Motivation comes in all forms. There’s no cookie cutter formula, and there’s no one right answer. Some folks sponge intrinsic desire to drive them forward, others look to outside forces for their inspiration. In the world of athletics, we can strike a healthy balance.
You may remember our discussions surrounding doing good work simply for the reward of doing good work. I am personally wired like this. A deep, thought provoking conversation where the person sitting next to me and I each learn can feel like crushing a satisfying meal. It’s satiating in itself. Others look forward to the reward of a decadent dessert. Athletes need both in aggregate to be the best versions of themselves they can be. From the Association for Applied Sports Psychology:
Extrinsic rewards are central to competitive sports; athletes receive publicity, awards, and money, among other things, and college level athletes obtain scholarships for their talents. Extrinsic rewards, when used correctly, can be beneficial to athletes. However, athletes in highly competitive levels of sport may experience decreases in their intrinsic motivation because of the increasing use of extrinsic rewards offered by the media, coaches, and parents.
There is no disputing the power of an ego boost derived from the right accolade. Handled correctly, these rewards are powerful motivators that lead us to seek even greater highs. Interestingly, they seem to land much better and be monumentally more impactful when they’re deserved.
In 1999, I was awarded, “Detroit Chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s Tiger Rookie of the Year.” There were only a few rookies on that club, and I went home after that baseball season believing that I sucked after less than desirable surface numbers. That particular reward did not feel earned. It didn’t serve as a motivational force. The only thing that did was the intrinsic motivation from incubating what I saw as an embarrassing performance.
On the contrary, in my late teens, I worked my ass off in the weight room and nutritionally. The combination of the internal reward of the work itself and the external gift of actually witnessing muscles and cuts develop served as a powerful, perfectly mixed cocktail that encouraged me to keep pushing.
We discussed educating others yesterday. When coaching athletes, whether professionally or simply supporting a child playing t-ball for the first time, our choices have a significant impact.
So how can you affect motivation – especially intrinsic? As a player only you can decide to what level you want to do something, but this can be influenced by others. The best motivation for anyone is success – if you achieve at something it is a positive reinforcement and you are more likely to attempt to repeat the behavior. As a coach you can have an effect on this by reinforcing desirable behaviors (such as effort and near misses) with praise and positive feedback. However, recent trends have indicated that too much praise or the wrong kind of praise can have a negative effect on motivation: praising ‘natural ability’ more than effort.
In other words, saying “wow, you’re so fast” will land with little impact. Praising an innate talent encourages the mindset that our abilities are fixed and immutable. If the only things that are recognized are what we cannot change, then there is no reason to push ourselves harder or strive to be better. Psychologists refer to this as “learned helplessness” – as we believe that we lack control over the outcome, we simply give up and stop trying. By contrast, when the variables that we do control are rewarded, we are more likely to repeat those behaviors and feel empowered to change our lives.
In the end, we can’t control how much natural talent we have. We can control how much energy we dump into getting better. Acknowledgment and validation of that effort tends to feel authentic…and we feel fueled to keep pushing.