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.