Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

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Motivation is often hailed as the most significant factor for athletes to attain, and maintain, sustained levels of excellence.

It’s clearly a key cog in the wheel of success, so what exactly is it?

Essentially, motivation is a theoretical construct which is used to explain someone’s behaviour. It provides the reason for people’s actions, desires, and needs, and causes a person to want to repeat a behaviour. Furthermore, it emanates from two distinct motivational sources – intrinsic and extrinsic drive.

Intrinsic motivation 

If someone is intrinsically motivated, they are internally driven. They have a self-desire to discover the unknown, to seek out new challenges, to evaluate their own abilities, to gain new knowledge and to enhance their skills. This source of motivation exists within the individual. 

Athletes who are intrinsically motivated play their sport for the sheer love of it, training because they find it fun, enjoying the process of growth and self-improvement. 

The best form of motivation always comes from within.

– Michael Johnson 

When intrinsically driven, motivation levels are more stable, longer lasting, and self-sustaining. Athletes tend to possess higher levels of task-focus, and experience greater task satisfaction. They have reduced levels of stress after making mistakes, and are more likely to have increased confidence, self-efficacy, and creativity. 

Extrinsic motivation

At the opposite end of the motivational spectrum is extrinsic drive i.e. performing an activity in order to attain a desired reward or outcome. 

When athletes are extrinsically motivated, their drive comes from external influences, and they are incentivised either by receiving positive or negative consequences.

Training to get into a team (or to stay in a team), practicing because of the expectations of others, and playing for financial reward (or to win trophies etc.) are all examples of athletes who are powered by extrinsic motivation.

Benefits with both motivational sources

Although it is generally more beneficial for athletes to be intrinsically driven, there is a place for the opposing source of desire. In the absence of intrinsic drive, extrinsic motivation can provide the required stimulus to induce interest and participation, which can subsequently help to foster growth in areas requiring improvement.  

For example, a footballer may practice taking free-kicks for countless hours, simply because they love this aspect of the game i.e they are intrinsically motivated to do so. However, this same player may also dislike tackling, thereby spending little time developing this crucial skill. Extrinsic motivators, such as developmental feedback from a coach, can elicit the necessary encouragement for this player to also practice tackling, which consequently improves their overall game.

I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion’.

– Muhammad Ali

All athletes use a mixture of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, either for performing different activities (i.e practicing different skills like free-kicks and tackling), or for different times (i.e throughout the year such as pre-season and in-season). Ideally, however, athletes will tap into their intrinsic sources of motivation much more frequently, and over a broader range of activities, than accessing extrinsic drivers. 

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15 Thoughts

  1. When I am engaged in a task that is extrinsically motivated, and something goes wrong, as it almost always does, I seem to get frustrated so easily and am apt to say rash things, (cuss words, etc.), which is not the case with intrinsically motivated tasks, where I seem to accept all the little snags as growing opportunities. Is there a trick I can play on myself to be more easy-going all the time?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for these great comments 👍 I guess the starting point is to be aware of your emotions when things go wrong, to label them, and then to reframe them eg. Something goes wrong, you identify the emotion as anger, then you reframe it as annoyance – in this example, it’s a lot easier for us to manage annoyance than it is to manage anger. Good luck!

      Liked by 1 person

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