From High School to College Sports: The Role of Commitment


While we all know the importance of self-confidence and self-control in sports, education, and the workplace, commitment is often overlooked.

Yet, commitment is everything. Too much, and we risk losing control, impacting our confidence; too little, and our performance lacks passion.

Psychology recognizes it, too.

An article published in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology looked at commitment in 491 high school and college athletes. The data showed that how much students give is impacted by how they perceive their sporting ability and the support they receive from their peers, coaches, and parents.

Commitment matters because it is vital to mental toughness, supporting psychological wellness, and boosting sporting and academic performance.

When Eliud Kipchoge took on the brutal challenge of running a sub-two-hour marathon distance on a track in Vienna, it took more than confidence. It required deep commitment. As his long-time physio, Peter Nduhiu, said of Kipchoge

“People ask me why is Eliud unique? And I say it is his commitment and discipline; it is military. He wakes up every day knowing exactly what he wants, and he will go on to achieve it.”

And that’s just what he did. He gave his everything to run 26.2 miles in 1 hour, 59 minutes, and 40.2 seconds.


A vital element of mental toughness

When we commit to delivering our best, even when things go wrong at first, we show ourselves and others how badly we want it. We show mental toughness.

Acclaimed sportswriter Matt Fitzgerald says, “[u]ntil fairly recently, exercise scientists would have said that a physically weaker athlete could not defeat a stronger rival by greater mental fitness.” The research shows otherwise.

A 2020 study found that ultramarathoners brave enough to compete in a brutal 100-mile race in Hawaii called HURT100 were all high in self-belief and mental toughness.

It seems to push sporting limits our mental toughness, and its constituent parts, confidence, challenge, control, and commitment, are vital.

Commitment is a crucial element of mental toughness because it involves the athlete deeply engaging in whatever they are doing or facing. As sports psychologist Peter Clough writes, “It makes the person take the initiative in the environment rather than passively accept it.”

The ‘committed’ high school or college athlete remains focused and persists with goals or tasks, even under pressure or when things go wrong – and when others give in

Committing to the team

No athlete wins on their own. They form part of a group or a team.

The track athlete is part of a bigger team, and their commitment must extend beyond individual performance. After all, striving for personal bests contributes to the team’s overall morale and success. Each personal record and hurdle overcome adds points to the team’s tally and inspires fellow teammates. The commitment here is dual – to personal excellence and being a motivating force within the team.

In team sports, such as football or basketball, the player’s dedication to practice, understanding of strategy, and willingness to work harmoniously with others are pivotal. The scorer, defender, or playmaker’s commitment is not just about individual improvement but also about understanding and fulfilling their role in the larger team dynamic.

Sporting culture is built on mutual respect, shared goals, and collective responsibility.

Regardless of the nature of the sport, an athlete must be reliable, inspire their team, and contribute to a positive and supportive environment and shared goals.

“Making and keeping promises are important aspects of the way people deal with each other” and themselves, says Clough.

Delivering on what we say impacts how others see us, the support we receive, and the performances we give.

So, how do we make that commitment to the team?

Clough believes each player needs to sign up to:

  • Recognizing each other’s contribution – giving credit where and when it’s due.
  • Accepting responsibility, yet being aware that sometimes there are limits to what we can achieve. So, directing resources appropriately.
  • Identifying what’s motivating the team and its members – making plans and setting goals that create success.
  • Supporting others in visualizing success – helping them understand what that might look like to them and the team.
  • Breaking down tasks into manageable chunks – sharing them out and committing to delivering them.
  • Setting and agreeing on goals collaboratively. Making sure they are clear, realistic, achievable, and deeply meaningful.
  • Perhaps, most importantly, showing commitment by ‘going the extra mile’ wherever and whenever it’s possible.

Commitment through goal-setting

We can easily lose commitment. In fact, a lack of drive and motivation can result from meaningless or unachievable goals.

Goals must crystalize what we need to achieve, why it matters, and how we’ll deliver them.

After all, a 2021 review of the research on the role of goals in sports concluded that when individuals feel deeply connected to them–especially when they have been involved in their setting–they become highly committed.

For our high school and college athletes, this means working with them to collaboratively set goals they recognize as necessary and are ready to engage with.

The S.M.A.R.T. approach to goal setting really helps make them real and workable.

 A goal should be:

  • Specific: They should be clear and specific so you know exactly what you’re aiming for.A high school basketball player aims to improve free-throw shooting accuracy from 70% to 85%.

Measurable: They must be measurable to track progress, so you know when you’ve achieved them.

The college runner aims to reduce their 5k race time by 30 seconds in the next three months.

  • Achievable: They need to be realistic and attainable to be successful.

    A high school football player aims to increase their bench press by 20 pounds over the next two months.

  • Relevant: You need them to be relevant to the direction you want your career and training to go.

    The college swimmer sets a goal to qualify for the national championships in their event by the end of the season.

  • Time-bound: Goals must have a clearly defined timeline, including a start and target date.


Sometimes, even being SMART is not enough

Let’s take a quick lesson from high-performance workplace environments.

Mark Murphy, a leadership guru featured in Fortune, Forbes, and the Washington Post, says genuine passion and commitment involve setting and delivering on even more challenging goals. These HARD goals, as he calls them, are more gutsy, pushing the individual and team out of their comfort zone.

“HARD Goals make people stronger, more courageous, and more confident to go after bigger and better things,” says Murphy, and they build commitment.

So, when SMART goals aren’t enough alone to ignite our athlete’s passion, or they need to align their deepest motivations with their training performance, it might be necessary to step up the goal-setting game. 

So, how do HARD goals look for the athlete?: 

  • Heartfelt: Goals need emotional appeal – inspiring and driving you toward commitment.A high school soccer player sets a goal to become team captain, driven by a deep passion for leading and motivating their team.

  • Animated: It should be possible to create a mental picture of the outcome – you must be able to visualize them.The college basketball player imagines hitting the game-winning shot in a championship game, visualizing the scene, the crowd’s reaction, and the personal satisfaction.
  • Required: They must be ‘necessary’ – giving you a sense of urgency and importance.The young track athlete sets a goal to improve their race time to qualify for a state championship, aware of the necessity of the achievement for their athletic career.
  • Difficult: Targeting challenging goals will push you way beyond your comfort zone.

A college football player aims to break the school’s record for most touchdowns in a season. The goal requires commitment, significant effort, and dedication beyond their current capabilities.

Wrapping up

Top coach Steve Magness and writer Brad Stulberg highlight in their book “Peak Performance: Take advantage of the new science of Success” research into fitness improvements in the United States Air Force Academy.

Researchers were initially stumped as to why some squadrons dramatically increased their fitness, and others didn’t, despite the same training, diet, and sleep. It turned out the defining factor was the motivation of the least fit member. If they were committed, it spread through the squadron, and everyone improved.

Commitment is infectious, but it takes goals and a team.

Commitment is vital to the success of our high school and college athletes. With our support as parents and coaches, we can help them embrace the shared team’s needs and set and work toward SMART and HARD goals.

Their commitment will grow, supporting their mental toughness, promoting well-being, and ensuring more consistent performance success.


Bird, M. D., Simons, E. E., & Jackman, P. C. (2021). Mental Toughness, Sport-Related Well-Being, and Mental Health Stigma Among National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I Student-Athletes. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 15(4), 306–322. https://doi.org/10.1123/jcsp.2020-0043

 Brace, A. W., George, K., & Lovell, G. P. (2020). Mental toughness and self-efficacy of elite ultra-marathon runners. PLOS ONE, 15(11).

 Clough, P., Strycharczyk, D., & Perry, J. L. (2021). Developing mental toughness: Strategies to improve performance, resilience and well-being in individuals and organizations. Kogan Page 

Commitment Quotes To Revive and Restore Your Spirit. Sports Feel Good Stories. (2023, November 15). https://www.sportsfeelgoodstories.com/commitment-quotes-to-revive-and-restore-your-spirit/

Fitzgerald, M. (2016). How bad do you want it?: Mastering the psychology of mind over muscle. Aurum Press Ltd.

Jeong, Y. H., Healy, L. C., & McEwan, D. (2021). The application of goal setting theory to goal setting interventions in sport: A systematic review. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 16(1), 474–499.

Kremer, J., Moran, A. P., & Kearney, C. J. (2019). Pure sport: Practical sport psychology. London: Routledge.

Stulberg, B., & Magness, S. (2017). Peak performance: Take advantage of the new science of Success. Rodale Books.

Murphy, M. (2013). Hundred Percenters: Challenge Your Employees to give it their all and they’ll give you even more. Second Edition. McGraw-Hill Education.

Murphy, M. (2017). Hard goals, not smart goals, are the key to career development. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/markmurphy/2017/06/11/hard-goals-not-smart-goals-are-the-key-to-career-development/

Peter Nduhiu on Eliud Kipchoge. I.N.E.O.S. 1:59 CHALLENGE. (n.d.). https://www.ineos159challenge.com/news/peter-nduhiu-on-eliud-kipchoge

Weiss, W. M. (2014). Competitive-level differences on sport commitment among high school- and collegiate-level athletes. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 13(3), 286–303.