The Theories of Motivation in Sports


In a high stakes game, with two equally talented teams vying for the victory, motivation may be the deciding factor. Athletes and their coaches employ a variety of motivational techniques in order to achieve optimum performance during competition, and much research in the field of sports psychology is dedicated to uncovering the secrets of motivation. There are two major theories of motivation in the field of sports psychology: intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. An athlete may have both intrinsic and extrinsic reasons for participating in a sport. Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can be beneficial.

Extrinsic Motivation

  • Extrinsic motivation comes from external sources. The desire for a promised reward--for example, the money a professional athlete earns--is an extrinsic motivation. The fear of some kind of punishment--for example a student athlete's fear that he may lose his college scholarship if he does not play well--is another form of extrinsic motivation. Desire for fame and accolades, or external pressures and expectations such as those of parents or coaches are also forms of extrinsic motivation.


  • Because desire for reward and fear of punishment are both psychologically powerful reasons for performing any activity, extrinsic motivation sources can be extremely beneficial to an athlete's performance. Extrinsic motivation drives athletes to learn new skills and strategies and encourages positive coping styles.


  • Athletes who are motivated solely by extrinsic factors tend to suffer more anxiety before or during a game or match, and tend to feel more guilt when they do not perform at their best. When extrinsic motivation becomes the sole reason for athletic participation, athletes often lose interest and feel a lesser sense of enjoyment while playing and practicing their sport. Extrinsic motivation can also create a negative self-perception of ability. If the athlete does not achieve one particular extrinsic reward, he may be more likely to feel that he is wasting his time in playing sports and quit for good.

Intrinsic Motivation

  • Intrinsic motivation refers to reasons that are purely internal. An athlete who plays sports for intrinsic reasons plays because he enjoys the sport and derives a sense of satisfaction and personal growth from playing well. Intrinsically motivated athletes are the people who "play for fun." Some researchers do not believe there is anything such thing as purely intrinsic motivation and argue that every athlete has at least one extrinsic reason for playing a sport, no matter how much they enjoy it.


  • Intrinsically motivated athletes are less likely to have their performance negatively impacted by stress, guilt over mistakes or external distractions. Intrinsic motivation fosters confidence, focus and a sense of satisfaction. An athlete who is more intrinsically motivated is less likely to "burn out" and lose interest in his sport.


  • Intrinsic motivation is not always as powerful a motivation as extrinsic motivation when it comes an athlete's motivation to perfect his skills or to play to the point of exhaustion.


  • An athlete may easily have several intrinsic and several extrinsic motivations for playing at the same time. However, extrinsic motivation may weaken or strengthen the athletes original intrinsic reasons for play. When athletes are rewarded for positive performance, they often feel even more intrinsically motivated to play. On the other hand, when extrinsic rewards are too frequently given for behavior that was initially only intrinsically rewarding, the extrinsic motivation can begin to take the place of the internal motivation.

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  • Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Sport and Exercise: Hagger, Martin S. and Nikos L.D. Chatzisarantis: 2007
  • Photo Credit guantone baseball image by Stefano Tiraboschi from football amateur image by Paul Laroque from
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