Measure what matters!

    Understanding the role that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation play in the athlete development process

    When we talk about sport psychology we typically think of how it can enhance high performance and not how it can be utilized at the developmental level. But it is an important tool that can and should be understood by coaches and administrators at all levels of sport. It's just as important at the developmental level as it is at the elite level albeit for different reasons and to achieve different results.

    A good example of sport psychology in action at the developmental level is understanding how coaches can use intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to encourage persistence and improve athletic performance. We're not talking about technical performance but rather overall performance like goal setting, attending training sessions, focusing on skill acquisition, and, in general, sticking with a sport long enough to make a difference.

    The terms intrinsic and extrinsic are fancy ways to describe motivators that exist within ourselves (intrinsic) or that come from outside sources (extrinsic). Intrinsic motivation results in behavior driven by internal rewards such as goal achievement, increased status, or some other kind of reward that is personally meaningful to the athlete. Extrinsic motivation influences behavior based on external rewards like praise, grades, fame, or money.

    Both types of motivators can be used depending on the situation but at young ages extrinsic motivation is what drives most behavior. In sport this usually refers to earning praise or interest from coaches and parents. In general, youngsters are people pleasers, meaning that earning praise or encouragement from significant adults in their life is what drives their behavior. Praise is an extrinsic motivator and if coaches and parents understand this then they can have a beneficial effect on a young athlete's early sport experience.

    As has been said many times on this site getting youngsters into sport programs and keeping them involved is the key not only to a healthy society but also to effective sport development. This process starts with an environment that is attractive to youngsters, one where they want to be. Judicious use of praise and encouragement is one way to help create this environment.

    As children age their sport participation begins to become more personally important to them, more internalized. Their motivation to participate gradually shifts from one of pleasing others to personal satisfaction, goal achievement, and passion for the sport. Primary motivators gradually become more intrinsic. Where they once sought praise and encouragement from others they now seek technical assistance and guidance. Their participation in the sport has moved from doing what others want, to doing what they want. They take ownership of their sports participation.

    In the athlete development process this shift has to take place. Athletes cannot continue to develop to the highest levels if they do not, at some point, become the owner of their participation, their training, and their goals. The degree to which this happens varies but the rewards for participation become more focused on personal goals rather than external indicators of success.

    Publically this shift from external to internal motivation goes largely unnoticed because the external rewards for high performance still exist and often increase. When the government offers significant sums of money to athletes who bring home Olympic medals it's easy to believe that this money is the athlete's primary motivation. Athletes however, will tell you a different story. While it's certainly nice to receive the cash the athlete's own internal goals are usually more important than any amount of money.

    There are, of course, athletes who are primarily focused on material reward. But these are usually not consistently high performers. By focusing only on the external rewards and not ever having developed significant personal goals the athlete is hurting his or her future performances. What if the prize money is not enough? What if the salary the athlete receives is not enough? Will performance suffer?

    Token economies stunt the shift from external to internal motivation

    This attitude, that external reward is the only thing that counts, starts at a young age and can usually be traced back to ill-conceived token economies when athletes are just beginning their sport participation. Prizes and money, if offered too early or too lavishly, can prevent the shift from extrinsic to intrinsic motivators. So much so that athletes always expect some kind of pay for play and never really internalize their participation at all.

    A token economy can be illustrated by parents offering a child a cash reward, new sport equipment, or the latest mobile phone for winning or achieving a certain level of performance. This is compounded when companies, schools, governments, or sport associations do the same thing, usually with larger amounts of money or more extravagant prizes. Soon the effect of these rewards wears off and the athlete, having never developed any internal passion for the sport, begins performing poorly or inconsistently. Finally they just leave the sport behind them and move on.

    This usually occurs at an age prior to when the athlete could have been expected to reach their peak performances. Though well intentioned, the development of promising athletes is thus sabotaged by these token economies, especially when they are institutionalized by sport associations and government bodies that should know better.

    Understanding the nature of external and internal motivation is essential to creating the environment where the shift from one to the other can take place. Psychology can be complicated but some aspects of it can be easily understood and implemented to the benefit not only of individual athletes but to the greater sport community as well.

    Bill Price ( is the owner and Chief Data Scientist at Sportkid Metrics.


    Don't miss any content
    Subscribe Now!

    What would you do differently if there were no such thing as talent? - 04 April 2021

    Athlete development measurements and the lingo that goes with them - 21 March 2021

    Retention and Training Age - 07 March 2021

    Fear of missing out is hurting youth sports - 23 October 2018

    Deliberate practice vs. late specialization - 24 September 2018

    Is talent identification even possible? - 17 September 2018

    Who won the Asian Games? - 10 September 2018

    Re-thinking the mission of Malaysia's sport associations - 03 September 2018

    Using maturity offsets to determine age at peak height velocity - 27 August 2018

    The youth sport talent illusion - 13 August 2018

    The tip of the iceberg - 30 July 2018

    7 things youth sport coaches should know - 25 June 2018

    Who is responsible for athlete performance - 18 June 2018

    Creating a culture of achievement in sport - 05 June 2018

    Sport development in the headlines (sort of) - 28 May 2018

    Who won the Commonwealth Games? - 23 April 2018

    Kaizen: Improving sport administration will improve performance - 02 April 2018

    What can Malaysia learn from Norway about sport development? - 05 March 2018

    Dealing with more than one email address and other communication ideas - 26 February 2018

    What can you do to work more efficiently? - 19 February 2018

    LTAD: Training to compete - 22 January 2018

    Sport clubs are the lifeblood of national sport development - 15 January 2018

    Take a chance! - 18 December 2017

    How we calculate age in youth sports can have benefits and consequences - 11 December 2017

    Can bio-banding help reduce the relative age effect in sport? - 04 December 2017

    Understanding the role that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation play in the athlete development process - 20 November 2017

    Great expectations: Expect more, get more! - 14 November 2017

    Why process is more important than outcome in a learning environment - 25 September 2017

    Sport associations are embracing physical literacy training - 18 September 2017

    Creating a true sport development system in Malaysia - 11 September 2017

    Who won the SEA Games? - 04 September 2017

    KL2017: Reporting individual sport results deserved better planning - 29 August 2017

    Can we please forget about ways to identify talent and just work on getting more athletes? - 07 August 2017

    Using the team selection process to boost motivation and increase athlete participation - 24 July 2017

    LTAD: The Train to Train stage - 10 July 2017

    LTAD: The Learn-to-Train stage - 26 June 2017

    Athletic training for youngsters - 12 June 2017

    Visualization and imagery in sports - 05 June 2017

    Young, single-sport athletes suffer more injuries and do not reach their full potential - 29 May 2017

    Transformational vs. transactional coaching - 23 May 2017

    Will they come back tomorrow? - 08 May 2017

    Advice to parents of young athletes - 01 May 2017

    Is VIP leadership of sport associations a good idea? - 22 March 2017

    What happens after an athlete's initial introduction to sport? - 27 February 2017

    "Where do athletes come from?" - 16 January 2017

    Understanding sport talent pathways - 09 January 2017

    Make 2017 the year of the growth mindset - 02 January 2017

    Teaching physical literacy skills in youth sport practices - 12 December 2016

    Developing sport from the ground up - 06 December 2016

    Pay for what you want - 21 November 2016

    The 10,000 hour rule: "Not for the faint of heart nor for the impatient" - 14 November 2016

    Parent involvement in their child's sport participation sometimes backfires - 07 November 2016

    How to do the measurements for determining peak height velocity (PHV) - 24 October 2016

    A foreign coach is not always the answer - 17 October 2016

    Tips on creating an effective coaching environment - 10 October 2016

    Peak height velocity and aerobic development - 26 September 2016

    Early sport specialization is still not a good idea - 19 September 2016

    What kind of data do we need to develop sports? - 13 September 2016

    The attrition and transformation models of sport development - 05 September 2016

    Solve for <x> - 29 August 2016

    Artificial elimination of athletes from training and competition hinders sport development in Malaysia - 15 August 2016

    Time is the most important factor in talent development - 01 August 2016

    What if opportunity never knocks? - 13 June 2016

    The long-term athlete development framework offers youngsters a chance at sport success and an active and healthy life - 06 June 2016

    Early sport specialization is not a good development strategy - 30 May 2016

    What does a declining population mean for sport? - 2 February 2016

    Coaching 'flow' - 11 November 2015

    The coach's role in creating a deliberate practice environment - 02 November 2015

    When should athletes specialize in a single sport? - 11 September 2015

    The Holy Grail of health, wellness, and sport development - 1 September 2015

    Revisiting the 10,000 hour rule - 10 August 2015

    The power of 'not yet' - 20 July 2015

    Let's stop trying to identify sport talent and start developing it - 22 June 2015