Passion and Purpose: How Intrinsic Drive Fuels Athletic Excellence

Athletics require the ability to tap into powerful intrinsic motivators to make us great.

by Adam Slocum

June 18, 2024


Joe DiMaggio played the game as hard as he possibly could to make a positive impact on young fans. - Getty Images, New York Daily News Archive

Every accomplished athlete sets a goal of being a champion, aspiring ultimately to make it into their sport’s hall of fame, those immaculate shrines of athletic achievement. These extrinsic motivators are essential for getting the most out of their abilities. However, there is an equally powerful motivational force – intrinsic inspiration – which derives from having a higher purpose beyond oneself. Intrinsic motivation comes from a love of what we do, and how that ultimately defines us, not as an athlete but as a person. It encompasses how we feel about ourselves and how others perceive and connect with us on a relatable level. 


Joe DiMaggio famously responded to a reporter’s question about why he plays so hard by saying, “Because there might have been somebody in the stands today who’d never seen me play before and might never see me again.” Athletes with a strong work ethic who realize they’re making a difference in a young person’s life every time they take the field will summon intrinsic resources to ensure they always give everything they possibly can to succeed. DiMaggio didn’t want to succeed just for himself, or even to bolster the Yankees’ chances of winning another championship. He was pushing himself to excel for each person in the stands who had never seen him play. He wanted to make a positive impact through his intrinsic attributes – playing hard – and not rely solely on extrinsic validation. 


Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were renowned for their work ethic. They realized that, despite the immensity of their natural athletic abilities, it was hard work that was the key to achieving their goals. As a result of their work ethic, they had no fear and never shied away from failure. Michael Jordan was quoted as saying, “I’ve missed over 9,000 shots. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Muhammad Ali explained, “Champions aren’t made in the gym. Champions are made from something deep inside them – a desire, a dream, a vision.” Obviously, the work required to become a champion takes place in the gym, as evidenced by Kobe Bryant getting to practice several hours before his teammates and holding himself accountable to not take but make 800 shots before anyone else arrived. However, that drive to get up and go to the gym was the result of his desire, dream, and vision to be the best that he could be. Not only for himself and his team but for that young Laker fan wearing number 8 or 24 who was coming to the game for the first time. As Kobe asserted, "The most important thing is to try and inspire people so that they can be great in whatever they want to do."


Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson said, “The best motivation always comes from within.” These intangibles include confidence, competitiveness, discipline, focus, optimism, resilience, stress management, and what sportscasters generally refer to as the "will to win" – in short, intrinsic sources of motivation. These character traits can all be applied not only to sports competition at the highest level but also to a productive life in general. That is why athletes are role models and have such a powerful impact on our youth. From their athletic heroes, kids can visualize exactly what it takes to succeed in life. 

Kobe Bryant epitomized the work ethic of an elite athlete.

From a personal standpoint, I owe a lot of my character development to sports. My older brother passed away  just before my fifth birthday, and it left me with a broken heart and a lump in my throat throughout my childhood. I was introverted and hardly spoke. Psychosomatically, I developed asthma and had a hard time breathing. I would wake up in the middle of the night gasping for air. Soon after though, I started playing sports, and it gave me a strong sense of purpose. I would read about how elite athletes had overcome adversity in their own childhoods to reach their personal goals. As I found my safe space on the mound or running down the soccer field, I realized that my breathing was free, unconstricted. I was playing the games I loved and felt at peace. At times, I also felt my brother with me, helping me make the next pitch, swing, shot, or pass. That connection with my brother enhanced my love and appreciation for sports and made me a better teammate; it made me work harder with a purpose to share that love of the game with others.


Always maintaining a sense of purpose, especially by possessing the need to help and impact others, is intrinsically motivating. With that frame of mind, athletes are not simply chasing trophies; we do it for that sense of self-fulfillment based on personal enjoyment of the task at hand. We are not competing against another player or the other team. We are competing against the ideals of the sport and our self-actualization as it relates to those ideals. In that state of being, we are never satisfied with the result, but always pleasantly enthused by the process. 


Everyone is an athlete or fan in some way. Sports bring us together while helping each of us connect with that intrinsic motivator that drives us toward our personal goals. That is what the National Sports Museum is being created for – to bring us together around common themes of aspiration and achievement as we strive for personal excellence, individually and collectively. Extrinsic accolades – championships, MVPS, halls of fame – are the result of intrinsic motivators – passion, love of the game, and perseverance in the face of adversity. The halls of fame exist as extrinsic beacons that are critical for capturing and honoring achievement, but a National Sports Museum celebrates that which drives all of us to succeed in life and unites us in ways that are inherent, achievable, and intrinsic to all of us.  



The National Sports Museum will celebrate sports’ profound impact on our national identity and pay tribute to athletes, brands, leagues, and teams who use their platform as leaders to effect meaningful change. Exhibits will include “Sports as Social Change”, “Sports as Cultural Identity”, “Sports as the Pursuit of Excellence”, and “Sports PLUS (Personal Learning Using Sports)”, along with an Immersion Theater and Interactive Sports Entertainment & Training facility. 


We're developing an attraction-museum focused on education through sports. By using the latest interactive technologies we will bring sports history to life, viewing it all through a lens of social and cultural themes that illuminate the transcendent power of sports to advance, empower, inspire, and unite. We intend to align with other like-minded non-profits, athletes, the sports industry, corporate sponsors, and the city of New York to create a special and enduring cultural institution.


We welcome your feedback at

More from National Sports Museum

For more content like this  — Museum Exhibit Design EBook


To meet our non-profit co-founders — Our Co-Founders


To sign up for updates and get involved — Show Your Support