Play and Intrinsic Motivation

In The Power of Mindful Learning, Ellen J. Langer tells the story of her friend:

A writer friend of mine was trying to concentrate on writing when some school-age children started up a hilarious, noisy game below his window. He asked them to leave. Since he was breaking up what clearly seemed a delightful scene, he paid them each a quarter for doing so. The next day they came back and caused the same annoyance; again, he paid them to leave. This routine continued for over a week, until one day my friend found he was out of quarters, and he suffered through the racket as best he could. He discovered that he could work despite the disturbance, and thence he gave no more quarters. The children stopped coming. Two weeks later he ran into one of them at the market and asked why he and his friends no longer came around. The child replied, “What do you think, we’re going to come for nothing?”

Unfortunately, the story describes the effects of organized youth sports for many players. Children play basketball for fun, shooting around with friends, playing pick-up games, and trying new moves. Because of their interest, their parents sign up for a youth league believing that the organization and structure will enhance their enjoyment of the activity.

The organization changes the activity just as the quarters changed the activity for the children. In organized leagues, winning and competition take precedence over playing and enjoyment. The motivation shifts from play for the sake of play to practice to prepare for a game.

When this shift occurs too early, the game loses its fun for some players. They depend on the external rewards – winning, playing time, an ice cream cone for making a basket – to maintain their motivation rather than playing because they love to play.

While some players quit when these external rewards disappear or fail to increase, others persist for various reasons. However, without the internal motivation, they will never maximize their talent or love the activity. As Daniel Pink says, players thrive in an environment of “autonomy, mastery and purpose.”

When the game becomes focused on results, rather than learning; and the coach takes control of the activity rather than empowering his players; and the practice loses meaning to the players, the effort, enjoyment and improvement diminish.

That does not mean that coaches should ignore discipline, drills or hard work. However, it does mean that coaches and parents should be mindful of their approach and their words (rewarding effort, not just performance), and coaches should strive for an environment of “autonomy, mastery and purpose.”

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