12 Motivational Quotes From Sports Figures

Sports are not just about athletic ability. They are about mental fortitude, community, and teamwork. The following motivational quotes from athletes and coaches remind us of the importance of being the best we can be, on or off the field. They describe success, how to handle criticism, and how to push ourselves further than we may think possible. All of us—whether we identify as athletes or not—will find these quotes offer much-needed encouragement to “stay in the game.”


Life is not a spectator sport. If you’re going to spend your whole life in the grandstand just watching what goes on, in my opinion you’re wasting your life.

—commonly attributed to Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson

spectator sport

Jackie Robinson was no stranger to adversity. He overcame incredible prejudice to become not only the first Black player to play in Major League Baseball in the modern era but also a successful businessman and civil rights leader. In this quote commonly attributed to him, he says “life is not a spectator sport” (or “a sport that can be watched by spectators, as football or basketball, usually for a fee”). In other words, you can’t just watch life pass you by. You have to get out on the field and participate.


Why does everyone talk about the past? All that counts is tomorrow’s game.

—commonly attributed to Pittsburgh Pirate Roberto Clemente


Another baseball player who was a civil rights leader was Black Puerto Rican right fielder Roberto Clemente, who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1950s and 1960s. Reflecting on his success, Clemente says it’s important to focus on “tomorrow’s game,” rather than dwelling on past success or failures. Another expression of this same idea is offered up when we’re told not to rest on our laurels, where laurels are an allusion to the crown of laurels awarded in ancient times for a spectacular achievement.


The key to success is to be able to put everything except the car and the track and the competition out of your mind once you are out on the track.

—Janet Guthrie, on being the first woman to qualify for the Indy 500, Indianapolis Monthly, May 23, 2019


Janet Guthrie broke barriers in the world of race car driving, becoming the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and the Dayton 500 in 1977. Like Roberto Clemente, she also describes how staying in the moment while competing is important to success, “the accomplishment of one’s goals.” When you are driving around 188 MPH, or trying to do anything similarly difficult, you have to be focused on what’s in front of you or you might crash—literally and figuratively.


When anyone is critical of what I do, I’m just motivated by it. If someone says we’re not good enough, then we just do better. If another tennis player says something negative, I say, “That girl will never beat me.” We feed off the criticism.

—Venus Williams, O, The Oprah Magazine, March 2003

feed off

Something that can throw an athlete off their game is criticism, whether because of quality of play, race, gender, or simply because fans support a rival. Tennis great Venus Williams addresses this dynamic directly in this interview with Oprah. Venus Williams and her sister, Serena Williams, feed off of this criticism, rather than letting it hold them back. Feed off here is a figurative expression meaning “to supply with nourishment.” For them, the critique is motivating rather than discouraging.


I don’t look into the negativity and the hate. I am here to swim.

—Lia Thomas, Sports Illustrated, March 3, 2022


In this quote, NCAA swimmer Lia Thomas discusses how she deals with criticism for being the first openly trans woman to compete in college swimming. In echoes of the other athletes we have seen here, she says she tries to put “the negativity and the hate” out of her mind when she competes. While swimming is literally her sport, it also has a figurative connotation; the expressions just keep swimming or in the swim use the activity as a metaphor for staying “in the thick of things,” even in the face of adversity.


A winner is that person who gets up one more time than she is knocked down.

—Mia Hamm, Go For the Goal: A Champion’s Guide To Winning In Soccer And Life, 1999


Sport is an arena where you are pushed to show your determination. One of the greatest women’s soccer players, Mia Hamm, touches on this idea by describing what she thinks a winner is. We often think of a winner as simply the victor in a competition. However, Hamm points out that a winner is also someone who shows fortitude in the face of loss or difficulty.


Every man at some point in his life is gonna lose a battle. He’s gonna fight and he’s gonna lose. But what makes him a man, is that in the midst of that battle he does not lose himself.

—Coach Eric Taylor, Friday Night Lights 


While it’s easy to think of sports as “just as game,” for many athletes it’s a test of character. Fictional football coach Eric Taylor from the television program Friday Night Lights draws these connections in this quote from one of his many stirring locker-room speeches. He describes the game ahead of his discouraged team as a battle, a term typically used to mean “a hostile encounter or engagement between military forces.” Despite the violent encounter in front of them, Coach Taylor reminds the teammates to demonstrate good character.


If we don’t come together right now on this hallowed ground, we too will be destroyed, just like they were. I don’t care if you like each other or not, but you will respect each other. And maybe … I don’t know, maybe we’ll learn to play this game like men.

—Coach Herman Boone, Remember the Titans, 2000


Another football coach who compared the sport to fighting in a military battle was Coach Herman Boone in the inspirational classic movie about racial integration on a Virginia high school team, Remember the Titans. The team is playing in Gettysburg, PA, a site of major Civil War battles, a theme that is resonant given the racial prejudice the newly integrated team is still coping with. In the movie, Coach Boone (played by Denzel Williams and based on a real-life coach) describes the football field as hallowed ground, or a “holy, venerated, sacred place.” Like Union soldiers on the Gettysburg battlefields, the players have to learn to work together or “be destroyed.”


Experience helps you understand what works and what doesn’t. And (personally), I think it has more to do with just wanting to continue to learn on and off the ice. … Whether it’s, you know, skills on the ice or trying to learn how to be a better teammate, better leader, better friend, you name it.

—Pittsburgh Penguin Sidney Crosby, The Athletic.com, April 28, 2022


As an athlete, it is not enough just to work hard or show determination. You also have to be willing to learn new things and take direction. As National Hockey League player “Sid the Kid” (Sidney Crosby) points out here, experience, “a particular instance of personally encountering or undergoing something” and openness are important for not only being a good teammate but also a good friend. (Aw.)


The one thing you learn is when you can step out of your comfort zone and be uncomfortable you see what you’re made of and who you are.

—WNBA player Sue Bird, SFGate, December 22, 2018

comfort zone

A theme we have seen in many of these quotes is the importance of facing challenges as a mark of character. Basketball player Sue Bird echoes this sentiment in this quote from an interview, where she encourages players to go beyond their comfort zone. Literally, comfort zone means “the range of atmospheric temperature and humidity considered comfortable for most people.” However, it is used more generally to describe any environment where one isn’t challenged, physically, mentally, or emotionally.


Takin’ on a challenge is a lot like riding a horse, isn’t it? If you’re comfortable while you’re doin’ it, you’re probably doin’ it wrong.

—Coach Ted Lasso, Ted Lasso


Fictional football-coach-turned-soccer-coach Ted Lasso has a fondness for slightly off-beat and maybe even nonsensical versions of the same kind of motivational sports advice we have seen here. In a Lassoian echo of Sue Bird, he describes facing a challenge, “something that by its nature or character serves as a call to battle, contest, special effort,” as something that should be uncomfortable … like riding a horse? The metaphor might not entirely make sense, but we appreciate the sentiment.


We don’t live in our fears, we live in our hopes.

—Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 22, 2007


Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is known for his highly quotable soundbites and reflections on the team’s performance. Here, he sums up the essence of what motivates athletes and civilians alike: hope, “the feeling that what is wanted can be had or that events will turn out for the best.” We can think of no better feeling to wrap up with.

If you are looking for a jolt of motivation, we hope these sports quotes do the trick. It’s hard not to feel fired up after reading so many words of wisdom from some of sports’ greats, both real and fictional. As they say on Friday Night Lights, “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!”

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