Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Rewards…It’s What Happens On The Inside That Counts

What is it that keeps athletes interested and motivated over the long term? How are they able to train day in and day out, month after month, and keep that passion alive? And after their athletic career has ended, when all is said and done (with awards, honors, and trophies all up on the shelf) – what will give an athlete a true sense of pride and contentment as they reflect back on their career? What makes the difference between those who more successfully move forward into the next stages of their lives…and those who have difficulty?

The answer to all of these questions, at least from my viewpoint, lies in where the value is placed as one travels their athletic path toward the objectives and goals they want to accomplish. A perspective best described by starting at the end of one’s journey rather than the beginning.

Whether it is in just making “the team” or maybe the starting lineup, becoming a conference, regional, sectional, or even state champion, achieving high school and/or college All-American status, National Champion status, developing into a Hall of Fame athlete, or even an Olympic Gold Medalist – at the end of the day, it is not the “trophies” sitting on the shelf that will hold the most value, but what one has gained on the inside.

You see, it is the ability and fortitude to put forth the efforts toward objectives and goals one seeks which brings back to the athlete true feelings of self-satisfaction. In other words, the real value lies in the willingness to go through this process of labor and “earn” these awards; not necessarily in the award itself.

This is what many successful athletes hold in highest regard, for it is in putting forth these efforts that will hold the key to the many life lessons taught along the way.

So the question then becomes, where should an athlete be encouraged to place the most emphasis as they travel this athletic path in order to reap the most benefits from their efforts? The same life lessons, when learned, which allow that successful move forward, for some, that I spoke of earlier.

I would have to say that it is essential to teach them how important prioritizing intrinsic “rewards” (motivators) are to this progression of self-satisfaction and, conversely, how detrimental overemphasizing extrinsic rewards can be. (And, by the way, I call them intrinsic “rewards” because they originate from inside the athlete, along with making them feel good.)

In short, some examples of intrinsic “rewards” (motivators) include:

  • Fun and enjoyment of “playing the game” (love of the game)

  • The competition itself

  • Challenge of testing one’s limits – Can I do this?

  • Process of striving to reach one’s potential

  • Pride in doing things well

  • Working toward mastering one’s skill set

Not only are these self-satisfying (and internal concepts that are long-term in nature), but they help to perpetuate an inside-out form of motivation as one seeks to repeat these feelings through means by which they have more control. This is much different than the outside-in type of motivation we see so common in our sports and youth sports culture today. Things like:

  • Financial incentives for a youngster to score goals, baskets, points, get hits, etc.

  • Overemphasis on winning, especially “winning at all costs”

  • Seeking approval and/or recognition

  • Athletic scholarship

  • Outside perks at the higher levels (fame, fortune, etc.)

These are much more fleeting, inconsistent, and less fulfilling because they are aspects outside of oneself – things that are not in the athlete’s direct control, outside-in as one might say.

Now I am not saying that an athlete should never set extrinsic goals such as seeking an athletic scholarship or becoming a state champion. On the contrary, that would be hypocritical of me since I sought the same (as did my daughters).

In my view, a better approach (more inside-out) is to look at extrinsic goals as possible outcomes of the efforts one puts in by placing higher value on the intrinsic components rather than prioritizing extrinsic factors as the purpose or reason behind why one is putting in those efforts - playing.

The difference might seem slight to some. However, it could be the difference between gaining great value from one’s athletic experiences and receiving only superficial value from those same experiences.

As highlighted in the beginning, it all boils down to where value is placed as one travels their athletic path. An inside-out approach, where priority is placed on the “intrinsic,” will always get my vote.

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