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Balance intrinsic and extrinsic motivation for success

This is an excerpt from Inside Sport Psychology by Costas I. Karageorghis & Peter Terry.

There are two main sources of motivation. Generally speaking, motivation can come from the outside, such as the motivation to win medals, receive financial rewards, and attract attention from the media. This is known as external, or extrinsic, motivation because it involves participation in sport for some kind of reward that is external to the process of participation. On the other hand, athletes who participate because they enjoy the process—that is, they find sport interesting, stimulating, and enjoyable without being preoccupied by external rewards—are predominantly internally, or intrinsically, motivated. Exercise 2.3 will assist you in applying concepts of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to your own sport participation.

Intrinsic motivation is closely allied to the fundamental motivation to learn and acquire new skills. The building blocks, or psychological needs, that underlie intrinsic motivation are the need to determine one's behavior (what psychologists term self-determination), the need to feel competent, and the need for relatedness, or to have meaningful relationships with other people. When these basic needs are satisfied, high intrinsic motivation results and athletes are stimulated by their participation in sport; they strive to learn new skills and improve their performance.

Many athletes and coaches ask us to identify the main difference between intrinsic motivation and self-motivation (which you assessed previously). Intrinsic motivation is about enjoyment and immersion in an activity, whereas self-motivation can involve an internal pressure to perform well, which is part of personality. Intrinsic motivation comes with a complete absence of any internal or external pressure to perform well. Most people can recall a time from their childhood when they were playing a game with friends that was so enjoyable that they were entirely engrossed in what they were doing; it didn't matter who won the game, and the time just flew by because they were having such a great time.

Our own research has shown that athletes who have the best motivational outcomes, such as persistence, a positive attitude, and unflinching concentration, tend to be both extrinsically and intrinsically motivated. Athletes who are predominantly extrinsically motivated tend to become discouraged when they do not perform to expectations and can experience a downturn in form. Conversely, athletes who are predominantly intrinsically motivated often do not have the competitive drive to become champions. This is because they tend to enjoy mastering the tasks that comprise their chosen discipline, but they lack a strong competitive streak in their personalities.

What we have just said about the combination of extrinsic and intrinsic motives does not hold for young athletes, and in particular prepubescent athletes. Coaches should be aware that fostering intrinsic motives brings about the best psychological outcomes for children. Many parents are responsible for causing their offspring to drop out of sport prematurely because they place such an overt emphasis on winning that participation just isn't fun.

Coaches and parents should work together to create a positive motivational climate for young athletes. Research has shown that the motivational climate can be performance oriented, which means focused on social comparison and winning, or mastery oriented, which means focused on self-referenced goals and feelings of competence. The latter type of climate is by far better for young athletes. They need time to fully master the skills involved in their sport without the pressures of winning and constantly comparing themselves to others. Important lessons for children to learn are that increased effort enhances their performance and that sport is essentially a fun activity.

For adult athletes, high performance levels may be stimulated partly by the tangible rewards that sport provides, but still the emphasis should be on the fun associated with participation. On balance, it is much more important to be high in intrinsic motivation than to be high in extrinsic motivation. In the long run, extrinsic motivation is only effective when intrinsic motivation is high. Being driven solely by extrinsic motives is not psychologically healthy because the lack of intrinsic rewards can lead you to quit or seriously question your involvement. Having intrinsic motivation helps you get through dry patches in your career and keeps the emphasis on having fun. As the old Russian saying advises, you should take time to smell the roses!

Exercise 2.3 Extrinsic Versus Intrinsic Motivation

Reflect for a moment on what motivates you to be an athlete. Write down your ideas on a sheet of paper and study them. Most likely your list includes both intrinsic and extrinsic motives. For example, you might desire fame and fortune through your participation in sport, but at the same time, you may genuinely enjoy being involved in the day-to-day routines of training, strict diet, and competition. Such a mix of motives is typical of most successful athletes.

Now see if you can group your motives under two columns labeled Extrinsic Motives and Intrinsic Motives.


The highest level of intrinsic motivation is known as flow. Flow is typified by complete immersion in an activity to the point that nothing else seems to matter. Hungarian psychologist Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has led much of the work in this exciting area, which has intrigued sport psychology researchers in recent years.

Flow occurs when there is a perfect match between the perceived demands of an activity and the perceived ability to meet the demands. During flow, you lose self-consciousness and become one with the activity. This creates a state in which you are intrinsically rewarded by the movement patterns involved. Flow is seen as the ultimate experience among the sporting community. Many athletes and coaches refer to flow as being “in the zone,” “on song,” or “in the groove.” It is an optimal psychological state and a deeply pleasurable experience.

Flow can enrich your life and make you want to persist at your chosen disciplines with greater intensity. Many interventions designed to promote flow are detailed in later chapters of this book, but we have included some introductory flow exercises here. You will need a pen and paper to complete them.

Flow Tip 1: Create an Immersion Effect

Sit down in a place where you are unlikely to be disturbed. Close your eyes and take a few long, slow, deep breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth until you feel completely relaxed. Recall a time when you were performing at the very peak of your ability, when everything just seemed to click into place. Spend a few minutes trying to recall every detail about that experience. When the experience feels really lifelike and you are entirely immersed in it, open your eyes and write down everything that characterized it: how you felt inside, what you were thinking, how other people were reacting to your movements, how you were controlling the environment, and so on. Likely, your mind was completely clear and you were focused entirely on the task at hand. Using your checklist, recall the feelings associated with peak performance and flow just prior to your next performance. Engaging in this process will enhance the likelihood of your entering a flow state.

Flow Tip 2: Plan and Chart Progress

We noted earlier how important it is to have clear goals. It is now widely recognized that the most effective way to set goals is to have some overarching objectives (e.g., winning an Olympic medal) that are underscored by numerous medium-term and short-term process goals. It is no coincidence that the secret to entering flow is to immerse yourself in the process of your activity. Over time, persistent focus on the process brings about successful outcomes such as winning Olympic gold medals. By process, we are referring to the nuts and bolts of your discipline—mastering the skills, working on your mental toughness, and attaining appropriate fitness levels. We suggest that you keep a training or activity diary in which you list your major goals on the first page and strategize, review, and monitor your progress from day to day, week to week, and month to month on subsequent pages. Be sure to adjust your initial goals if they turn out to be either unrealistic or too easy. Many athletes like to check off goals achieved as they progress through each week because this gives them a sense of accomplishment. The next time you go into a training session, be sure to have recorded in advance exactly what you expect to achieve. Get into the habit of making brief notes before and after each training session to keep you firmly focused on the most important components of your performance. Don't just think it, ink it!

Flow Tip 3: Use Positive Self-Talk

Positive self-talk is one of the most tried and tested strategies among sport psychology interventions. It is used to maintain concentration and to induce optimal arousal. We use three types of self-talk in our work with athletes. The first type is known as task-relevant self-talk, and as the name suggests, it involves a focus on the task at hand. A professional boxer uses the statement Guard up, chin down to reinforce his posture. The second type is known as mood-related self-talk, which should affect the way you feel (see also chapters 3 and 5). A female rugby player came up with Wham bam thank you ma'am! to encapsulate the ease with which she would dispossess her opponents of the ball. The third type is known as a positive self-affirmation statement. The most famous exponent of this type was the great Muhammad Ali, who told himself “I am the greatest” so many times that even his opponents became convinced of it.

Flow Tip 4: Seeing Is Believing

All great achievers in history are characterized by having a clear vision of what they wanted to achieve; as the old Chinese proverb goes, “If you chase two rabbits, you will catch neither.” Structured imagery, or visualization, is the key that will unlock your potential and turn your dreams into reality (see chapter 7 for more detail). Imagery allows you to see in your mind's eye the outcomes you wish to bring about. By recreating these outcomes using multisensory images (sight, sound, touch), you greatly increase the chance of attaining superior performance because images program muscles. The more vividly you can create images and the better you engage each of your senses, the more effectively you will prime your muscles for superior performance. This holds true in all spheres of human achievement.

More Excerpts From Inside Sport Psychology