by Bob Albright, D.O.
Most of us are corporeal beings, so our lot in life is to be constrained by time and space. There are only so many seconds in our lives and hence, we need to be constantly minding our fractions. There will be many articles coming through the last few weeks on methods to achieve the balance required to have success in life and triathlon. However, I will propose that something’s ‘gotta give.
How do we determine what we will focus on and what will we let slide? In other words, what factors determine our choices? Maybe I wanted to really know, why do any of us choose the lifestyle of triathlon, when so many other important things clamor for our attention?
There is a robust clinical science on human motivation, and specifically, a branch of the field related to motivation for enhanced athletic performance. Furthermore, there exists a scoring system, which identifies the motivation subtype at work for an individual participating in his or her sport. This score reliably predicts the long-term satisfaction with the outcomes of the athletic endeavor, longevity in the sport and overall personal satisfaction.
I found this paper by a group from the University of Ottawa, which provided an interpretation and validation of the Sports Motivation Scale (SMS). [Toward a New Measure of Intrinsic Motivation, Extrinsic Motivation, and Amotivation in Sports: The Sports Motivation Scale (SMS). Journal of Sport and Exercise, 1995, 17,35-53.] This SMS score is generated from a 28-statement test, which the athlete scores on a 1-7: no correspondence to exact correspondence. This score allows coaches and athletes to be categorized into one of seven “motivational types.”
Intrinsic motivation is the ideal state and relates to engagement purely for the joy of the activity itself. The authors do note that there are three shades of intrinsic motivation, some more self-determined (better outcomes) and some less so. Extrinsic motivation refers to doing an activity as a “means to an end” not simply for the enjoyment of the activity itself. While extrinsic motivation is less desirable from an overall perspective, there is a trend toward better outcomes when there is more self-determination in the three external subtypes. The absolute worst outcomes (unsurprisingly) were associated with the athletes who were in the “amotivated” category. It is definitely worth mentioning that the coach’s behavior was a factor as well, though not included in the SMS scale.
The literature agrees that the more self-determined an athlete is, the more positive they were with respect to the outcomes (“related consequences”).
The SMS splits not only intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, but also shades the degrees of self-determination even within the broad internal vs. external categories. The seventh and final category (we all wish to avoid!) is amotivation.
The most positive outcomes were in the intrinsic motivation group who “needed to know” (learning goals), second were task mastery and competence and finally, the positive stimulation of the activity itself (experiencing flow for example).
Among the external motivated group, the separations were based on external regulation (the least positive outcomes -- related to punishment or rewards for performance), introjection (behaviors reinforced by internal pressure -- guilt or anxiety) and identification (“best outcomes” in the external group; it’s exemplified by, “a need to perform the activity as a means to experience growth and development as a person”).
That last one sure got my attention.
Whether there is a “good” or “bad” way to be motivated might be a concept with which some may take a fundamental issue. For example, “When all else fails, try anger” is a pithy (and sometimes useful) concept. The authors might argue this score will help an athlete/coach develop strategies to hone in on what motivational strategies will be most likely to provide long-term satisfaction and success.
The SMS is far from perfect. I can see where many individuals will fall between intrinsic and extrinsic categorization. This potentially makes this a very complex tool to apply. Additionally, it seems to suffer potentially from the bias of the subject “gaming” the test. Finally I took a bit of exception to the “external” categorization of desiring personal growth -- this seemed internal to me, but the semantics of the authors are solid (as the growth is external to the activity, sort of…).
I was truly stuck by the degree to which researchers could determine satisfaction and longevity in sport based on this scale. I see a potentially powerful tool for coaches and athletes alike who not only wish to enhance their performance, but who also want to better understand what is motivating the desire to perform their chosen sport. I even wonder if the scale could perhaps be tested for non-athletic activities.
I propose additionally, that balance is in the eye of the beholder. Understanding what truly motivates us as to our choices will allow us to make the best decisions as we all struggle for balance.
Bob Albright, D.O., is a Nephrologist and Assistant Professor of Medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. You can contact him at email@example.com.