The Need to Achieve

John Beeby Sports Psychologist

To compete at the highest level, an athlete must have a high level of motivation to achieve excellence. The ability for any athlete to motivate themselves will depend greatly on each individual’s goal orientation. The pressure that athletes face both physically and mentally during the hours of practice and training can be demanding. In sport today there are many athletes that will do anything to achieve success. This drive for success is one factor that motivates an athlete to achieve.

In sport there is a high degree of commitment to achieve. It is this commitment that provides the energy and persistence needed for the hard training programmes which may lead to experiencing either success or failure in competition. Maddles, Kirkby and McDonald (1989)[i] in a study of elite middle distance runners and their ability to cope when being in a slump, found that there was a shared motivational characteristic. They all had a “remorseless, unshakeable determination to beat the rest of the world in their chosen event”. Motivation is a key factor in an elite athlete’s drive for excellence. Deci and Ryan (1985)[ii] argue that people’s emotions vary. Typically intrinsic motivated people engage in an activity purely for the pleasure and satisfaction, derived from doing the activity. The individual will perform in the activity despite the absence of any material rewards or external constraints. Whereas, an extrinsic motivated individual is driven primarily to respond to something apart from the activity itself, such as a reward or recognition. Motivation can drive success and subsequently confidence and positive thinking.

The social cognitive approach to this achievement motivation provides us with some understanding of the overemphasis on winning by some athletes. Nicholls (1989)[iii] argued that the achievement motivation is based on how athletes perceive their own ability. Athletes have their own pre-conceptions of what success is their own definition of success structures and this shapes their behaviour. It is suggested that there are two types of goal perspectives that are adopted by the athletes. They are the task-involved and ego-involved athlete. The athletes who use a task-involved approach will see achievement related to self-identification of ability and success.

The athlete’s focus is concentrated on achievement rather than the task and its success. The athlete that has an ego-involved approach will concentrate on the social-comparisons of others. The athlete’s development is concentrated on having superior ability against other individuals. The task-involved athlete will emphasize the intrinsic side of sport, for example, the enjoyment and fun that is achieved through their experiences. Whereas, an athlete that is ego-involved will emphasize the extrinsic benefits of sport, for example, the prizes, money or medals. This drive for success has also been described as relating to the fear of failing. This idea is concentrated on the individual’s cognitive state anxiety that is the mental component of anxiety caused through fear, often by negative self-evaluation. McClelland-Atkinson (1976)[iv], suggest that the achievement of motivation is based on two constructs. These two constructs are the motive to achieve success and the fear of failure. The motive to achieve success relates to the athlete’s perception of their ability to be successful in the competitive situation. The fear of failure relates to the negative self-evaluation of losing when entering the same competitive situation.   An athlete entering into a challenging situation will evaluate the situation by the strength of these two constructs. For example, an athlete who perceives that their self-confidence, in performing a particular task, is stronger, than the fear of failing at the task, then the athlete will evaluate their situation positively, that is he will approach and perform in the task. Another approach has been suggested, known as the reversal theory. Apter (1982)[v] provided a theory of personality and motivation. This theory argues that individuals pose a series of metamotivational states. These metamotivational states are frames of mind that influence ones motives at any particular time. These states do not determine motives or necessarily affect behaviour directly however, related people experience their motives. There are four different pairs of metamotivational states that are possessed with the athlete’s motivational processes. These include the telic-paratelic, negativistic–conformist, mastery-sympathy and autic-alloic pairs. Some individuals have a tendency to spend more time in one or other of a metamotivational pair of states. While an individual tends to be dominant in either orientation, each individual has the ability to switch back and forth between the two states. The ability to switch between states in known as reversal.

There has been some support for this application. Kerr and Vlaswinkel (1993)[vi], found a significant change between the telic-paratelic dimensions when runners followed a structured running programme. Males et al. (1998)[vii] demonstrated that athletes were experiencing general patterns of metamotivational states during different stages of competition. It has been suggested that there are three factors that interact to bring about a psychological reversal. These factors are 1) contingent events, 2) frustration and 3) satiation. Contingent events relates to the situational context of the individual within the sport. Frustration can cause a switch between states as a result of obtaining satisfaction. Satiation, refers to an innate dynamic force for change. An innate internal drive affects some form of psychological reversal. Some individuals in sport, it has been argued, can be either telic or paratelic dominant. Telic dominant individuals have a good directed orientation towards performance. A paratelic individual has a ‘here and now’ orientation to the situation. For example, in martial arts there are many aspects that would suggest that competitors experience an association with the telic state. In martial arts there is a goal-oriented hierarchy system of grading of belts for a variety of levels of achievement. In competition competitors are very much focused on the goal directed towards scoring points against their opponent in order to win. However, there are strict rules that control and limit the competitor in obtaining the points. This would seem to associate the athlete with the telic state. While in a telic state of mind the athlete will seek to reduce the level of arousal that is experienced to a state of relaxation. Whereas, an athlete that is in a paratelic state of mind, would seek to increase arousal in order to increase the excitement levels. Kerr and Cox (1988)[viii] indicated that higher skilled squash players were better able to produce preferred or desired levels of arousal.

[i] Lazarrus, R.S (2000). Athlete; emotion; achievement; sport; theoretical-model. The Sport Psychologist, 14, 229 – 252.

[ii] Deci and Ryan, (1985). In Jackson, S.A.(1998). Psychological Correlates of Flow in Sport. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 20, 358-378.

[iii] Nicholls, J. G. (1989). The competitive ethos and democratic education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[iv] McClelland, D. C., Atkinson, J.W., Clark, R. W., & Lowell, E. L. (1976). The achievement motive (second edition). New York: Irvington.

[v] Apter, M.J. (1982), The Experience of Motivation: ATheory of Psychology Reversals, Academic 

Press, Chichester and New York, NY.

[vi] Kerr, J. H., & Vlaswinkel, L. (1993). Self-reported mood and running under natural

conditions. Work & Stress, 7, 161-178.

[vii] Males, J. R. & Kerr, J. H., & Gerkovich, M. M. (1998). Metamotivational states during canoe slalom competition: A qualitative analysis using reversal theory. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 10, 185-200.

[viii] Kerr, J.H., & Cox, T.(1998). Effects of metamotivational dominance and metamotivational states on squash task performance. Perceptual and Motor Skills,  67, 171-174.