How misplaced motivation led me from rugby to sports psychology

guest post from Joe James

I’ll be completely honest with you and say that I probably wasn’t ever going to be good enough to make it as a professional rugby player.

If you had a chat with me when I was around 15 years of age though, I was absolutely convinced that I would be. In fact, five minutes in my company and you would have been convinced too! Don’t get me wrong, I played at a reasonable enough level for my age — Glasgow Under 16’s and the youth ranks at Glasgow Hawks — and could have progressed, but, in hindsight, I was nowhere near mentally strong enough to make it remotely close to professional level.

With so much confidence in relation to my future in the sport why did I struggle mentally? Surely having that belief in myself is a clear sign of someone mentally strong? The truth is, I didn’t want to play rugby or sport for the correct reasons. You’d be forgiven for thinking that I’m meaning I played sport in hopes of money, fame or for any mix of materialistic purposes, no, instead my struggle was as a result of something I’ve thought about greatly over the last few years, something I like to call in-game motivations.

These are the motivations, on the pitch, court or pool that result in our attitudes and actions whilst competing moment by moment. It could be that you love expressing yourself and it’s a chance to display perfection. It could be that you see it as an opportunity to confirm to yourself and others that you are the best at something. I on the other hand, like many others, had a different relationship with the idea of sport and performance.

Some of my best performances growing up, regardless of what the sport was, came from a feeling that stemmed from intense insecurity.

I didn’t care about proving to myself that I was the best because deep down I didn’t even feel I was the best anyway. Instead, it was genuine insecurity for feeling out of place, a feeling that someone felt they were better than me or a chance to prove people wrong.

I still remember up until 12 or 13 I was distinctly average at almost all sports. With it being my favourite thing in the world, it killed me inside that I just didn’t seem to be any good at it! This changed however when I was playing rugby in my second year of school. As the only person in the team that had any experience in rugby whatsoever, I was captain. A good captain? Probably not at that point because we were getting absolutely trounced 30–0 after only half an hour. Being made captain though, losing that game was really affecting me in a way it hadn’t before.

This was my team and because of that I began to take it hugely personally when the opposition began joking around and not taking the game seriously. This sparked something inside of me, I was so hurt and embarrassed so I just started smashing into their players with the ball and running into them with an aggression I didn’t even know I had. It may sound a bit far-fetched but when you have spent your life performing at one performance level in sport, the feeling of bashing people aside was like an out-of-body experience — all fuelled from a perfect mixture of both anger and sadness at people, potentially, thinking they were better than me. After the game, although we still lost, it was an odd feeling inside. I was now aware of the feelings and emotions needed that would bring the best out of me in sport.

Although at the time I felt it was a hugely positive thing that I had seemingly found the recipe for my own high performance, it gave me somewhat of a false hope that I could make it as a professional. It was clear that the only way I could perform to the highest standard possible would be if I could muster up the right amount of anger, sadness and frustration. As somewhat of a naturally chilled guy and without the natural physicality to dominate games, I really struggled with this. The fact that I knew the specific ingredients to reach a high level of performance but often I just couldn’t reach it was something I was perhaps too tough on myself about. It became extremely emotionally draining when I’d attempt to feel these negative emotions two or three times a week for training and a game at the weekend. My inevitable burn-out and injuries led me to giving up competitive rugby aged only 17 with the excuse used for me walking away always being the latter until this blog.

Do I regret having this mindset whilst competing? Absolutely not.

As someone now involved in sport psychology, I feel I am now in the perfect position to relate to individuals and also have first-hand experience in putting in place methods to not only improve sporting performance, but a better quality of life too. If I was given the chance to speak to my younger self though, I would emphasise how integral it is that I tweak my mindset. Fuelling your performance solely on negative emotions is simply unsustainable. Although a certain amount of emotion can be crucial, you need to find ways to tap into other motivations such as performing for your own pride, proving yourself right and not just attempting to constantly prove others wrong. If your sole motivation is based on other people and their perceptions of you, you will never fully be happy or reach a conclusion because opinion is so subjective.

Have a think for a second, what has motivated you most in terms of sport or life so far? Is it a healthy motivation?


Alongside completing a degree and hopefully studying a sport psychology masters next year, Joe is involved in the creation of the site PSYCHEDIN – a blog which interviews and looks into some of the brightest minds in sport and looks into topics ranging from identity, mental health, sport philosophy and spirituality.

For a look at the blog or a chat with Joe, you can find him on:

Twitter – @josephjamesy00 or @psychedinuk