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Overcoming The Overjustification Effect of Athletes

BY Taylor Thomas

We all have that friend or athlete who is chomping at the bit to post about their latest workout on Instagram. This is why that isn't sustainable.

Motivation is a key component of any athlete’s success. It’s what pushes individuals to pursue big goals, step outside of their comfort zone, or in some cases, choose to work with a coach. Although, motivation can be a tricky thing, where it’s derived from is important. The Overjustification Effect highlights what can happen when an athlete’s motivations are imbalanced, and external factors weigh too heavily in their decisions. It’s important to pay attention to intrinsic and extrinsic motivators in order to help maintain an athlete’s longevity in endurance sports.

What is the Overjustification Effect? 

Before we can understand how to help our athletes balance their motivations, and potentially avoid any pitfalls that may come as a result of the Overjustification Effect, let’s first define what it is. The Overjustification Effect occurs when an expected external incentive, like money, awards, prizes, and acclaim from peers, outweighs someone’s intrinsic motivation to perform. 

So, why is this something that we need to be aware of? If we’ve learned anything from 2020 it’s that we’re not guaranteed anything. Races, events, and podiums can go away at any time, and all we’re left with is our internal drive to pursue our full potential. While it’s good to be competitive and thrive with the help of external motivators, they can’t be the only thing that pushes athletes to excel. 

The end goal should be to help athletes find the balance that works for them. Some athletes are naturally intrinsically motivated, while others may need help defining what it is about training that excites or motivates them outside of race day. It’s our job as coaches to identify habits and behaviors that may be detrimental, and then initiate the conversation around how and why balanced motivation is important for long-term growth. 

Identifying Behaviors

In order to help our athletes achieve the right balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, it’s helpful to be able to identify what behaviors are most often associated with these motivation types. The Association for Applied Sports Psychology defines the two areas of motivation in the following ways.

Intrinsic motivation is typically exhibited when athletes participate in sport for personal satisfaction. Their focus is on things such as skill development, long-term growth and sustainability. They find their “wins” in things that aren’t as outwardly facing, but rather realize that progress is a process that’s to be enjoyed. 

Extrinsically motivated athletes tend to derive motivation from social sources and/or material rewards. They focus on performance-based outcomes and are looking for short-term gratification and quantitative affirmation. 

It’s more likely that any given athlete displays aspects of both of these types of behaviors. It’s important to keep your eye on if/when the scale begins to tip completely in one direction. If the passion for training begins to drop off after race season, then it’s a good time to have a conversation. Work together to highlight why they train when there’s no positive affirmation coming from social media likes, peak performances or kudos. What’s uncovered in these conversations will be what facilitates the athlete’s ability to thrive season-after-season through the inevitable highs and lows of training. 

Why Does Motivation Matter? 

So, why is it important to keep an eye out for these behaviors, or initiate tough conversations about how to navigate different motivations? Well, these behaviors can change completely independently from competition and may have a larger impact on an athlete’s ability to excel than a higher FTP ever will. 

Helping athletes achieve the balance that’s best for them will strengthen their overall performance. Athletes will feel more in control and will more likely enjoy the benefits of their own actions and skills when the opportunities present themselves, ie. race day performances and completing challenging workouts.

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About Taylor Thomas

Taylor Thomas is the owner and founder of Thomas Endurance Coaching. He has more than a decade of experience in the bicycle industry as an athlete, coach, race promoter, and team organizer. As a USAC and TrainingPeaks Level 2 Certified coach, he’s helped athletes at every level prepare for and reach their goals in road, mountain, and cyclocross.

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