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Understand the best way to motivate athletes

This is an excerpt from Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology 6th Edition With Web Study Guide by Robert S. Weinberg & Daniel Gould.

Reviewing Three Approaches to Motivation

Each of us develops a personal view of how motivation works, our own model on what motivates people. We are likely to do this by learning what motivates us and by observing how other people are motivated. For instance, if someone has a physical education teacher she likes and believes is successful, she will probably try to use or emulate many of the same motivational strategies that the teacher uses.


Moreover, people often act out their personal views of motivation, both consciously and subconsciously. A coach, for example, might make a conscious effort to motivate students by giving them positive feedback and encouragement. Another coach, believing that people are primarily responsible for their own behaviors, might spend little time creating situations that enhance motivation.


Although thousands of individual views exist, most people fit motivation into one of three general orientations that parallel the approaches to personality discussed in chapter 2. These include the trait-centered orientation to motivation, the situation-centered orientation, and the interactional orientation.


Trait-Centered View

The trait-centered view (also called the participant-centered view) contends that motivated behavior is primarily a function of individual characteristics. That is, the personality, needs, and goals of a student, athlete, or exerciser are the primary determinants of motivated behavior. Thus, coaches often describe an athlete as a "real winner," implying that this individual has a personal makeup that allows him to excel in sport. Similarly, another athlete may be described as a "loser" who has no get-up-and-go.


Some people have personal attributes that seem to predispose them to success and high levels of motivation whereas others seem to lack motivation, personal goals, and desire. However, most of us would agree that we are in part affected by the situations in which we are placed. For example, if a teacher does not create a motivating learning environment, student motivation will consequently decline. Conversely, an excellent leader who creates a positive environment will greatly increase motivation. Thus, ignoring environmental influences on motivation is unrealistic and is one reason sport and exercise psychologists have not endorsed the trait-centered view for guiding professional practice.


Situation-Centered View

In direct contrast to the trait-centered view, the situation-centered viewcontends that motivation level is determined primarily by situation. For example, Brittany might be really motivated in her aerobic exercise class but unmotivated in a competitive sport situation.


Probably you would agree that situation influences motivation, but can you also recall situations in which you remained motivated despite a negative environment? For example, maybe you played for a coach you didn’t like who constantly yelled at and criticized you, but still you did not quit the team or lose any of your motivation. In such a case, the situation was clearly not the primary factor influencing your motivation level. For this reason, sport and exercise psychology specialists do not recommend the situation-centered view of motivation as the most effective for guiding practice.


Interactional View

The view of motivation most widely endorsed by sport and exercise psychologists today is the participant-by-situation interactional view. Interactionists contend that motivation results neither solely from participant factors (e.g., personality, needs, interests, and goals) nor solely from situational factors (e.g., a coach’s or teacher’s style or the win - loss record of a team). Rather, the best way to understand motivation is to examine how these two sets of factors interact (figure 3.1).

Participant-by-situation interactional model of motivation.


Key Point

The best way to understand motivation is to consider both the person and the situation and how the two interact.


Sorrentino and Sheppard (1978) studied 44 male and 33 female swimmers in three Canadian universities, testing them twice as they swam a 200-yard freestyle time trial individually and then as part of a relay team. The situational factor that the researchers assessed was whether each swimmer swam alone or as part of a relay team. The researchers also assessed a personality characteristic in the swimmers - their affiliation motivation, or the degree to which a person sees group involvement as an opportunity for social approval versus social rejection. The objective of the study was to see whether each swimmer was oriented more toward social approval (i.e., viewing competing with others as a positive state) or toward rejection (i.e., feeling threatened by an affiliation-oriented activity, such as a relay, in which she might let others down) and how their motivational orientation influenced their performance.


As the investigators predicted, the approval-oriented swimmers demonstrated faster times swimming in the relay than when swimming alone (figure 3.2). After all, they had a positive orientation toward seeking approval from others - their teammates. In contrast, the rejection-threatened swimmers, who were overly concerned with letting their teammates down, swam faster alone than when they swam in the relay.

The interaction of two types of competitive situations (performing alone or on a relay team) and swimmer’s approval orientation (approval oriented versus rejection threatened) on swimming performance.

From a coaching perspective, these findings show that the four fastest individual swimmers would not necessarily make the best relay team. Depending on the athletes’ motivational orientation, some would perform best in a relay and others would perform best individually. Many experienced team-sport coaches agree that starting the most highly skilled athletes does not guarantee having the best team in the game.


The results of the swimming study clearly demonstrate the importance of the interactional model of motivation. Knowing only a swimmer’s personal characteristics (motivational orientation) was not the best way to predict behavior (the individual’s split time) because performance depended on the situation (performing individually or in a relay). Similarly, it would be a mistake to look only at the situation as the primary source of motivation because the best speed depended on whether a swimmer was more approval oriented or rejection threatened. The key, then, was to understand the interaction between the athlete’s personal makeup and the situation.

Learn more about Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, Sixth Edition With Web Study Guide.

More Excerpts From Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology 6th Edition With Web Study Guide