Surprising though it may have been, one of the most talented athletes in our world today, LeBron James, has chosen to leave the NBA’s Miami Heat team to come home to the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers team. For all athletes, being happy where you are and with what you are doing is a crucial aspect of peak performance.   Playing the game you love leads to experiencing the most joy, self-fulfillment and true happiness.

Specific differences within an individual’s intrinsic/extrinsic motivations could potentially ignite or dampen personal growth. This can result in a person achieving higher levels of self-motivation, energy, and integration in certain domains or situations than they would in others. In LeBron’s case, leaving the Miami Heat to bring his talents to Cleveland, his personal development, performance, and overall well-being were all heavily considered.  Similarly, every player makes crucial decisions at pivotal times during the span of a career but all of these decisions are made with specific, long range goals in mind. It all comes down to one’s own self-determination.

Self Determination Theory (SDT)

SDT is an approach to human motivation and personality that highlights the importance of humans’ evolved inner resources for personality development and behavioral self-regulation (Ryan, Kuhl, & Deci, 1997). Thus, its main focus is the investigation of people’s inherent growth tendencies and innate psychological needs that are the basis for their self-motivation and personality integration, along with the conditions that bring about these positive processes (Ryan & Deci, 2000). The three such needs for Self Determination are competence, relatedness, and autonomy which all appear to be essential for facilitating optimal functioning. In meeting these needs as an athlete or performer of any type, a person’s zone for optimal functioning can become clearly established and maintained.

The critical needs for Self Determination are defined below:

Competence is defined as the individual’s inherent desire to feel effective while interacting with the environment (Deci & Ryan, 2000; White, 1959; Broeck et al., 2010)

Relatedness is defined as individuals’ inherent desire to feel a connection with others including being a member of a group, to give and receive love and care to and from others (Baumeister & Leary, 1995).

Autonomy represents the inherent desire to have a freedom of choice resulting in psychological freedom and the feeling of volition when carrying out an activity (deCharms, 1968; Deci & Ryan, 2000).

Motivation (Intrinsic/Extrinsic)

There are several questions that one must ask, “What is my driving force? What keeps me going? What am I after?” These questions will help one determine whether their motivation is of intrinsic interest or extrinsically focused. According to Csikszentmihalyi & Rathunde, 1993, intrinsic motivation is the natural inclination toward assimilation, mastery, spontaneous interest, and exploration that is so essential to cognitive and social development leading to a strong source of enjoyment and vitality throughout life. Based upon the individual’s interpretation of the task (sport), their distinct type of motivation is discovered. To list a few, love for the sport, enjoyment in playing, invigoration of competition, and the feeling of family within the team are all strong forms of motivation.

In LeBron James’ recent essay citing his reasons to return to Cleveland to continue his NBA career he stated,“Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart… My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”

For LeBron, Cleveland was home. What better place to play the game you love than in a place you call home?  Finding a place where one feels comfortable and truly enjoys playing, the intrinsic motivation becomes strengthened. Quite different, however, extrinsic motivation refers to the performance of an activity in order to attain some separable outcome (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Some forms of extrinsic motivation would include winning trophies, social support, external rewards, attention, or anything else that is not inherently satisfying from the activity itself. LeBron mentioned in his essay that he would like to bring a title to Cleveland similar to what he did in Miami. He wrote,“When I left Cleveland, I was on a mission. I was seeking championships, and we won two. But Miami already knew that feeling. Our city hasn’t had that feeling in a long, long, long time. My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio”. He has demonstrated a mix of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in his sought after endeavors. It is helpful to possess both types but too much extrinsic motivation can be detrimental. Intrinsic motivation will help to bring out the most in an individual because even when the extrinsic rewards (trophies, rewards, social support, money) aren’t coming in, the athlete’s passion and drive will continue to push him or her to train and improve.

Take Action

Having a better understanding of Self-Determination Theory and the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, coaches and players can begin to uncover self-determinations and motivations. I encourage all those who are reading this post to discover what your motivations really are and determine if you can establish a greater sense of intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic. Find out if you love participating in sport for the fun and enjoyment or if it is primarily to win the trophy. Also, keep in mind that even if you are considered one of the most talented athletes in the world like LeBron James, your motivation and self-determination is of primary importance. After all, it is up to us to choose our own fates and achieve our individual happiness.

One response to “Self-determination theory: LeBron James and his return to Cleveland”

  1. […] “Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It’s w… […]