Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation in Sports: Knowing How to Grow Both

intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

Athletes train and compete in sports for various reasons. Each athlete has different intrinsic and extrinsic motivation for dedicating their time to improving their performance in their chosen sport. In general, children and adolescents play sports for the enjoyment of the game and the praise from teammates and coaches. Adults continue to play sports for some combination of pleasure as well as the potential to earn money and fame.

They say that knowledge is power. Understanding the elements of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, as well as learning about their interrelationship, can help you become a better athlete. If you want to excel in the world of sports, knowing about both kinds of motivation is essential to your success.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

Motivation is defined as a combination of the internal drive to achieve our aims and the outside factors that affect it. As this definition suggests, there are two primary sources of motivation: internal and external sources of motivation (also known as intrinsic and extrinsic motivation).

Internal sources of motivation are described as intrinsic motivation. Generally, children begin playing sports due to enjoyment, social factors, and an interest in the sport. These are examples of intrinsic motivation as the reason for engaging in the sport. They come from within the individual.

Sources of motivation differ for professional athletes. Professional athletes receive high salaries and media attention, acquire large fan bases, and in some cases, compete for Olympic medals. These sources originate from outside the individual athlete and are sources of extrinsic motivation.

How Intrinsic Motivation Works

Intrinsic motivation is closely linked to the fundamental desire to learn and develop new skills. The psychological factors that are the underlying drivers of intrinsic motivation include the need to be in control of one’s behavior, the need to feel proficient in one’s tasks, and the need to develop meaningful relationships with others. In the case that these fundamental needs are satisfied, high levels of intrinsic motivation drive athletes to participate in sports. Also, intrinsic motivation encourages athletes to develop skills and improve performance in their chosen sport.

Experts believe that to develop the skills required to become a professional athlete, a high degree of intrinsic motivation is needed. Intrinsic motivation pushes athletes to train harder, to create good habits whether practicing their sport as part of a team or during individual training sessions and to never give up on their dream to become the best in their sport.

Intrinsic vs. self-motivation


Two commonly confused terms are intrinsic motivation and self-motivation. There is a clear difference between these ideas. Intrinsic motivation concerns the personal enjoyment and immersion in a sport or activity. Conversely, self-motivation is the pressure one puts on themselves to perform at a high level. Self-motivation is more of a personality trait rather than a reaction that an individual experiences to a given activity. In this regard, intrinsic motivation involves the complete absence of pressure to perform well at an activity.

An example may help to clarify these ideas. As a child, I am sure that you enjoyed playing games in which the outcome was not a primary concern. The act of playing the sport was in itself a completely gratifying activity. Whether you won or lost, the game was totally engrossing and time passed exceptionally quickly without you even realizing it.

This is a clear example of intrinsic motivation. Imagine you played a high school championship game. You experienced an incredible feeling of bliss in winning the championship and were honored as MVP of the game. This is an example of self-motivation.

Intrinsic motivation affects performance


Athletes that participate in sports predominantly due to internal factors such as enjoyment and satisfaction from playing the game focus on skill development and growth. There are several ways in which this transitions into improved performance in the sport.

First, this leads to a better focus regarding performance, and in preparation and training. Also, intrinsic motivation provides a consistent dedication to hone their ability to perform at a high level. Furthermore, there is less likelihood of having external factors distract them from training and preparation. Intrinsic motivation increases confidence in an athlete’s ability to complete tasks associated with their sport successfully. Lastly, intrinsic motivation provides greater satisfaction in participating in sports. Greater satisfaction has the secondary benefits of serving to motivate teammates.

Intrinsic motivation acts as a cyclical advantage in developing one’s prowess in sports. When an athlete experiences success in their sport, they increase their intrinsic motivation. This creates greater motivation to improve performance. Improved performance results from factors causing more significant interest in developing skills. This creates a feedback loop in which an athlete becomes more determined and eager to develop further skills in their sport. Acquiring skills increased the likelihood of further positive feedback.

Some factors contribute to higher intrinsic motivation. We consider some of the critical factors below.

Fun and stimulation


As mentioned above, enjoyment associated with playing a sport is one of the most important reasons for athletes to participate in a specific sport. This is particularly true for younger athletes. An enjoyable experience increases the likelihood that an athlete will choose to further engage in the sport, and dedicate the time and effort needed to improve their performance.

Enjoyment creates the cycle of liking the behavior of participating in the sport, which develops skills making one more likely to perform well and want to play more of that sport. Note that performing well is in the eyes of the participant rather than winning or losing outright. However, if an athlete enjoys a sport, they may become more motivated. If they are more motivated, then they will improve their performance.

Control and autonomy


As mentioned above, enjoyment associated with playing a sport is one of the most important reasons for athletes to participate in a specific sport. This is particularly true for younger athletes. An enjoyable experience increases the likelihood that an athlete will choose to further engage in the sport, and dedicate the time and effort needed to improve their performance.

Enjoyment creates the cycle of liking the behavior of participating in the sport, which develops skills making one more likely to perform well and want to play more of that sport. Note that performing well is in the eyes of the participant rather than winning or losing outright. However, if an athlete enjoys a sport, they may become more motivated. If they are more motivated, then they will improve their performance.

Control and autonomy


Another contributor to intrinsic motivation is the human need to have control over their own lives. For an athlete, this encompasses control over their lives as well as their sports-related activities. For example, an athlete needs to feel that they can contribute ideas to coaches and trainers concerning their role on the team. Or athletes must feel they have a say in their returning to action following a (slight) injury (major injuries are normally at the discretion of the doctor as a means of protecting the team’s investment in the player). This is a critical factor for intrinsic motivation.

So, if you are looking at increasing intrinsic motivation or team morale, involve the athletes in decision making in areas such as developing personalized training programs, devising game strategies, and evaluating performance.

Acceptance and belonging


A primary reason why some individuals participate in sports is that they enjoy being with their friends and being part of a team. In other words, athletes fulfill their need for acceptance and belonging through sports. If individuals feel that the group accepts them, it is likely they will be motivated to increase their skill development to strengthen this positive feedback.

Flow


Flow is the highest level of intrinsic motivation. It involves the complete immersion in a sport (or activity) to such an extent that everything else disappears. This state occurs when there is a perfect fit between the perceived demands of the sport and one’s perceived ability to meet these demands. Flow is the ultimate experience within the sporting community. Popular ways to describe flow include “being on fire” and “being in the zone.”

It is an intensely pleasurable experience for an athlete and serves as motivation to further enjoy participating in the sport.

How External Motivation Works

Extrinsic motivation derives from external sources such as financial incentives to engage in sports, not wanting to disappoint parents or the prospect of receiving a university scholarship. This type of motivation typically focuses on performance outcomes in winning the game or showing your ability to perform at an exceptional level.

Extrinsic motivation is a large component of professional sports. Athletes are admired by fans, discussed in the media, and provided large sums of financial compensation and awards. These factors can motivate athletes to perform at their best. However, these extrinsic motivators can also decrease intrinsic motivation due to the frequency of extrinsic motivators used in sports today. For example, the thought process of an athlete returning from injury early may be affected by the quality of the team they are playing next or the media coverage scheduled for that particular game.

Factors affecting extrinsic motivation


External factors that influence an individual’s choice to participate in a sport such as approval from parents or peers are a common motivation for athletes to play a particular sport. These rewards could take the form of financial payment, trophies, clothing or equipment. They can even be praise from someone the athlete respects. External motivation exists in every realm, from teachers handing out stickers to students who perform well to parents rewarding good test scores by giving their child some special benefit.

The use of rewards and extrinsic motivation can produce the desired behavior (e.g., exceptional performance in a sport) in many instances. Among the factors that influence the degree of extrinsic motivation involved in playing sports, we now consider the primary components of financial rewards, fame, and recognition of accomplishments.

Financial rewards


There is no denying the importance of money today. The media regularly displays the lavish lifestyles of professional athletes. This is a driver for many aspiring athletes to achieve a similar level of financial security. And let’s be honest -- there are very few professions with the earnings potential of a professional athlete.

Athletes receive a high salary for performing at a high level in their craft. They also get sponsorship opportunities that offer further lucrative possibilities. For most aspiring athletes, a major factor for their career choice is the financial rewards associated with becoming a professional athlete

Fame


Pro athletes get featured on television, grace the covers of magazines, are interviewed by top media personalities, and even receive invitations to the White House after winning championships. This provides great motivation to excel in sports. This source of acceptance and recognition for one’s achievements can be a significant motivator for many athletes.

Also, fame brings many secondary benefits such as sponsorship opportunities, given service preference in various instances, and a more positive reaction from others in general.

Recognition of accomplishments


Appreciation is a fundamental human need. Whether in a business setting or on a sports field, people respond to the appreciation of their work. This is because it confirms that others value their efforts. Studies have shown that recognition and pay are the most effective motivators for high performance. When athletes feel appreciated, their satisfaction and motivation increase, which serves to foster skill development and higher performance.

While this may be particularly true for younger athletes, professional athletes are affected by recognition of their accomplishments as well. Studies have shown that individuals recognized for their achievements are more productive and satisfied with their careers. Also, they are more loyal and eager to further contribute to the team.

Relationship Between Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

So how does the relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation stack up regarding performance?

The relative importance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation depends on the individual. Intrinsic motivation is a crucial element for younger athletes learning a sport. And experts have claimed that elite athletes must have high levels of intrinsic motivation to remain focused through adversity. Research has shown that superior skill development in sports results from intrinsic motivation. Athletes who rely extensively on the extrinsic motivation for performance are more likely to become discouraged. When they do not perform to expectations, they can experience demotivation regarding their sport.

Interestingly, predominantly extrinsically motivated athletes tend to feature the competitive drive often lacking in intrinsically motivated athletes. This results in the fact that while intrinsic motivation can help athletes develop skills for the sport, often extrinsically motivated athletes to have that extra gear regarding competition. Extrinsically-motivated athletes exhibit a greater passion for sporting outcomes. This implies that extrinsic motivation may be a better predictor of an athlete becoming a future champion.

In some instances, elements of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation may affect each other. For example, if an athlete sets a goal of achieving some aim (extrinsic motivation) such as receiving a scholarship to play their sport, but fails to achieve this goal, the motivation to continue in the sport lowers significantly. Conversely, if extrinsic rewards are a confirmation of the athlete’s ability, it can have positive effects on intrinsic motivation. This is due to the reasons mentioned above, including the recognition of the athlete’s performance.

Growing Is Essential

A combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is necessary to bring out the best in athletes. It is the job of coaches, trainers, sports psychologists, teammates, and athletes to develop aspects of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. This allows the athletes to perform at the highest level.

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