Motivation and fear of failure1 Opinion
Motivation is often thought of as simply having the energy and enthusiasm to carry out a behaviour, task, or activity such as exercising and practicing. However motivation goes much deeper than this and can play a huge part in how happy and successful we are in life and sport. There are many theories of motivation such as the Self Determination Theory (Ryan & Deci 1985; 2002) and Self Efficacy Theory (Bandura 1977) however this article will pay particular focus to the Goal Perspective Theory also known as the Goal Achievement Theory (Nicholls 1986).
This theory suggests that an athlete is motivated to perform a skill, sport or activity through one of two approaches, these being either task motivation (process motivation) or ego motivation. A high ego motivation can be considered the least effective approach to performing an activity or sport, and is strongly linked to exterior motivation. It is said that a person who is motivated through ego purposes will be driven to perform through the expectation of external rewards, such as money and prizes, but more importantly ego motivated individuals are most driven by the recognition and status boosts they may receive from others. A typical example of these sorts of performers can be that they are great social performers when the pressure is off, but fail to perform under pressure, they often try to perform heroic acts or pull of the impossible with as little effort expenditure as possible in order to gain heightened status from peers. However these performers tend to find themselves constantly performing for others rather than themselves or a love of their sport and this leads to negative consequences. Worrying about outcome and fearing poor results or failure due to criticism from others and embarrassment is a common result of this approach to performance. Although this approach can often get a performer so far, cracks in this persona are inevitable and can soon result in fear and anxiety ridden performances. Unfortunately this is the route that most people tend to slip towards due status and extrinsic rewards being so desirable in modern times, often due to media factors, but we will leave that for another discussion.
Task motivation or process motivation on the other hand can be considered an intrinsic developmental approach to a task. This motivational trait can be described as being motivated to carry out a particular task for enjoyment purposes and a genuine passion for the activity, task orientated individuals are less focused on results, outcomes, and rewards such as status and money and rather focus on the processes that make up the outcome. For example they will see success as doing their best and exerting maximum effort in all areas of performance, they look to learn and develop their skills at every available opportunity and consider hard work and practice as key for successful performances. Task orientated individual as a result do not fear failure as failure simply doesn’t exist and rather it’s an opportunity to examine areas that need work, they also do not fear embarrassment or social criticism as they do not take part in the activity for social gratification but play for the satisfaction and enjoyment of trying to improve their own performance.Although it would see that an ego orientation is highly damaging and a task orientation is key to success there is research to suggest that a combination of the two is the best form of motivation (Curry et al 2006; Van Yperen et al 2006). This is because an ego orientation can help with competitiveness and a drive to beat opponents, this combined with a high task orientation which can keep the ego motivation at bay and limit fears and anxieties can create the perfect balance in order to be successful. It is important to note however that a our motivational orientations have often been programmed in to us throughout our childhood and from the environments we have been subjected to on a regularly basis, with this in mind developing a new motivational orientation is not a quick or instant process, it takes hard work and practice much like practicing the physical skills required to be good at a skill. Research from Smoll et al (2007) and Smith et al (2007) found that attempts to influence motivational orientations from being highly ego or outcome focused towards becoming more mastery or task focused showed that athletes highlighted a reduced fear of failure and anxiety from the start of the season to the end of the season.
This is just a brief summary of the Goal Perspective Theory of motivation and we will go in to more specific detail in future articles such as discussing ways to adopt a more task orientated motivation.
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About Spencer Vickery
I currently holds a bachelors and masters degree in sport and exercise psychology, this combined with 7 years experience as a professional golfer competing throughout the UK and Europe gives me an almost unrivalled amount of knowledge and understanding about the psychology behind performing under pressure and how the brain works during these pressure situations. I am always happy to answer any questions