Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation in Sports

“My principles are more important than the money or the title.”

~Muhammad Ali


What motivates you? What drives you to be your best, and gives you that extra push to get there? Why do you do what you do? Is it money? Admiration? Personal satisfaction or enjoyment? All of us are motivated in different ways, and by different things, but there are two general categories of motivation: intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation refers to an internal form of motivation. We strive toward a goal for a sense of personal satisfaction or accomplishment. For example, and internally motivated person may want to play really well in order to win and reach a personal goal they have been aiming for. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is an external form of motivation. It could be a person, or some other outside obligation or reward that requires the achievement of a certain goal. For example, an externally motivated person may want to play really well in order to make more money or have fans’ admiration, both of which are outside factors.

I think that there needs to be a balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in our daily lives. It would be amazing if everyone performed tasks simply because they enjoyed them, but that is a little unrealistic. We need deadlines and due dates and standards, all of which are extrinsic motivators, to ensure that even the mundane and unenjoyable things get done. In sports, though, I feel that things are a little different.

In my personal opinion, intrinsic motivation plays a crucial role in being successful in sports. There are definitely athletes out there who are predominantly extrinsically motivated, but I think that if you look across the board at the most successful athletes in the world, the great majority of them are intrinsically motivated people.

The thing about external motivation is this: it can take you to a certain level, but it is not always healthy for teams, and it is unsustainable. Imagine playing with someone who only performed well when there was a big crowd watching, or only when there was something that they could personally gain from playing well. Not only would that be hard on that person’s teammates, knowing that the team’s success wasn’t at the forefront of that player’s mind, but depending on outside factors to play well is a recipe for failure because they are out of one’s control. You don’t know when someone special will be watching, or when the perfect set of circumstances will align for you to play your best. It is too unpredictable.

There will always be a supply of intrinsic motivation if we want to take it, though. If our desire to win and to play our best comes from within, then we can always draw on that, no matter what. These things are 100% within our control. Again, there will always be a balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation within a person, but I think that to be our best selves, the intrinsic needs to win out. That is what pushes us to do the little things when no one is watching. That is what makes us get up and keep going when we would rather quit. That strength of will, and never-give-up attitude is a sign of intrinsic motivation. Not only will it take you far in sports, but it will help in life as well.

I have played with people who fall on both ends of this motivation spectrum. The joy and excitement I feel playing with intrinsically motivated people, who are fighting opponents with me for the sole benefit of realizing our goals and maximum potential, is one that is unmatched by anything else. Those are the teammates that I remember for years to come, and those are the ones that I would pick to be on my team 10 times out of 10.

I think it’s important to be honest when you ask yourself what motivates you, and see what you can do to adjust your mindset or priorities. If you can make your source of motivation sustainable regardless of the situation you find yourself in, and your team knows that you will lay it all on the line for them, those are the most important things. In my experience, though, it’s the athletes who have that fire burning within them that go far. Just some food for thought.

xo, Sarah


No Comments

Leave a Comment