Motivation In Sport
Dwight Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States, once said that “motivation is the art of getting people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it”. Research in the area of motivation suggests that he wasn’t too far wrong.

Motivation is an internal energy that can determine aspects of our behaviour: it impacts on how we think, feel and interact with others. An essential prerequisite in sport for getting athletes to fulfil their potential is high levels of motivation. However, given its abstract nature this is a force that is often difficult to fully exploit. Some coaches, like former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, appear to have the ‘magic touch’ so to speak in being able to get a great deal more out of a team than the sum of its individual parts; on the other hand others find motivation to be an elusive concept that they are forever struggling to master.

There are numerous approaches to the study of motivation. Some are based on schedules of positive and negative reinforcement (e.g. BF Skinner’s and Ivan Pavlov’s behaviourism) while others focus on an individual sense of mastery over a set of circumstances (e.g. Bandura’s self-efficacy theory). This article explores the constituents of motivation using contemporary approach know as self-determination theory (Deci and Ryan) which emphasises the role of individual choice.


Different types of motivation

Self-determination theory is one of the most widely tested approaches to motivation in sport (Deci & Ryan, 1987). This theory is based on a number of motives or regulations, which vary in terms of the degree of self-determination they reflect. Self-determination has to do with the degree to which your behaviours are chosen and self-initiated. The behavioural regulations can be placed on a self-determination continuum. From the least to the most self-determined they are amotivation, external regulation, introjected regulation, identified regulation, integrated regulation and intrinsic motivation.

Amotivation represents a lack of intention to engage in behaviour. This is accompanied by feelings such as incompetence and a lack of connection between one’s behaviour and the expected outcome. Athletes who are amotivated may be heard to be saying things such as ‘I can’t see the point in training- it just makes me tired’ or ‘I just don’t get the buzz from competition anymore’/ Such athletes exhibit a sense of helplessness and are highly prone to dropping out.

External and introjected regulations represent non-self-determined or controlling types of extrinsic motivation because athletes do not sense that their behaviour is choiceful and, as a consequence they experience psychological pressure. Participating in sport to receive prize money, win a trophy or medal typifies external regulation.

Identified and integrated regulations represent self-determined types of extrinsic motivation because behaviour is initiated out of choice, although it is not necessarily perceived to be enjoyable. These types of regulation account for why some athletes devote hundreds of hours to repeating mundane drills; they realise that such activity will ultimately help them to improve. Identified regulation represents engagement in behaviour because it is highly valued, whereas when behaviour becomes integrate it is in harmony with ones sense of self and almost entirely self-determined. Completing daily flexibility exercises because you realise they are part of an overarching goal of enhanced performance might be an example of integrated regulation

Intrinsic motivation comes from within, is fully self-determined and characterised by interest in and enjoyment derived from sports participation. There are three types of intrinsic motivation; intrinsic motivation to know, intrinsic motivation to accomplish and intrinsic motivation to experience stimulation. Intrinsic motivation is considered to be the healthiest type of motivation and reflects an athlete’s motivation to perform an activity simply for the reward inherent in their participation.

According to psychologist Csikszentmihalyi, the highest level of intrinsic motivation is flow state (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975; 1990). Flow is characterised by complete immersion in an activity, to the degree that nothing else matters. Central to the attainment of flow is a situation in which there is a perfect match between the perceived demands of an activity and an athlete’s perceived ability or skills. During flow, self0consciousness is lost and athletes become one with the activity. For example, a tennis player may describe how their racquet feels like an extension of their arm while they are in flow.

An overbearing or unrealistic challenge can cause excess anxiety, which means that coaches need to ensure that athletes set realistic goals. Conversely, if athletes bring a high level of skill to an activity and the challenge that it provides is relatively low, the can result in boredom. Apathy transpires when both challenge and skill are low. To promote flow it is important to fins challenges that are going to stretch athletes just a touch further than they have been stretched before.

Enhancing motivation is primarily about a change in attitude, developing a positive mind-set and engaging in behaviours (in this case short term process goals that can be used to help keep focused on checkmarks that lead to the overall long term goals) that facilitate improvement in performance.