The Role of Motivation in Sport

Motivation not only includes the reason for sport participation, but also examines the orientation of such motivation: Internally driven by innate or cultural values or externally driven by performance achievement, fear based orientations or the need to please.

Gucciardi, Mahoney, Jalleh, Donovan, and Parkes (2012) explore the role of personality type, specifically perfectionist profiles, to determine correlation between personality type and motivational strategy.   Their research represents an intrinsic approach to identifying athlete motivational constructs.  Conversely, research by Mouratidis, Lens, and Vansteenkiste (2010) examined the role of extrinsic motivational factors, namely coaching feedback, on athlete motivation. 

Traditionally, external factors have been seen in a negative light; for example, fear based motivation, the need to please, or avoidance mechanisms for negative consequences and social pressure to succeed.  Because of this, Mouratidis, Lens, and Vansteenkiste (2010) researched the role autonomy-suppporitve feedback may have in creating positivistic motivational orientations among athletes.  Aligned with self-determination theory’s perspective on intrinsic motivation, by constructing the coaching feedback in an autonomy-supporting way, Mouratidis, Lens, and Vansteenkiste (2010) effectively created an external environment that prompted intrinsic motivational constructs among athletes when coaching feedback was provided.

Both investigations examine facets of motivational orientation among elite athletes, which include national athletes, regional athletes, professional and semi-professional athletes.  Gucciardi, Mahoney, Jalleh, Donovan, and Parkes (2012) sought to determine whether perfectionism is a caveat of elite motivational orientation.  Research typifies perfectionist profiles into two principal domains of research; categorical and dimensional (Gucciardi, Mahoney, Jalleh, Donovan, & Parkes, 2012).  A categorical approach was utilized to examine adaptive perfectionists, maladaptive perfectionists and non perfectionists in a “person centered” evaluation of personality type on motivation in elite athletes (Gucciardi, Mahoney, Jalleh, Donovan, & Parkes, 2012).

Similarly, Mouratidis, Lens, and Vansteenkiste (2010) took an athlete-centered approach to examine the effect coaching style may exhibit on future performance and overall athlete well-being.  The way athletes internalize criticism is a function of the way feedback is provided; Mouratidis, Lens, and Vansteenkiste (2010) therefore sought to understand how autonomy supporting versus controlling communication is internalized by athletes and the subsequent outcome on future performances.

Mouratidis, Lens, and Vansteenkiste (2010) ascribe to the definition of corrective feedback provided by Amorose and Weiss (1998) which denotes statements that emphasize methods of improvement following performance trials and distinguishes between criticism, information processing and neutral statements.  Criticizing feedback includes emotional statements: “Awful; Terrible;” whereas informational feedback is task oriented: “Keep your eye on the ball”.  Neutral statements only provided indication whether the task was performed correctly or incorrectly: “That was wrong” (Mouratidis, Lens, & Vansteenkiste, 2010).  However, in review of literature, Mouratidis, Lens, and Vansteenkiste (2010) recognize that despite evidence in support of autonomy-supportive feedback in athlete motivation, individual personality traits may moderate the extent to which autonomy-supportive feedback is positively internalized; self-esteem, self-efficacy, pervious performance and personal achievement goal orientation collectively influence the way athletes internalize corrective feedback.

The influence of personality traits on motivation is later recognized in the study by Gucciardi, Mahoney, Jalleh, Donovan, and Parkes (2012).  Review of literature by  Gucciardi, Mahoney, Jalleh, Donovan, and Parkes (2012) finds perfectionism – or “A tendency to strive for exceedingly high standards of performance” (Gucciardi, Mahoney, Jalleh, Donovan, & Parkes, 2012, p.159) – at the center of elite-level athletics.  While a range of perfectionist profiles have been identified in literature (Frost, Marten, Lahart, and Rosenblate (1990); Hewitt and Flett (1991); and Stoeber and Otto (2006) as cited by Gucciardi, Mahoney, Jalleh, Donovan, & Parkes, 2012), it is maintained that two principal domains emerge as discussed earlier.  These domains of research, considered categorical or dimensional modes, quantify perfectionist profiles by qualitative or quantitative differences respectively. Dimensional research in perfectionism quantifies varying degrees of perfectionism (such as low, medium, or high) and although it may provide correlational data, dimensional research lacks insight as to extent the type and kind of perfectionist profile may affect performance (Gucciardi, Mahoney, Jalleh, Donovan, & Parkes, 2012).

As stated previously, both study cohorts consisted of elite athletes, however age ranges of subjects in Gucciardi, Mahoney, Jalleh, Donovan, and Parkes’ (2012) study were much greater:  423 elite athletes between 14 and 66 years with a mean age of 25.64 years with a standard deviation of 8.57 years.  The younger cohort of elite athletes represented in the Mouratidis, Lens, and Vansteenkiste (2010) study had an average age of 15.59 years with a standard deviation of only 2.37 years.  Similar sports were represented among the study participants in both studies, and athletes had participated in their respective sports for an average of five years or more in both investigations.  Gender differences may exist in each study as there was not equal representation of male and female participations.  Of the 423 athletes represented in the research by Mouratidis, Lens, and Vansteenkiste (2010), 244 were females, comprising 57% of the study sample.  Females represented 32.9% of the sample population in the Gucciardi, Mahoney, Jalleh, Donovan, and Parkes (2012) study.

Criticisms of the Sport-MPS utilized by Gucciardi, Mahoney, Jalleh, Donovan, and Parkes (2012) include underrepresentation of findings due to the limited dimensionality of the Sport-MPS.  When compared to the original Frost-MPS questionnaire, the sport questionnaire is suggested to lack quantification of various other domains of motivation normally represented when utilizing a self-determination model.  Such dimensions include amotivation, introjected regulation and identified regulation.  Furthermore, the data represent correlational values and does not indicate the cause of such outcomes.  Mouratidis, Lens, and Vansteenkiste (2010) however, identify autonomy supportive feedback as a potentially causal representation of the correlational data collected.  Unfortunately, Mouratidis, Lens, and Vansteenkiste (2010) did not assess the independent relation of either autonomy-supportive or controlling feedback.  The young study cohort may also preferentially respond to particular modes of feedback due to both the developmental and training age.

Results presented by Gucciardi, Mahoney, Jalleh, Donovan, and Parkes (2012) support a categorical and “athlete-centered approach” to the quantification and interpretation of perfectionist profiles.  Three motivational orientations emerged dependent on the distinct perfectionist type profiles identified (achievement goals, fear of failure, and motivation regulation). Corrective feedback can potentially mitigate negative internalizations that some perfectionist profiles may exhibit, given that feedback is provided in an Autonomy-supportive style.  Providing feedback that supports self-determination theory was also determined to be closely associated with optimal forms of motivation and emotional regulation during performance training (Mouratidis, Lens, & Vansteenkiste, 2010).

Future research should aim to examine gender differences as well as the independent role of autonomy-supportive versus controlling corrective feedback.  More research is needed to determine whether the domains of perfectionism represented in the Mouratidis, Lens, and Vansteenkiste (2010) study accurately reflect the principal perfectionist profiles and respective motivational orientation.


Gucciardi, D. F., Mahoney, J., Jalleh, G., Donovan, R. J., & Parkes, J. (2012). Perfectionistic profiles among elite athletes and differences in their motivational orientations. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 34, 159–183.

Mouratidis, A., Lens, W., & Vansteenkiste, M. (2010). How you provide corrective feedback makes a difference: The motivating role of communicating in an autonomy-supporting way. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 32, 619–637.

Kate, MS, CSCS

BECAUSE THE WINS ARE EARNED, NOT GIVEN. #ENGPERFORMANCE Since 2008, Engard Athletics has provided quality, evidence-based training to hundreds of clients and athletes in the Valley. Now, utilizing advanced training techniques and challenging the fitness industry, I’m providing this elite level experience to you online. Our training programs include movement prep, periodized strength training, recovery therapy, performance nutrition plans and motivational strategies that optimize performance outcomes.

All author posts
Write a comment