Sports, Education & Society: Motivation is Best When it Comes From the Inside

We live in a society that is becoming more and more outcome only driven. Whether it is money, fame, scholarship, prestige, power, etc., there are a good number of individuals who do what they do simply because of the extrinsic rewards that may come out of their efforts; nothing else.

This is no less reflected in our current youth sports environment where there is a push to give rewards to everyone who participates and downplay success, for fear of hurting the self-esteem of the larger group. It is that pendulum swing I have referred to so often where, with good intentions, we move from an extreme framework of celebrating only outcome “winners” to one where all are equal no matter what.

Now I don’t want anyone to misconstrue what I am saying here for one’s efforts are essential to one’s success in anything. I have written many an article detailing the importance of heavily weighing the process over the outcome.

However that process piece is somewhat of an abstract as it does, largely, encompass the efforts one, or many ones (the team), puts in. Basically, it is much harder to measure or gage an individual’s, or team’s, efforts than say to reward them for winning or just give all a reward for playing.

This is not to say that seeking scholarship, winning competitions, or becoming All-American are bad things. On the contrary, I would be hypocritical to say such as I myself sought those outcomes. It is just that when we place too much emphasis on outcomes (things that are outside ourselves), to the point that they become THE reason we do what we do, then, for many (maybe most), efforts tend to diminish greatly when extrinsic reward is not a sure thing.

Taking this concept out of the athletic arena and applying it on a broader scale, I received the following note last week from a purchaser of Becoming a True Champion. In it she describes one of the deeper purposes behind the book and why it was written.

Hi Mr. Mango, I am from DGS class of 1988. I wanted to say thank you for writing Becoming a True Champion. I bought it for Brady, my 8th grade son, and just gave it to him for his birthday today. The premise of your book is spot on. I teach 8th grade at Herget Middle School in West Aurora. You focus on intrinsic rewards in athletics. This is exactly what I strive for with learning for my students. This year I have eliminated the little rewards like Jolly Ranchers that I have always used. I was finding that the kids began to only participate, answer questions, etc. to earn the candy and expected it, often refusing to do anything when I ran out of candy… it was depressing! This year I will sometimes reward behavior with something like reading outside on Fridays, but I haven’t done any rewards for learning other than praise… it seems to be working. I plan to pass your website/book on to our athletic director. I think she will be as impressed.


It might seem (on the surface anyway) that we are doing the “right” thing when giving out rewards for basic things, things that a person should do simply because they should; however, I too question the long-term effect of it all.

I mean, we do get the behavior we want, initially, but what about the long-term effect of that short-term outlook? Is that really where we want our youth, and young adults, to get their motivation…inspiration from? Do we really want them seeking only extrinsic reward, minimizing the pride and solace that should come from the efforts put in to achieve these outcomes?

Personally, I think we do a major disservice to our youth, and our future, when we support short-term gratification like this. Again, it is not that we should never give rewards for good or proper behavior, just that we need a more balanced approach. One where the biggest rewards are given to those who put forth the extra efforts needed to become better than they were. And we should reward those who do reach the pinnacle of excellence (depending on how they got there), for they do represent inspiration for us all.

Lastly, and most significantly, it has been my experience that the strongest self-esteem is best built from the inside out…not the other way around.

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