Desire To Improve Or Desire To Win?

The ongoing question concerning the kind of motivation most beneficial for athletes stands in front of us every day. Do athletes who are motivated by a desire to improve (intrinsic motivation) perform better than those motivated by a desire to win (extrinsic motivation)? Will one lead to the other?

There has been a lot of research where sports psychologists have sought to identify what the ideal condition for optimal performance is for athletes. Everything from mental toughness, confidence, self-esteem, motivation, and perfectionism has been studied. Yet there is a question that always keeps coming up regarding personality and motivation, “what kind of motivation is the best for athletes, intrinsic or extrinsic?” Is it one? Or the other? Or perhaps a combination of both? This week’s topic is all about finding the answer.

The truth is that intrinsic motivation is something you can control at all times; you can either turn it on or off. However, extrinsic motivation only takes you so far because people and factors around you won’t always care/do the work that you “need.”

Nevertheless, let’s take it one step further, intrinsic motivation inspires, energizes, and motivates one to complete a task that leads to an external reward. For example, working out because you want to get better, studying the game because you want to improve your choices on the court, or going to the gym to shoot alone because you want to better your percentages are only a few ways of how intrinsic motivation can work. Intrinsic motivation has been the key this season, as almost all teams in the world have played with empty bleachers. All external factors, for example, people in the stands, fall under extrinsic motivation, which can be very powerful but at the same time contrarily.

So, we can agree that athletes who are intrinsically motivated play the sport because they genuinely enjoy it, whereas athletes who are extrinsically motivated play for material reward/avoid punishment. It is a common motivation for many athletes to want to compete at the highest level in their sport for the fame, money, awards, and scholarships (which is a fair argument to an extent). However, to become successful in your sport long-term, intrinsic motivation has to be the dominant motivation. Let me explain why.

Athletes motivated intrinsically have a better task-relevant focus, are less likely to get distracted, manage to keep their motivation in balance, less likely to make mistakes, increase their self-efficacy and have greater satisfaction when performing. Though, extrinsically motivated players, on the other hand, are motivated by avoiding punishment/guilt, popularity, money, and are not directly connected to a specific behavior or accomplishment. There is only one way to achieve this goal for the extrinsically motivated player, and if they don’t, they have failed at everything. One way to grow your intrinsic motivation is to experience success due to your skills and actions. By doing so, the intrinsic motivation will help you grow as an athlete, and you will be more likely to want to better yourself in any possible way in your sport.

Read my blog post on: How To Find Your Intrinsic Motivation

Until next week, figure out what motivates you and how you can get motivated. Can you motivate yourself, or do you need extrinsic motivation to perform at your best?

One Comment Add yours

  1. Steve Ruis says:

    Actually, an athlete can be both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated at the very same time. I learned this representing teachers. Critics often complained that teachers said that they weren’t “in it for the money” but when contract negotiations came around, they were very interested in the money.

    Their extrinsic motivation didn’t get teachers out of bed in the morning and didn’t cause them to excel; at their tasks but it was there nonetheless. Athletes can use intrinsic motivation to get better because it serves the extrinsic need to be rewarded for their performances.

    This, of course, does not contradict what you are say. Athletes who are not internally motivated to get better are generally not going to get better, so extrinsic rewards for progress don’t really work.


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