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Opinion: Student-Athletes Should Be Intrinsically Motivated has partnered with LexisNexis to bring you this content.

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The Union Leader (Manchester, NH)


MANY OF us in the business world have kids. Ours is a very competitive society, where even such pleasurable activities as playing ball get caught up in complexities.

Much has been said about the benefits of playing a competitive sport during one's school years. The advantages include having further opportunity to develop physically and emotionally, learning the value of collaboration with peers, and how to compete and win, as well as to sometimes lose, with grace.

The student athlete acquires the discipline of pursuing individual and team goals while adhering to rules laid out by a coach or school. Much fun is to be had while competing and stretching one's abilities. There's a lot of intrinsic or self-motivation going on -- a type of drive that flows into many other life attributes, such as confidence, stamina, decisiveness and success in relationships. All in all, this is a good thing.

But then there is a potential dark side of a certain type of motivation. When student athletes start to feel controlled by outside forces, they are stepping into the world of extrinsic motivation -- pertaining to such contingent variables as reward and punishment, prestige and other matters apart from enjoying the sport itself.

Among the dangers of being extrinsically driven are feelings of pressure, including concern about pleasing parents, coaches or friends. A team's schedule for training, practice and games can be quite demanding. Estimates are the average student-athlete spends about 30 hours per week on classes and doing homework and 20 hours on athletics. Not a great deal of time left for social, spiritual and family events, let alone just chilling out -- important matters at this stage of life.

Much of the intense coaching and helicopter parenting is gaited initially to getting an athletic scholarship to college, only to find the funds barely cover the cost of tuition for most recipients. Consider also the loss-of-opportunity expense of having a decreased ability to secure a good internship in the field of one's major. Which brings up another concern: Are these student athletes really focused on a career outside of professional sports? Only one in 25 will reach any pro level.

The motivational solution to the dichotomy of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is found in the way things such as praise and acclaim are handled. For example, if parents are highly focused on athletic achievement, the son or daughter is likely to begin to over-identify with the sports role. The psychological dynamic shifts from a "wanting" posture toward a sport to a "needing" one.

The athlete begins to fuse with what should be a secondary role. Fusion is followed by tension and anxiety which, in turn, often undermine performance. I have often told coaches and players that a key to success is wanting to win, not mistakenly thinking one needs to win. After all, one needs air, water, food ... not to be a starting pitcher or leading hitter.

Parental pride is understandable. We want our children to succeed in all aspects and endeavors of life. The motivational issue is how much praise and regard are attached to their successes. If a child thinks he or she enjoys a parent's love due, primarily, to success on the field, that great bond becomes a conditional one. It makes them think this bond is contingent on performance and accomplishments.

One step toward reducing this concern is to work with the student athlete to more richly self-define. A useful technique is to help him or her identify a number (seven works) of positive attributes this developing person has so far acquired, such as "an encourager, a faithful friend, an initiator, a good sport." This is truly who the student is.

Of course, imbalance in a student's activities need not be solely due to sports. Most any extra curricula activity -- such as orchestra, student government, etc. -- can present challenges to keeping one's life in balance.

Overall, while there are more positives than negatives associated with engagement in sports activities, this is only true if managed well. Parents and coaches would do best to keep those under their care and authority on the self-motivating track by minimizing the controlling aspect of positive rewards.


Dr. Paul P. Baard is an organizational psychologist, specializing in motivation. He has served as a professor with Fordham University, a senior line executive in the television industry, and is the lead author of a book on leadership and motivation. He and Veronica Baard, a former managing director responsible for HR at a major international investment banking firm, head up Baard Consulting LLC, a firm in the greater Boston area, focusing on motivation, conflict reduction, and team building. Questions are welcomed at

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May 14, 2018


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