The Why of Behavior

By: Molly Hurford Mar 8

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In order to reach their potential, athletes must sustain a high level of motivation over many years of practice and competition.“ -Brent Hansen

Motivation, Edward Deci states, is the culmination of energy and direction of behavior. He says, “Energy in motivation theory is fundamentally a matter of needs… Direction in motivation theory concerns the processes and structures of the organism that give meaning to internal and external stimuli, thereby directing action toward the satisfaction of needs.” While the second part of that isn’t the most interesting read, I love that he calls motivation “energy and direction.”

With temperatures dropping back down to unsuitable-for-habitation levels upon moving back to New England after a month in Georgia, my motivation to get outside and ride has been at an all-time low. In addition to the chilly temperatures and snow on the ground in my new stomping ground of Easthampton, Massachusetts, I’m mid-move and inundated with work, so my time to play outside has also hit an all-time low. That said, since what I’m working on is primarily cycling-related work and writing, I’m more excited about cycling than ever before. Just maybe not about putting on booties to go for a spin. And while my tempo riding and power outputs are better than they’ve ever been, I just don’t have it in me to do intervals in the cold right now. But as the house comes together and my schedule becomes more worked out as I adjust to my new living situation, I find the motivation to ride and to really excel this season slowly creeping back after going into hiding for the past week.
That brings me to my point today: motivation.

Martin Hagger writes, “It is believed by many that motivation is the foundation of sport performance and achievement. Without motivation, even the most gifted performer is unlikely to reach his or her athletic potential.” That’s a scary thought for someone who is feeling distinctly unmotivated to actually go out and do anything.

Then, Brent Hansen, in an article for The Journal of Physical Education, claims that, “Motivation is thought to encompass ‘personality factors, social variables, and/or cognitions that are assumed to come into play when a person undertakes a task at which he or she is evaluated, enters into competition with others, or attempts to attain some standard of excellence.’” Sounds like cycling to me. And while it’s easy to say that all of us are striving for that standard of excellence, as Hansen so aptly puts it, some of us are better at striving 24/7, while the rest of us have other, conflicting motivators in play.

Deci suggests that, “The study of motivation is an inquiry into the why of behavior.” So, in the off-season, why am I less motivated? I still love cycling just as much as I did back in September, that hasn’t changed. I still have big goals for next season, that hasn’t changed. So what has changed?

Motivation, at it’s most basic, can be defined as our driving force. In 1943, Maslow wrote in the Psychological Review that, “There are 5 sets of goals (basic needs) which are related to each other and are arranged in a hierarchy of prepotency. When the most prepotent goal is realized, the next higher need emerges.” So perhaps my lack of motivation when it comes to getting out on the bike comes from the fact that, with so much other stimuli to focus on, so many other goals to attain (like getting a couch through my front door), my motivation is being used to focus on basic needs (in this case, a “nesting instinct” setting in), therefore pushing cycling goals (since it is the off-season) farther down the hierarchy scale. Arguably, because I spent the last month strictly focusing on cycling, perhaps my brain was ready to shift gears and find new goals, since training, while going well, is fairly redundant.

In fact, Hagger says something to that very effect on the topic of elite athletes’ motivations:

“In the case of elite sport, however, much of training is not very interesting and, although essential to improving performance, extremely repetitive and monotonous. Research has demonstrated, though, that even the most tedious aspects of training can be transcended through the use of interest-enhancing strategies that assist an individual’s internalization of self-determined motivations regulations.”

So, for those who have trouble internalizing motivation and rely on external motivation, their susceptibility to burnout is raised. This is especially important, right, in the off-season. During racing season, internal motivation can easily be overlooked in favor of external motivation, i.e racing on a regular basis. But in the off-season, with the first race months away, it’s hard to find that internal motivation to keep training.

So how will I get over this unmotivated slump? It’s a good thing I just moved to Western Massachusetts, home to racers like Jeremy Powers, Justin Lindine, Jeremy Durrin and Evan Huff. Not to mention, I’ll be living with a good friend, and even better racer, once he gets back from training in Tucson. Hagger believes that this can be the answer, since “social context has a powerful effect upon the forms of motivation adopted by the athlete.”

Because, let’s face it, being intrinsically motivated all of the time is nearly impossible. Rather, Hagger notes, “Previous research that has examined the motivation of elite-level sport performers has suggested that their behavior is not solely intrinsically motivated, that multiple motives are likely to exist, and that the social conditions defining one’s participation are likely to have significant effect on the motivation process.”

So while we might be intrinsically motivated to some extent, it’s really things like our social structures and competitive natures that keep us heading out the door to ride every day, whether it’s alone in hopes of nailing those intervals, or with a group in hopes of showing off on that insanely steep hill that keeps kicking your a$$. (Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything…)

Of course, what it all comes back to, no matter where you live or who you live with, is you. Think beating your friends is going to keep you motivated forever? Far from it, and Hagger adds that, “maladaptive training responses are more likely to occur when an athlete’s reason for participating shifts to a more extrinsic motivation regulation representing a loss of autonomy.”

So if you’re not motivated for your own sake, it might be time to reassess and remember why you love to ride to begin with. I did that today when I was out on my ride, and you know what? Flying down a hill at 45 MPH, face numb from the cold wind, I have never felt more alive, or more happy to be right here, right now at this point in my life. Talk about intrinsic motivation.

Maslow, A. H. “A theory of human motivation.” Psychological Review, Vol 50(4), Jul 1943

Sturman, Ted S. “Achievement Motivation and Type A Behavior as Motivational Orientations” Journal of Research in Personality Volume 33, Issue 2, June 1999

Hansen, Brent & Wade Gilbert, Tim Hamel “Successful Coaches’ Views on Motivation and Motivational Strategies” The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, Vol. 74, 2003

Deci, Edward L. & Richard M. Ryan “Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior”

Hagger, Martin & Nikos Chatzisarantis “Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in exercise and sport”



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