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Channeling The Right Passion For The Game

“Passion is what makes life interesting, what ignites our soul, fuels our love and carries our friendships, stimulates our intellect and pushes our limits." - Pat Tillman

When you think about the best athletes in sports, what adjectives come to mind?

The one that I hear a lot is passion. World class athletes are passionate in their pursuit of excellence. Webster’s Dictionary defines passion as a strong liking / desire for / devotion to some activity, object, or concept, i.e., a passion for chess.

When you are passionate about something, it becomes part of you and how you identify yourself. The reason being, it is something that is important to you and something you value. “Passion leads athletes to engage in deliberate practice, a specific form of practice that focuses on improving one’s skills (Vallerand et al., 2003).”

The Dualistic Model of Passion (DMP) identifies two types of passion as it relates to deliberate practice: Harmonious Passions and Obsessive Passion.

i. Harmonious Passion (HP) is defined as an Autonomous Internalization. AI is when an individual freely accepts an activity as important and chooses to engage in the activity, in this case sport, without contingencies.

For example, a golfer enjoys playing a round of golf because she feels it’s challenging and fun. She doesn’t focus on the need to play a round of golf because it will help her to one day become a professional golfer.

Another example, a basketball player chooses to go to bed early the night before a big game, rather than staying up really late to do all of his homework.

HP allows an activity to become part of a person’s identity, and is balanced out by other aspects of a their life as well. “These choices can be tough, yet taken one at a time these choices are made that support high performance in all areas. Making healthy short-term choices, will enhance long-term gains! Harmonious passion brings satisfaction of the fullness of life (Gilman, 2016).”

HP enables athletes to “fully focus on the task at hand and experience positive outcomes during and after task engagement.” When a person with HP isn’t able to engage in their passion activity, they adapt to the situation and are also able to focus their attention and energy on other daily tasks that need to be accomplished. HP allows a person to balance their priorities. Thus, focusing on things that allow life to be within their control, and to perform in the moment. With this type of passion, the activity occupies a significant but not overpowering space in the person’s identity and is in harmony with other aspects of the person’s life (Vallerand et al., 2003).

ii. Obsessive Passion (OP) is defined as a Controlled Internalization. CI is when an individual engages in the activity because of “intra-personal and/or interpersonal” pressure(s) to participate. An athlete with OP loves engaging in their sport because it is fun, and because of the extrinsic benefits that include a boost of self-esteem and/or the outcome based rewards.

For example, a swimmer feels confident because he is the best swimmer on the team, and is respected by teammates and coaches for being the best.

Another example, an athlete is considered to be the best basketball player on the team. As a result, the team relies on her to put up the majority of the points to consistently fuel them to victory.

“When a sense of self-esteem, and social recognition becomes dependent on their sport involvement, the athlete may show defensiveness, emotional vulnerability, and difficulty coping in the face of failure. This not only negatively affects their ability to sustain high levels of performance, it may also increase personal rigidity, and decreased creativity. It’s as if too much of a good thing, passion, can cause problems (Gilman, 2016).”

OP athletes are dedicated and passionate about their sport. At some point, they start to feel controlled by the sport because of their drive for extrinsic value. Meaning, because of social expectations that include success and the social recognition by their peers, family, coaches etc…they feel the need to always perform their best for others. As a result, the sport becomes the dominant identity of the athlete that conflicts with the everything else in that athlete’s life.

While both types of passion have their advantages and disadvantages, in the long run, developing passion rooted in HP will allow you to perform your best and to have a love for the game that goes beyond the results.

Tips for developing Harmonious Passion:

1. Coaches and Parents: Model the right passion that you want to see in your athletes and kids. Show your passion through your words, actions, and energy. Once you can better understand and define passion as it relates to you, you can then help steer your athlete and child in the right direction as well.

For example: a. Parent, “I know that having a sleepover with your friends is fun and important to you right now. However, you have a basketball tournament tomorrow. Do you think that staying up all night with your friends and having to get up early for the tournament will allow you to perform your best tomorrow?”

Remind your child of the expectations you and the coach expect him/her, then give them a choice. If they are dedicated and passionate, they will sacrifice a sleepover tonight, so they can perform tomorrow. If they aren’t willing to sacrifice that sleepover, at least you know that they aren’t fully invested in their sport.

b. Coach, “I see that you have been nursing an injury these past few days. Maybe it's time to see the trainer and see how we can get you healed up.” Instead of telling an athlete to toughen up and play through the pain, teach them how to better manage their injuries, and show them that you care about them as a person and as an athlete on the team.

Discussions like these can help your athlete to assess their current situation, make choices, set expectations, and learn to prioritize. In this way, coaches and parents can become better mentors and collaborate in their athlete’s journey, rather than dictating and creating ultimatums for your athlete.

2. Athletes: reflect on the process by reviewing your progress. This doesn’t mean compare the wins and losses or compare stat lines. It means see how you have grown and improved as an athlete seasonally and/or yearly.

3. Parents, Athletes and Coaches: Motivation and passion are contagious, so surround yourself and your athlete with a community of support! As parents of youth athletes, exposing your child to a variety of sports is important. Your child won’t just know what sport they enjoy playing, on their own. Introduce them to various sports with the expectation of having fun, meeting new friends, and developing new skills. At the end of each season, you and your child can examine whether it is a sport worth playing again, or not.

4. Athletes: Sometimes it’s good to just do it for the fun of it. Find times to just play your sport and have fun, without worrying about your goals, expectations, or the results.

A lot of times, high school athletes will participate in a secondary sport or sports, just to participate for the fun of it. While these athletes still put forth maximum effort and commitment during their secondary sport(s) season(s), they are primarily doing it for the experience of spending time with friends, or to just take a break from their primary sport, while continuing to stay active and competitive.

5. Parents: focus on the long term athletic development of your child. Once athletes have taken the time to participate in a variety of sports and are able to find their primary sport, the next step involves sport specialization.

As parents, it can feel right to just teach your kids to be obsessive participants in sport, where they dedicate the majority of their time and energy toward sport specialization, and where you as parents provide all the specialized training to help them succeed.

Remember that it is a process your child naturally chooses. Therefore, as parents, it’s your job to teach them the necessary tools for success and support them. It starts with the introduction to sports. When an athlete finds her/his sport of choice, it’s then time to develop the technical and tactical skills to improve.

There may come a point when your athlete is likely to experience obsessive passion to improve, excel, and specialize at their sport. As parents and coaches, it’s your job to teach them how to have HP for sports. So, when they do experience OP, they will know how to find their way back to HP.

Consider what the former all-star professional soccer player, Eric Cantona said, “If you have only one passion in life… and you pursue it to the exclusion of all other things, this becomes dangerous…” It can cause those who do so the inability to sustain life satisfaction because if that passion ends, so does their purpose (Morales, 2020).

In the end, as coaches and parents, if you teach your athlete(s) to learn and live by HP, you will be teaching them how to enjoy all the activities they pursue with excitement, curiosity, creativity, fun, and physical and emotional wellbeing. Passion for sports are about the thrill of victory, the fun of competition and training, the community of support and camaraderie, and a love for the game that goes beyond the results.


Aney, J. (2014, January 23). My Sports Influences. Retrieved October 28, 2020, from

Waldron, M. (2020). What Fuels Your Athletic Passion? Retrieved October 28, 2020, from

Gilman, S. (2016, May 06). Sports Psychology: Passion - The Blessing & The Curse! Retrieved October 29, 2020, from

Kovich, S. (2011, March 23). Heart Power is Stronger than Horse Power! The Power of Mental Toughness. Retrieved October 29, 2020, from

Morales, J. (2020, August 08). Two Types of Passion: Harmonious vs. Obsessive. Retrieved October 29, 2020, from

Vallerand, R. J., Blanchard, C., Mageau, G. A., Koestner, R., Ratelle, C., Leonard, M., et al. (2003). Les passions de l’Ame: On obsessive and harmonious passion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 756–767. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514-85.4.756

Verner-Filion, J., Vallerand, R. J., Amiot, C. E., & Mocanu, I. (2017, January 30). The two roads from passion to sport performance and psychological well-being: The mediating role of need satisfaction, deliberate practice, and achievement goals. Retrieved October 29, 2020, from

Waldron, M. (2020). What Fuels Your Athletic Passion? Retrieved October 28, 2020, from

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