Some Clarification is in Order: Motivation

In a post some time ago by Sergio AppleSeed, he and I discussed what motivates players. One of the main points he brought up was a recent study done by MIT and a number of other major economic forums in dealing with incentives as a driving force in different circumstances. This is very well described by Dan Pink, in a great video. The video will be included alter in the post, just after the jump. Just a warning, like the other past posts in Some Clarification is in Order, this may require some time, and while it isn't stat based this time, it is going to be a longer study, and the video intro to this discussion is almost 11 minutes long.


So this post won't directly deal with motivation in terms of people in general, because while interesting to some, it doesn't directly deal with football, which is why we are on this site. I will use this video as a place to start, along with my comments from Sergio's post, and add in my own studies and findings and apply it to athletes. Now please remember that at this time I'm still working on my doctorate in sociology, so I'm not an expect yet, but I do have a bachelors and have two years work experience in dealing with tight nit groups of people along with understanding and predicting their behavior. So if any of you have some specialty in this field, either psychology or sociology, I'd love to get your input.

I realize this is word heavy, and probably hard to get through for some, I mostly did this research for myself, plus it is really just an outline of a paper I did for a class, but I thought since it might interest some here, I'd publish it here.

The Video and a Recap:

I hope that some of you took the time to review the video, for those who didn't, this section may be hard to follow, so either go watch it, try and follow along or move onto the next section. I'll begin by discussing basic motivational thought. In standard economic and sociological thought, people are motivated by a monetary or substance incentive, i.e. you do this, you get a reward. I grew up thinking that if I offered a reward to someone for accomplishing something, it would help them achieve that goal, and for the most part, that's true, but it's becoming more and more apparent that it isn't always the case. While I could jump right into human motivational research in the past decade easily, I wanted to keep at least some focus to this topic. But to keep it simple, I will review what key points the video brings to light and how they relate to athletes.

As I discuss this, I may use parts of my comment from Sergio's post, as well as his comments, those will be blocked. So continuing on, I wanted to review the video quickly. The video makes the point that in more complex tasks, especially in creative tasks and goals, money and other physical incentives don't work, actually they are counterproductive and lower efficiency and success. Now this is amazingly counter intuitive, and the speaker in the video goes on to discuss what motivates creativity and success in complex tasks. He breaks it down into three things that truly motivate people: autonomy, mastery of their craft, and purpose.


Autonomy, we see how important this is to players, and why free agency is one of the most important things to players, it lets them take more control of who they are. Players like being able to control contracts, what teams they play for and such. If you pay a player a lot of money, but give them no saw on where they play or what position they play, they won’t be as happy as if you paid them slightly less and let them choose. Kevin Kolb is an example of that, he has mentioned he wants to start somewhere, and has received glowing reviews from Fitz in Arizona, now he would likely be paid more to stay in Philly because Reid wants him there if Kolb were a FA, but Kolb would be happier getting paid less to start where he wants to then sit somewhere he doesn’t like.

Now to elaborate on this a bit in relation to a football sense, the feeling that a player has control of their future, or their own personal success and who they succeed with, is very powerful. Someone like Albert Haynesworth wants to do things his way in a system that he likes, and when it fits his way, he's hugely successful. Many people forget what a monstrous player he was prior to his time in Washington. And we see the consequences when his autonomy is threatened. Autonomy and control are considerable motivational forces for both players and coaches. Autonomy is also important for players who are tagged, someone whose been tagged but wants to leave, despite making bank, will likely not play as well because they aren’t where they want to be and they had no say in the matter.Now it is often a power struggles, especially for coaches who like things in strict control, take a Shanny or BB for examples, McD as well. Other coaches, like Morris, Fox and Payton, are more player oriented in the sense they are willing to make concessions to players in order to try and ensure their success.

Now in terms of a team, and a locker room, autonomy plays a different part, because players, or groups of people in general, don't like favorites. The fastest way to get shunned in a community, such as a locker room, is to be the leaders favorite, especially if it's given to you or unearned. In a personal sense, autonomy is both an intrinsic reward, seen in personal satisfaction, as well as an extrinsic reward. And in a group sense, autonomy is viewed as a very outward reward. Free agency accents this. Free agents are often overpaid for their skill level because of the basis of free agency, going to the highest bidder, and team often overpay to get the talent they want. Because of this, a less talented player may enter a locker room, hailed as the new savior of the team, and make more money then a player of equal or greater talent. This is called the Loser's Curse, and leads to a fracturing of locker rooms, and usually a decrease in overall team performance.

Autonomy to the individual is a great motivating force, and is often successful, but it needs to be tempered within the context of each individual team to create a space where there isn't dissension.


Mastery, the second thing, is just as key, players, especially young, developing, often later round players, want to grow, they want to become better, they want to rise up the ranks. Players who are privilaged, who are often taken early, have little to prove, they often feel that because they were taken early, those teams think highly of them, therefore they have less to prove then someone taken later. Those players who, in their minds, have that motivation to master their position, their job, have a driving force to improve. People who are entitled don’t feel that motivation as often or as strongly. Entitlement, giving athletes something for unproven goods, especially extreme rookie contracts, is bad. Now obviously there are exceptions, Matt Stafford for example has promised to donated 30% of each of his checks to charity, and is well known for his desire to improve. Others, like Jamarcus Russell, took their contracts, and lived off that entitlement. Now these are two extreme examples, but majority of studies show those who are slightly more skilled, in any field, and entitled, will progress slower then a person who is slightly less talented but doesn’t receive that entitlement.

Self respect is tied closely with outward reflection of what people reflect back to them, often called the Looking Glass Self. This sense that they need to gain the respect of their teammates is so key considering they've had to do that with each transition, from high school to college and now to the NFL, or to a new team. They feel they either have to prove themselves or for vets, that they mastery grants them this reward of greatness. Most players don't mind being booed by fans, but what they don't like is how the booing possibly affects their standing in the locker room, and that's what they fear losing. Players, especially those who are worried about their play or have been questioned their whole careers, are self conscience of how they are viewed until they prove they ability, and then mastery is obtained. This peer esteem, is key, especially for new comers into a tightly nit group, like a NFL team. We see time and again, players in interviews always talk about how little they care about the media and fans opinions, they care about what their teammates think.

Mastery is something for which young and developing player strive for, but it is also one that veterans possibly enjoy the most. Players like Peyton Manning or Tom Brady don't truly care about money, and while they will be paid well because that's how markets work, players like Manning and Brady have achieved a level of play where rings matter more then money, this sense of obtaining mastery of their craft now they want to reap the rewards of that mastery. In these studies on motivation, especially the work of G. W. Russell, shows that someone who is paid enough to not worry about money, or that they can live comfortably, then money no longer motivates, they strive for a sense of mastery in their skill set. Take for example, with pay, at some point it doesn't make a difference, as someone who grew up middle class, I'd love to make a billion dollars, that would be huge, but after that, heck after the first hundred million, money losses it's value. The decreasing worth of an increase in pay is hugely important, because players like Manning don't care, largely, if they are the highest paid quarterback, or if they are making half a million more then the next guy, because that doesn't mean as much, Manning is set for life in terms of money. Brady is another example, he purposely takes a lower salary so the team can bring in more talent.

Brian Burke, over at Advanced NFL Stats, talks about how much an impact this makes to GM's and owners as well:

Peer esteem matters to owners and management too. The money isn't the main issue as long as their franchises are not hemorrhaging cash. They want the esteem of being the owner or manager of a championship team. Look at guys like Jerry Jones or Dan Snyder. They would never be satisfied with simply owning a winning team. They want the credit for building a champion, not just from fans, but from the clique of other owners and from the other elites with whom they rub elbows.

Esteem may seem like a vain and superficial thing to those of us in a modern society, but it almost certainly didn’t seem that way to our ancient ancestors. Human beings are compelled to compete and to win. It’s in our nature. We are all the descendants of winners, those early humans who competed with each other, often violently, for survival and for reproductive resources. In the early tribes of humans, the victors of competition were rewarded with high status, which allowed them a greater share of their tribe’s resources. We're all the result of that process.

History, all of history, is built on winners, it's a genetic thing, we are a largely competitive species. From dating to sports to education to mental ability, we are competitive.


Purpose... Take Kolb for example, he’d rather take a smaller check to start in Arizona then to take a bigger check in Philly. Now obviously players will be more motivated if they have a purpose, a goal. Steve Young said he never worked hard then when he was trying to beat Joe Montana in SF. Not when he was in law school, not after Montana left, he worked his hardest when he had that goal of starting. Goals, especially for groups of people, societies, teams, is more important then food, it is. A society without goals collapses fast then a snowman in San Diego. So motivational goals that lead to purpose so, so important for both individuals and teams.

Purpose rarely becomes an issue for a player in their prime, but for those fighting for a second life past their prime or for younger players, feeling like they have a reason to be on a team or that their contribute is huge. Take the example of a back like Thomas Jones, who was tossed aside after a great season by the Jet's, he feels like he needs to prove himself by carving out a spot on a team, and because of this he has a fantastic season in Kansas City, despite being being "over the hill" and "someone else's garbage." Purpose is closely tied to mastery because it deals with how a player views his role in the league as well as the team. A person, athlete or non, when told he has been told he has the chance to grow in his capacity, to serve a greater role in the group he is part of, will work harder to reach that goal because having that sense of purpose and a goal in sight is hugely motivating.

G.C. Roberts did a great study on purpose and intrinsic value in sports, and one huge aspect he found was that purpose was a driving force largely for those who may not be motivated by money but due to their competitive natures, they develop this driving force throughout high school and college and they are usually bench warmers but they still develop and grown, and are usually late bloomers in the NFL who make big impacts late in their careers.

Entertainment, a Forgotten Facet of Motivation:

One thing that is almost always forget in terms of sports, either in terms of pay, rewards, CBA news and other parts of sports, is that the NFL, and other leagues, are entertainment venues, and because of that, it needs to be treated differently then other markets and motivation. I mentioned this to Sergio:

Athletes fit into the category of entertainers, their salaries only fit into the pay scales of entertains. If we weren’t entertained, they would be payed less, much less. They wouldn’t be making nearly that much for their work if it weren’t for the entertainment value they bring. Because of them being entertainers in the strictest sense, motivation works very differently. You don’t necessarily get rewarded for being good, you get rewarded for pleasing your targeted audience. That is why rookies can get huge contracts, because fans are excited sot they express their approval and excitement by showing up to games and by the owner, a representative of the fans, giving them big paychecks. Players like Tebow, who, no matter what anyone says, hasn’t proven much. But despite that, game day ticket sales went up in 2010 over 2009 because of him, home games did better in sales because of him, even if he didn’t play, but his presence there sold tickets. In movies, a Morgan Freeman cameo in the trailer sells tickets, even if he’s only in one scene.

Some players, Ochocinco, Tebow, Owens, and others, embrace the entertainment aspect of sports more then others. Them being good means something, but once they've obtained fame, the use that fame to either sell themselves of their team, and their play doesn't mean much. Randy Moss and Albert Haynesworth are good examples of this, their past requires us to pay attention to them, and their names mean a lot in the NFL, but their current play in 2010 was crap, despite them still being well known and often popular players. So another aspect of motivation is the enjoyment and pride that comes with being an entertainer, Terrell Owens played harder knowing that his comeback games against his former teams would be broadcast and he wanted to play his best knowing it would be embarrassing for his old team as well as empowering for himself currently. Christina Frederick and Richard Ryan wrote a great piece in the Journal of Sport Behavior about how motivating it is to know that as a public figure, who entertains, to use revenge, pride and other base emotions to gain respect from teammates and to get fans on their side.

So while it is only a small percentage of players who embrace their entertainer role, those that do use it to the greatest amount, either for personal motivation, depreciation of their opponents or to gain respect.

A few quick points:

A few things I wanted to point out before we conclude:

This is from the original post. Now this deals with what the video talked about and why those three key points, autonomy, mastery and purpose work, it's because those largely apply in complex fields, where a person or community is present with a problem, and told to solve it, rather then an if-then issue:

Athletes fit into the category of mechanical duties, for the most part. Players are physical, and while a few, mostly team leaders, do mental training for the game, Manning for example, most of the game is physical, to improve they can build muscle, practice a throwing motion, agility training. Football, while having a mental aspect, is largely mechanical and physical.

Athletes by in large are not forced to deal with complex issues. An offensive coordinator may work with a great offensive mind like Peyton Manning on how to beat an opposing scheme, and a player will watch game film to find a weakness in an opposing squad, but for the most part, they are given a duty, and if they perform it, they've succeed. So in the NFL, most players are to be treated as mechanical workers rather then complex laborers, despite some time trying to dissect an issue.

That's what makes incentive laden contracts so tricky. In a contract for Peyton Manning, including a bonus for playoff wins is going to motivate better then applying that bonus to someone like Elvis Dumervil, who would be better motivated by a bonus dealing with something like achieving a certain number of sacks, tackles, or Pro Bowl appearances. For players, largely those outside the top 5 of a given position, money is a great motivator. A lineman will work get more sacks or tackles if told he can earn a couple thousand more dollars after the game if reaches a bench mark. A corner will more likely succeed if told he has money waiting if can create a turnover in a game. Money is a great short and long term motivator for most of the league. And while there are exceptions, studies show time and again, for athletes, money, contract bonuses, and praise, Pro Bowl and All-Pro, motivates.


M.H. Stiles, at a college sports motivation symposium, gave a great lecture on a survey he did among hundreds of college athletes across a number of sports. Here are his top reasons, outside of money, that motivates players to keep playing and succeed:

- Love of competition
- Challenge of difficult technique, and satisfaction in its mastery
- Competitive drive to excel, often in form of self-competition
- Congenial companionship with like-minded individuals
- Attainment of desired self-image

We see that these closely relate with the reasons that we already talked about.

Motivation changes from athlete to athlete, but over arcing trends exist, and we looked at those today. While we didn't discuss how coaches motivate, a totally different post that deals with other great group-mind issues that I would happily discuss. I did so because I wanted to look at what motivates a player in his mind, whether it be money, respect, growth, competitiveness or some other factor.

Sergio brought up a key point that applies to autonomy, purpose and mastery, and it is about McD's mantra of a player creates they spot on the team. A phrase like this is hugely driving for a player, as he feels that it's in his hands what he can achieve, and allows leadership on the team to easily gauge the best players. When a player is told that future is his to control, he has the mind set he has to earn his spot, which drives him to succeed, and he has the hope that even if he isn't the biggest name out there, or isn't as highly respected, he can still have a spot and a purpose on the team.

To really conclude this, research shows that in almost any capacity, group or effert, the greatest driving forces are danger and competitiveness, and while danger is a small factor in the NFL, it's hardly a main reason to exceel. And one more thing that McD did seem to do right, was inspire competition. His two main points from day 1 till the day he left, was competition and you create your role. Both are among the top motivators for humans as a race and even more so in terms of athetles.

So for those who made it, congrats, have a reward video on some true motivation:

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