Increasing more intrinsic motivations in young athletes

Ryan and Deci’s Self-Determination Theory suggests that people are motivated when they have feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. SDT proposes that intrinsic motivators enhance motivation better than extrinsic motivators, and Dan Pink in Drive cited numerous studies to support the importance of intrinsic motivators compared to extrinsic motivators (rewards and punishments) for any task involving even rudimentary cognitive skills; for an algorithmic task, that is one where the person simply follows a set of instructions, punishment and rewards improved performance.

Some coaches approach youth sports as an algorithmic task: They want players who simply follow instructions. However, I would contend that excellence in sports depends greatly on creativity and adaptivity, which would be enhanced by intrinsic as opposed to extrinsic motivators.

While many have jumped on the SDT and intrinsic motivation bandwagon, few people are completely intrinsically motivated. Is that a bad thing? Teams attempt to win games, which would be an extrinsic motivator. Players want playing time, which be an extrinsic motivator. Very few people are completely intrinsically motivated, which would mean that the locus of control is internal and regulated solely by interest, enjoyment, and the inherent satisfaction of participation. I am fairly intrinsically motivated, yet I finally decided that I wanted something (a doctorate) to show for the hours that I spent studying and learning. Is that bad?

As a subset of SDT, Ryan and Deci (2000) introduced the Organismic Integration Theory (OIT). Within the OIT, extrinsic motivation exists on a spectrum (well, all motivation exists on the spectrum with amotivation to the far left and intrinsic motivation to the far right).

Extrinsic motivation is divided into four regulatory styles that move from more external to the left to more internal to the right. This is a more realistic approach to motivation, as it acknowledges the influence of extrinsic factors, while also acknowledging internal perceptions of causality.

A true external regulation is a reward/punishment environment. A player plays hard to avoid running. These are the types of players who we want to avoid. Ryan and Deci (2000) originated the SDT in the belief that people have “an inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise one’s capacities, and to explore and to learn” (p. 70). Therefore, in our natural state, we our intrinsically motivated; therefore, the need is not to motivate someone, but to avoid extinguishing that motivation. A child is naturally motivated to play, to move, and to be social, all reasons for joining a team. However, many practices are organizing to ignore or eliminate these things, which leads to reduced feelings of motivation for the child. Therefore, the coach feels compelled to motivate the child, often using a reward/punishment approach, and soon the child is externally motivated with an external regulation.

Slightly to the right, introjected regulation is still somewhat external, but the individual has more feelings of control. Rather than being motivated by rewards and punishment, “behaviors are performed to avoid guilt or to attain ego enhancements like pride” (p. 72). A player knows that his parents spent money for his personal trainer, so he trains hard because he feels guilty wasting his parent’s money, not because he is motivated to improve. Coaches often will make players feel guilty, whether consciously or subconsciously, or players will work to get a positive word from a coach so they have a sense of pride. These feelings are internal, but they are motivated by external reasons, often someone else’s feelings toward the individual. Coaches should not work to create environments where players play for the coach and his or her approval.

Moving to the right is identified regulation, which is when the player consciously values a goal. For instance, a player works hard because he wants the team to win or he wants to earn a scholarship. The goal is external, but he is making the conscious choice within himself that the goal has personal value.

Finally, just short of intrinsic motivation is integrated regulation. Integrated regulation is very similar to intrinsic regulation, but there remains an external goal. In sports, when we speak of intrinsic motivation, we really hope to reach an integrated regulation. There will always be an external goal. Very few people participate in sports with an obliviousness to the scoreboard. The more amateur the sport, the more likely for the motivators to be intrinsic. When a child plays on his own, he is likely intrinsically motivated, as the purpose is the activity itself. In integrated regulation, there is still the internal locus of causality and the individual participates for his own purposes, but there is some external goal. As a simplified explanation, this is the difference between going out in your front yard and shooting around purely for fun without any consequences, and going out in your front yard and shooting around until you make 50 shots. You control your effort; you can stop before you reach the goal if you choose; you made the decision to shoot and set your own goal; but there is the external motivator of hitting 50 shots.

Everyone exists somewhere along the spectrum. As a coach of young children, the goal should be to create environments that maintain the intrinsic motivation rather than creating a controlling environment which causes the player to lose his own motivations. With slightly older children, where external goals become important, the goal is to create environments that move the athlete further and further to the right, so the players make their own goals and direct their own efforts for their own purposes, not because they are controlled by some external force, even if it is their own perceptions of other’s feelings.

By fostering an environment with autonomy, competence, and relatedness, we can create environments that nudge athletes to the right along the spectrum.

By Brian McCormick, M.S.S., PES
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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One Response to “Increasing more intrinsic motivations in young athletes”

  1. David says:

    I really enjoy all your posts. My son just finished soccer season with an “externally regulated” coach who used reward/punishment not to mention loud-mouthed threats as motivation. Another result of this type of motivation is that the boys ended up fighting against each other instead of growing closer as a team. Competing for coach’s attention I guess. We’re just glad the season is over.

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