Almost everything you need to know about motivation in sports and beyond


Motivation often becomes the cornerstone of success, because so far too many leaders prefer to turn a blind eye to mastering the science of motivation.

We often hear from the heads of top clubs and well-known companies that football players and employees are required to be motivated by the employer’s name alone. But if you start looking at these clubs and companies who have such a high opinion of their brand, you’ll find out that they are the ones that have the biggest problems.

Remember Steve Ballmer of Microsoft saying that. When motivation experts recall negative examples, a certain “large technology company” often slips out, the name of which is not called. Ballmer had a personal view of the motivation of employees, except it was in the opposite direction from efficiency.

Several times, I happened to hear a story about Microsoft disbanding the entire department, completely abandoning their developments. But at the same time, all the employees of the department remained in the company. Naturally, the specialists had no more motivation to work for the company, as they frankly stated.

But one could easily prevent this by analyzing the work of the department element by element and considering the way to apply these developments in any form possible. People would then understand that their work was not in vain.

Let’s not forget though about stack ranking introduced by Ballmer into Microsoft. All employees of the company were divided into groups according to their productivity. The future of the person in the company and his/her salary depended on the group and his/her place in it. Reclassification took place every six months, therefore the goals were set for this time period, and some employees tried to negatively affect the work of their colleagues, so as not to get to the bottom of the group.

A similar model of motivation is called the Super-chicken Model. It involves a constant struggle with others to be on top. Its name was obtained from the experiment with chickens.

Evolutionary biologist William Muir from Purdue University studied chickens. He wanted to increase the egg-laying productivity, so Muir conducted the following experiment: he selected a group of ordinary chickens and let them alone for six generations.

The researcher then selected a group of the most productive chicks (super-chickens). Muir picked out only the most fertile specimen from each generation of this group to procreate.

What happened after six generations? The first group, consisting of the average specimen, had good outcomes. Its representatives were in an excellent physical shape and had their productivity increased drastically.

What did the researcher discover about the second group? After six generations, only three chicken units remained alive. The rest were pecked by them to death. Individually productive chicks (super-chickens) had achieved success by suppressing other members of the group.

This experiment obviously gained popularity in the business environment, because it allowed drawing the analogy with the functioning of most companies and even states. Moreover, it was confirmed on people.

But the destructive essence of this problem was understood long before this study. I’ve already considered the problem of sport one way, but the Super-chicken Model provides an understanding of this issue in a different light.

In 1984, Robert Goldman conducted a survey of 198 elite professional athletes. He asked whether they would accept doping if it guaranteed them success in sport but caused them to die after five years. 52% of the surveyed athletes responded in the affirmative. This issue became known as Goldman’s dilemma.

Unfortunately, the Super-chicken Model is still being used not only in many sports clubs and companies, but it is also the basis of the generally accepted education model. Instead of focusing on gaining knowledge by all the participants, it encourages the struggle for grades in school, which in university develops into a struggle with other students.

What do employers get from such employees? They get the focus on fighting other employees, rather than working for the benefit of the company and maintaining the right microclimate in the working community.

There are many experiments of various kinds that demonstrate on simple examples how motivation works in this case. One of the best-known examples in this area is the IKEA Effect described in 2011 on the basis of a study by Michael Norton, Daniel Mochon, and Dan Ariely.

The essence of the IKEA effect is that the work we do to assemble a product (like IKEA furniture) increases the value of this product for ourselves.

This feature of our perception has been known to marketers since the massive emergence of semi-finished products in the middle of the 20th century. However, this information was systematized only when behavioral economics flourished.

The researchers have demonstrated that this effect is true for other activities as well, in which participants use their creativity, including the one which involves financial motivation.

In the psychology of motivation, there is a division of motivation into the intrinsic and the extrinsic. Within the behavioral economics, researchers came to similar conclusions.

Intrinsic motivation is the most effective. With this kind of motivation, a person has a pure desire to do something. As to the extrinsic motivation, there are different kinds of it. It can be financial. The financial motivation is believed to be the most inefficient. By the way, in the article on the mistakes that football clubs make I provided an example of the destructive force of financial motivation.

When our actions are guided by intrinsic motivation, we feel good. As soon as the extrinsic one interferes, e.g. when we work for money, for the sake of assessments, or to avoid punishment, some problems begin.

In addition to the obvious positive properties of extrinsic motivation, like money earned or punishment escaped, a number of psychological problems arise. I mean, for the employer, the negative side of extrinsic motivation is not only the ineffectiveness of the employee’s activity but also the infliction of psychological traumas on him/her.

A long-term strategy can be built effectively only on the basis of intrinsic motivation (albeit with a bit of extrinsic motivation involved). Extrinsic motivation achieves short-term goals.

A serious problem faced by employers is the extremely low stack ranking of work by employees. The study by British scientists Mathew P. White and Paul Dolan enabled us to discover that among the 18 major kinds of activities, work ranks lowest in providing pleasure. Even the housework, which ranks second to last, got a much more positive result.

In the minds of people though, of all activities, work should bring the greatest reward. Interestingly, volunteer work ranks middle in pleasure providing but vies with work in reward expectancy.

Let me remind you that evolutionarily, we tend to manifest altruism for selfish reasons. Evolution tried to make us “love” altruism, to increase the chances of mutual assistance in the future (which increases our chances of survival, and hence procreation). It’s this reward for volunteering expectancy that proves it.

Now back to work. In the psychology of motivation, it is believed that such perception of work is due precisely to financial motivation, which negatively affects the intrinsic one. I mean, if you let things go on their own, you will eventually find out that people who loved their work just a short time ago grow disappointed in their activities when get paid for.

Since it is difficult to do without financial motivation, this is where various tools intended to help sustain the intrinsic one come in.

Behavioral economics allows us to understand that it requires the involvement of your employees and even clients in the creative process. It is worth noting that if a person’s work does not allow a significant engagement of his/her creative side, the internal motivation factor is reduced. Fortunately, you can even engage the creative side in the most unexpected professions.

Involvement of people should be well-thought-out and as full as possible, without pretending to grant a little authority by using simple campaigns or voting on social media. You have to fully delegate authority, determining the predictable limits of it.

The IKEA Effect just serves as a good example of such authority delegation. A bad example is voting of the name application or design selection. As numerous examples show, you’re going to face negative consequences. It is quite likely they will want to make fun of you by offering you an insulting name or an awful design.

But even without trolling, you won’t get the right degree of involvement and real opinion through a serious voting without the neuromarketing tools.

With a work group or a sports team, first of all, you’ve got to make sure the top management and the coaching staff is well acquainted with the psychology of motivation.

Members of the work group and team should feel respected and involved in achieving common goals even if they don’t appear to make an essential contribution to the team success.

Approaches can differ. The more factors will be taken into account, the better. Every year, mankind progresses further in understanding its own brain and motivation. I find it strange that by no means all regard this as an important factor in achieving a result.

All the more, psychology is important not only for the game settings of the athlete or the motivation of the employee, many daily routine trifles are essential. It is important to be able to combine large team goals and daily routine.

In addition, work with each athlete and employee on the achievement of the greatest efficiency should be individual. You’ve got to be at least partly acquainted with the self-determination theory.

English has got a concept of “pep talk” for a motivational, inflammatory speech. It is often ridiculed because without understanding the importance of various factors in motivation, a motivational speech becomes just an essential element of a team’s life – an element which often loses its meaning. You’ve got to consider this factor separately.

Surely then, you have to monitor the overall atmosphere in the team. The Super-chicken Model proved inconsistent not only among chickens. A study by Professor of Psychology at Stanford University Carol Dweck revealed that companies with a Super-chicken Model outlook were less innovative because employees are afraid to make a mistake. Think of the Microsoft case described at the beginning of the article.

Each case has got its own serious approach. But you can make significant progress on your own if guided by the logic I’ve described.

If you need a deep professional approach, you can write to us at E-mail, and our group of professionals including me will help your team work more efficiently and with more pleasure.


Best regards,

Leon The Alien


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Images: Matteo Vistocco, Craig Whitehead, Giphy