There are 2 types of basic motivations for runners. Extrinsic Motivation and Intrinsic Motivation.
An extrinsically motivated runner is one who is motivated by things external to themselves. Common examples are being motivated to win a race or an age group award, beating someone else, or receiving recognition as a runner such as being recognized as a marathoner or one of the better runners in your club or group. For elite runners extrinsic motivation may even include winning prize money and receiving sponsorships or scholarships. These rewards provide satisfaction, meet needs and provide pleasure that the task itself may not provide them.
An intrinsically motivated runner is one whose motivation comes from inside themselves rather than from any external or outside rewards. Intrinsic motivation comes from the pleasure one gets from the running itself or from the sense of satisfaction in challenging oneself or applying oneself to the task of training or racing.
Both forms of motivation can be very strong and powerful at times, and most runners are fueled by some combination of both motivations.
But here is the point I want to make in this blog entry. Recent studies have shown that runners who are high in extrinsic motivation but low in intrinsic motivation will not stay in the sport long term. They will only stay in the sport until they stop receiving enough awards, or praise or recognition to make it worth the amount of work they have to do.
For those young running stars who are primarily extrinsically motivated, this becomes a big problem as, as they get older the pool of competitors and amount of work needed to remain at or near the top gets bigger and bigger. Sooner or later it simply becomes not worth it to them. They no longer get as many rewards and the work they have to do to get them only grows. Their extrinsic motivation wans and their intrinsic motivation is not high enough to carry them onwards. As a results the "burn-out" often seen with kids in sports comes from high extrinsic motivation and low intrinsic motivation.
In order for a runner to be in the sport for the long term, they have to be highly intrinsically motivated. Now they can be highly extrinsically motivated as well, but that extrinsic motivation isn’t as important for their long term participation.
If you are a coach to or mentor of runners, especially young runners, be sure to try and emphasize the intrinsic motivation as much or more than the extrinsic motivation. Teach the runners to appreciate and enjoy the sport and not always be caught up in external rewards. I try to do this with runners I coach some times by talking how different types of training should feel and why we do what we do, rather than always being focused on the immediate results (time/distance). I think this helps build an appreciation for the sport and connection to the internal dimension of it.
My wife and I have tried very hard to do this with our oldest daughter who showed an interest in the sport from a young age and has turned into a very good runner. But often as parents you are never sure exactly how much of what you are trying to teach and foster they are actually learning. Then about a year or so ago we got a glimpse inside what she was thinking. A reporter was doing an article on her and was talking to her about all the awards she had won and records she has broken and then asked her of all that, what motivated her, why did she run? Her answer was this: “Because it’s fun! The exhilarating feeling you have with the wind blowing through your hair and the ground flying by under your feet. I just love it.” No mention of awards or praise, not mention of records or beating people. She runs because she loves it. The reporter was a little taken aback by the answer so they followed up from a different angle. They asked her about her training and how hard she worked to get where she was and after she explained her training program to them they asked. “ok, now what if you didn’t race any more, no more races or records or awards, what would you do?” And she thought for a second and answered “I would do pretty much exactly what I am doing now. I love the challenge of training and running hard. I don’t think it would change anything if I didn’t race.”
I don’t think I have to tell you that tears welled up in our eyes as we heard that. Her intrinsic motivation was about as high as it can get – she would be in the sport for the long haul and love every minute of it. She, the sport and we are all truly blessed because of it.