches tell their players and that players tell themselves. These messages are not for athletes only! You can use them to fulfill your business plan, finish a work or home project, make a contribution to your community, or persist with any creative project.

1. "Do it for love." Reminding yourself that you love your book project, your sport, or your team can be a powerful motivator. During the team competition at the 2014 Olympics, I overheard (on TV) coach Frank Carroll tell nervous 18-year-old U.S. skater Gracie Gold words to this effect as she glided onto the ice for her performance: “Think about how much you love skating!” Phil Jackson, the renowned NBA basketball coach, explains it like this in his book, Eleven Rings: Focus on something greater than yourself that you love and value, such as your sport or your team.

2. “Next play.” “Air ball, air ball.” This taunt means that a basketball player has totally missed the basket. Worse mistakes than this can occur during any game, however. The “next play” motto reminds players to leave their mistakes in the dust and focus on what they need to do in the coming moment. This philosophy, the mantra of Duke University basketball coach, Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski), prevents players from dwelling on misplays. It also keeps them from puffing up with an "I'm the greatest" attitude after an outstanding play and losing focus as a result. As described by LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, who has adopted the “next play” philosophy, it means this:

"(Coach K) yells out “next play,” because he doesn’t want the team lingering too long on what just took place. He doesn’t want them celebrating that incredible alley-oop dunk, and he doesn’t want them lamenting the fact that the opposing team just stole the ball and had a fast break that led to an easy layup. You can take a moment to reflect on what just happened, and you probably should, but you shouldn’t linger too long on it, and then move on to the next play."

3. "Aim for excellence, not perfection." This is a great motto for anyone whose perfectionistic tendencies prevent them from getting anything done. As reported here, Gracie Gold’s coach Frank Carroll emphasized, “It’s not the perfect skater that wins, it’s the best skater.” Accepting failures and glitches in one’s program is simply part of the process.

4. "Why not you? Why not us?" Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson had always yearned to be a professional football player, especially one who could lead his team to the Super Bowl. He always remembered his father’s question to him: “Why not you?” When he encouraged his Seahawks teammates, he transformed the saying into, “Why not us?” (The Seahawks won the 2014 Super Bowl.)

I find that the saying, “Why not me?” is a useful question to ask myself when I am complaining that “somebody” should do “something” about the terrible problem of ___ (fill in the blank). I ask myself, “Why not me?” If I realize I don’t have the skills or time to make a contribution, then at least I stop complaining. But I also begin to think about whether I could do some little thing to help solve problem X.

5. “Create the best possible conditions for success, then let go of the outcome.” This statement is from Phil Jackson’s book, Eleven Rings. I’ve heard echoes of this statement in interviews by Olympians and other successful athletes. Once you’ve prepared mentally and physically for your game, then you are ready to do your best—and your best is the best you can do.

6. "Cultivate a learning mindset instead of a fixed mindset." Many young athletes believe that it's talent that counts—“You either have it or you don’t.” As a result, they don’t put in the hard work needed to overcome deficiencies, hone a skill to excellence, or develop the mental strength and flexibility to bounce back from failure. To encourage a growth mindset in others, reward effort rather than talent and reframe failure as an opportunity to learn. To open your own mind to constructive feedback, heed the counsel of Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: “Find success in learning and improving, not just winning.”

7. "Use setbacks as motivation." So you had a bad day. A bad year. Can you use your failures as a springboard to success? If you read the sports page, you’ll find that almost every sports team uses a significant loss to motivate themselves to improve in the coming year.

8. "Keep your self-talk encouraging." When skater Gracie Gold started her short program with a shaky jump at the 2014 Olympics, she told herself, “I’ve come too far not to land this stupid double axel ... I’m going to land it with a smile.” Positive self-talk must be geared to your own mentality (I'm not sure the word "stupid" would have been helpful to some people), but here are some realistic mantras to use: “I’ve done it before; I can do it again.” “I’m going to trust myself.” “Whatever happens, I’ll do my best.”

Gold's self-talk helped keep her in medal contention. In the long program, she couldn't hold on to one jump but completed the rest of her program with distinction. As she left the ice, Coach Carroll said, "Good job, honey. I liked the way you kept it going." (Gold came in fourth, just short of the podium, but she earned a bronze medal in the team event.)

Am I missing a motivational gem? Help me out, and please reveal your favorite short motivational messages in the comments section. Although I could research this subject forever, I’m going to take my own advice in this blog and aim for excellence, not perfection!

Thoughts from Readers

The readers have spoken! As a result of their inspiring words, I’m adding two more motivating messages to this blog.

9. “Keep your eyes on the prize.” “The prize” refers to your goal. A worthwhile goal is freely chosen, meaningful to you, and so desirable that you can enjoy the process of getting there as much as the result. A valued goal, moreover, helps keep you on the right path. Take a look at the comments to see how some readers resisted temptation and ignored insults because they cherished their long-term goal.

10. “Persevere!” Some readers found that the mantra, “Persevere!” was essential to their success. I like the way the word implies that sometimes you must be a bit severe with yourself. To put perseverance into practice, I use the “five-minute rule.” I tell myself, “Just keep going for five minutes more; then see how you feel.”

Persevering will help you develop “grit”—that remarkable quality of keeping faraway goals in sight and working at them with devotion over long periods of time, despite inconvenience or problems. (Hopefully, you can also know when it’s time to quit a goal that isn’t realistic or that’s no longer in your best interest.)

Thanks, readers!

(c) Meg Selig, 2014

Meg Selig is the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success.You can follow her on Twitter or Facebook.


Phil Jackson, Eleven Rings. (Penguin Press, 2013).

Seahawks Russell Wilson on Superbowl, “Why not us?

Jere Longman, “For Gold, Perfection is Overrated

Adam Bryant, “In Sports or Business, Always Prepare for the Next Play

Juliet Macur, “Figure Skaters Battle for Steady Nerves and Legs,”

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