Examining Athletic Motivation for Peak Performance
Have you ever stopped to think about your personal motivation — or why you are so driven to do certain things, while not motivated to do other things (often things you should be doing – like exercise). For athletes, motivation is a key component to athletic success, yet is still a fuzzy variable for many people to understand (AHPS). In fact, coaches regularly spend time thinking about the best ways to motivate athletes – some resort to yelling and screaming, others offer shorter practices as rewards, while others simply allow their players to motivate themselves. The reality is human motivation is quite complex, and comprised of personal values, interests, and confidence in one’s abilities to reach goals.
Motivation, in the most basic sense, is whatever prompts us to take action toward a specified goal. Motivation, therefore, is action and not merely the thinking about an action (so you are not considered “motivated” if you only have fleeting thoughts about no longer eating bad foods!). For athletes, motivation is vitally import as it is the motor that directs the body to take action, be it another rep in the weight room, a voluntary morning jog, or watching another hour of game tape. While motivation is not a guarantee to athletic success, it is a necessary condition in order for athletic success to occur (meaning rarely do we see unmotivated athletes enjoy athletic success).
Types of Motivation
Sport psychologists often talk about two types of motivation: Intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is the type of motivation someone does for their own personal reasons – like voluntarily attending a sports clinic. Extrinsic motivation is different in that it relies on rewards and positive reinforcement – like when a high school athlete signs up for a team not because she loves the sport, but because she wants to earn a varsity letter by merely participating on the team.
Both types of motivation “work” in that they prompt human behavior, but they also work in different ways upon closer inspection. Extrinsic motivation often generates results so long as the reward (or reinforcer) is present and it remains of value to the individual. For example, kids in school will often try harder in class if they are offered a reward for their efforts that they value (like earning a piece of candy for a good grade). Unfortunately, if the reward (the candy in this example) is eventually devalued (I know, hard to believe kids growing tired of candy would ever occur), the effort the kids put out will likely suffer as a result. On the other hand, intrinsic motivation, or the motivation that comes from within and not dependent on physical rewards, is often longer lasting because the rewards are usually less tangible and more philosophical (like when an athlete pushes himself to reach his full athletic potential and is driven by self pride).
Both Types are Important
Ideally, a combination of both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation is needed to maximize human behavior. For coaches (and parents), some extrinsic motivators should be considered to help propel action — but be warned, developing a program based entirely on extrinsic motivators is not the best idea. In these cases, once the person grows tired of the rewards, the efforts will decline (as in the example of the kids who grew tired of the candy). Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is usually the longer lasting type of motivation, but also the more difficult of the two types of motivation to “draw up” on a board. Since intrinsic motivation is based on a person’s individual values, it’s nearly impossible for others (parents and coaches) to instill these types of values in people.
The final piece to motivation is the basic question around whether some people are simply born more motivated than others. The answer, like with any human dimension, is yes – but I would argue the differences amongst us are a lot smaller than you might expect when it comes to “genetic motivation.” While it might appear that someone you know was born more motivated than you, it’s more likely that person is either intrinsically motivated for some reason or extrinsically motivated for a reward of some kind (even if it’s just recognition from others). Conversely, using this theory of minimal genetic motivation differences, I would say that “special someone” you know who lays around on the couch for unusually long periods of time isn’t “genetically deficient” in motivation, but hasn’t yet found reasons to get off the couch!
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Dr. Chris Stankovich is a Professional Athletic Counselor and Sport Performance Scientist and studies the psychosocial variables impacting human performance and success. He is the author of 5 books and has had his work featured in numerous national media outlets, including USA Today and ABC World News. Dr. Stankovich is known as "The Sports Doc" for his regular television feature on Ohio News Network and NBC 4 Columbus (OH). For more information on peak performance products, speaking engagements, training seminars, and free education downloads, please visit http://www.drstankovich.com.