Agent Mulder on the hit The X-Files and current role as Hank Moody in the
Showtime hit Californication. What most people do not know is he played
collegiate baseball at Princeton University. Here is a person who has reached
the pinnacle of the acting world through fame, money, and accolades. Yet he says
that the joy of success on the baseball field is the greatest feeling in the
world. I’ll preface this entry with the following question. Which form of
motivation leads to better performance? The motivation of attaining success or
What motivates you? Approval, praise, promotion, money,
and fame or avoiding condemnation, disapproval, demotion, poverty, and
obscurity? What are the underlying influences behind these external forms of
motivation for you personally? Are you more motivated to avoid low self-worth or
are you more motivated to attain high self-worth? Are you motivated more by the
fear of losing or the joy of winning?
This has been a reoccurring theme in my therapy sessions.
It seems that many individuals are quick to say that they are more motivated by
to avoid the pain of losing and failure rather than attaining the joy of winning
and success. As an athlete I would have said I hate losing more than I love
winning because I felt that is what coaches wanted to hear. I am here to
challenge that prevailing notion.
Consider the following example. Ashley and Jessica are on
the same lacrosse team (feel free to substitute lacrosse team with corporation,
band, art class, math class, parenting group, law firm, sales team…) They are
evenly matched in terms of physical attributes, past experience, intelligence,
and skill. More often Ashley is motivated by attaining high self-worth. Her
sport-related thoughts and fantasies center on doing great things and having
high success. Conversely, Jessica is motivated by avoiding low self-worth. Her
thoughts and fantasies center on ways to avoid mistakes. As a result, Ashley
tends to enjoy the experience more, is more relaxed, and more confident,
whereas Jessica is beginning to dread the experience, is tense, and has low
Most people do not attempt a thorough and deep
introspection of their thoughts and feelings contributing to motivation. There
is a generic sense of whether good or bad feelings influence one’s motivation,
but a real self-analysis, although beneficial, is lacking. A keen understanding
of “the why” behind motivation can help performers understand why they are more
or less motivated as different times, why that are/are not risk takers, and why
they are better/worse than their peers.
Let’s return to Ashley and Jessica, specifically their
confidence and motivation. Ashley’s confidence and motivation are high because
she tends to have enjoyable thoughts about lacrosse. She spends more time
visualizing her successes, which induces a sense of hopefulness and joy.
Jessica’s confidence and motivation are low because she routinely and probably
subconsciously visualizes mistakes and failures on the field. In
the end Jessica is tense and not having fun, therefore she is prone to fail on
the field. Jessica would be similar to the student who constantly envisions
receiving a failing grade, the business person consumed by thoughts of a
demotion, the musician who cannot shake the thought of forgetting the lyrics
while on stage, or the parent obsessed with imagined negative judgment from
other parents. All of these people are consumed by thoughts that breed anxiety,
anger, depression, irritability, tension, and general unhappiness. In addition,
when people focus on mistakes there is a greater chance of a budding
self-fulfilling prophecy. Poor Jessica is always looking for the next mistake,
becomes uptight on the field, and ultimately makes mistakes.
As a coach and psychologists I am encouraged by the
athletes who say they love winning more than anything else. Conversely, I become
weary of the athlete who says avoiding losing is the strongest motivator and “I
hate losing more than anything.” I wonder if this player is going to be the one
who avoids a risky move or decision because she is consumed with failure. As a
coach who loves winning more than I hate losing, I’m looking for the player who
is confident enough to take a risk that could pay off. I’m concerned with the
conservative player who is satisfied with not taking a risk because safe play
increases the chances of not losing.
Much of the information included in this blog comes from
the article entitled “Identified Versus Introjected Approach and Introjected
Avoidance Motivations in School and In Sports: The Limited Benefits of
Self-Worth Strivings” by Assor, Vansteeniske, and Kaplan in The Journal of
Educational Psychology 2009.