One of the things I love most about my academic background is the ability to apply many of the theories and principles of psychology to my everyday life, particularly as it relates to my own training and motivation. I am frequently asked where my motivation comes from to train and race as often as I do, so bear with me for a few minutes while I dig into the subject including how we derive motivation, how we can find greater motivation, and how we can motivate others around us.
There are a lot of opinions out there about what drives us and what increases our motivation. I would like to approach this topic from a completely different perspective and discuss one of the most influential theories I learned while in graduate school. In fact, I spent an entire semester learning about this ONE theory of motivation and how it applies to multiple areas of our lives. This concept is known as Self-Determination Theory (I know, academic language at it’s best), developed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, and it maintains that motivation is cultivated through the fulfillment of three innate psychological needs; autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
Mind you, there are two types of motivation that drive our behavior. The first, extrinsic motivation, is driven by rewards or external factors. Goals that are associated with extrinsic motivation may include money or objective rewards, power, social recognition, appearance enhancement, and the avoidance of punishment or negative consequences. Sure, if you told me that I would be paid $1,000 for crossing the finish line of IM 70.3 Boise would I be motivated to do it – absolutely! Would my goals and perspectives change if I were doing it for the financial reward rather than the gratification of completing it for myself? Likely. Would I enjoy the training and preparation as much as I would if I were just doing it for myself? Probably not.
The second and more favored type of motivation is intrinsic motivation, or, our motivation to engage in activity because it is interesting, challenging, enjoyable, and promotes psychological growth. Goals that are affiliated with intrinsic motivation include improving overall health, personal growth, feeling energized, and being able to associate ourselves with other people.
A few weeks ago I was doing a track workout with my coach. He was doing a great job pushing me and helping me to maintain speeds that I would otherwise reconsider if I were alone. During our last 1200m interval, I was a few seconds behind during the last turn and as we reached the straightaway with only 100 meters to go, he offered me $5 if I could beat him to the finish line. I picked up the speed and gave it my all, only to finish a split second behind him. Although the money motivated me to step it up, it was ultimately my intrinsic drive to finish strong and build confidence in myself that pushed me down the stretch. Winning the money wasn’t my priority. Putting myself up to the challenge and stretching my limits was.
We are often presented with options to engage in both types of motivation, but it is ultimately our needs and desires for the activity that determine what kind of motivation steals the show. Motivation can be easily influenced by introducing extrinsic rewards, but this type of motivation is also more likely to stop once you take those rewards away. Therefore, it seems we should place higher value on intrinsic motivation, as it can become more permanent and gratifying over time.
So, just how do we integrate a little more intrinsic motivation into our lives and reduce those extrinsic factors that drive our behavior? Well, according to self-determination theory, there are three key ingredients that we can incorporate into our lives that will ultimately increase our intrinsic motivation and lead to higher feelings of vitality, stronger commitment, and more engagement on a day-to-day basis. Although they apply to many aspects of life including work, school, hobbies, parenting, close relationships, and more, I am going to discuss these components and how they relate to my experience with triathlon and training.
Autonomy: The need for autonomy comes from our desire to feel as though we are in control of our own destiny. It is our freedom to choose whether or not we do something. When we feel autonomous, we feel as though we are making the decision on our own to engage in an activity or perform a certain behavior. As soon as we begin to feel pressured or forced to do something, our autonomy immediately diminished and the behavior becomes more extrinsically driven. For example, my coach makes a schedule for me each week, but recognizes that the schedule is flexible and does not need to be followed to the letter. Just giving me the option to train or not train increases my own intrinsic desire to want to train and grow as an athlete. No one is forcing me to do this.
Competence: This need is the result of our personal beliefs about the self, and our ability to perform well at a particular task or tasks. One of the many reasons I stayed away from triathlon for a long period of time, and stuck to running and duathlons, was because I didn’t feel competent enough to complete the swim. Sometimes we have to prove ourselves wrong and more often than not, it takes time to build competence. Learning a new skill, or challenging ourselves to take risks, is one of the best ways to generate competence. Although I still do not feel 100 percent competent about my swimming ability, I do feel competent that I can survive the swim, and then thrive on the bike and run. The more competent we feel, the more control we have over our outcomes.
Relatedness: This need constitutes our shared experiences with others, and whether or not we feel connected to and included with others who are performing the same behaviors. It also includes our own genuine care and support for others. With any experiences that involve groups of people, the atmosphere can feel cliquey and unwelcome to outsiders. When people feel that they don’t fit in or belong, it can instantly strip them of their motivation to engage in the activity. It can also reduce competence and hinder performance. The more I feel connected and integrated into a community of those who share a similar goal, for example the wonderful community of triathletes and runners I have come to know, the more I will feel motivated to continue to be part of that environment.
So how do we use these tools in our own lives and in the lives of others?
How to increase autonomy: One of the best things people can do is recognize and minimize pressures that are put on them to perform a certain activity. This allows for more flexibility and choices. If you feel like setting a far-reaching PR time for a marathon is too much pressure, then set a more reasonable goal. Our goals have to be realistic enough so that we can perceive them as attainable. Also, surround yourself with people who support your choices and who allow you to create (and pursue) your own destiny.
How to increase competence: Competence takes time and usually requires positive feedback and specific feedback about the behavior that is being performed. Positive feedback can boost intrinsic motivation, but usually only when the person feels as though they are responsible for the competent performance. The last thing you want to do to someone who does not feel competent is put him or her down. When swimming with my coach, I find that very specific critiques of my technique, or noting minor improvements, helps me to build my competence. Also, if there is something that needs improvement and constructive criticism is necessary, it is best to offer that feedback in accordance with some positive feedback as well.
Another way to increase competence is to engage in challenging tasks that are not too easy, but are not too difficult. If I don’t challenge myself every once in a while, then there is no room for growth and I remain stagnant. If I set the bar too high, it is likely that I will set myself up for failure and in return, feel more incompetent. These challenges and little milestones are important because they retain our attention in the activity and allow us to adapt to new challenges and adversities.
How to increase relatedness: Often times when being introduced to a new environment or activity, it can create a lot of uncertainty and anxiety. One of the best ways to reduce these negative feelings is by surrounding yourself with empathetic and supportive people. When we have a network of people who understand or can relate to what we are going through, it creates a sense of belongingness and reassurance.
If you are new to a sport, join or get to know others who are in the same boat. Ask questions to those who have experience. When I signed up for my first marathon, I joined Team in Training so I could be part of a community of runners, many of who were training for their first marathon as well. It made me feel connected. Also, people can feel psychologically connected to others without necessarily interacting directly. Sending a message, blogging, watching others’ experiences, reading – these are all ways in which we can associate and feel related. Just as it is important for our own needs to be met, it important and satisfying to make others feel related as well.
Think for a moment about how these factors influence your own life. When all the ingredients are mixed well and we feel highly autonomous, competent, and related to others, it should produce an extremely high level of motivation and engagement in whatever activity we are doing. If you find that you are in a slump, whether while training for an athletic event, trying to find your niche at work, getting through classwork, or even managing your relationships, consider which of these factors might be missing and contributing to this depleted motivation.
Another thing I recommend is enhancing these needs in the lives of others as well. Do you know someone who wants to get into running, but they don’t feel competent or related to others in the running community – how might you help them feel more capable and connected? Do you know someone who feels burnt out at their job, as though they don’t have any freedom or choice in what they do? How could you help increase a sense of autonomy and control? These are things we can be mindful of, both in improving our own lives, and the lives of others.
What drives your motivation to train, exercise, work, and engage in hobbies and activities?
Do you feel as though your psychological needs are met, or could one of these areas benefit from a boost or improvement?