Are You Intrinsically or Extrinsically Motivated?


, by Jazmine Lowther

Photography by: imtmphoto

The fact that you are motivated to train or race (or train and race) is an achievement in itself. But to enjoy long-term participation and success in your sport, it can be helpful to understand intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and when and why to use them.

When it comes to endurance sports, the easy part is signing up for races. The hard part is training, rain or shine, day after day to prepare for events. You must dig for motivation, discipline, and habits to show up daily and be successful. The source of motivation exists somewhere on a sliding scale between intrinsic and extrinsic dominant factors. Are recreational or elite athletes more on one side or the other? Which is more important for your perseverance and success in sport? Let’s find out.

Motivation Types

Intrinsic motivation results when athletes pursue an activity because they enjoy the act itself. For instance, an athlete may value the daily training process, the hard workouts, the training days in the rain, and the challenges it brings. The focus is less on the outcome itself but more on the process - the experience - as hard or enjoyable as it may be. Intrinsically rewarding activities are cited to rouse a state of “flow,” where a person may become hyper-focused, absent of anxieties or resentment in the current moment (5).

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Within intrinsic motivation, three motives edge a person forward. First, the 'motivation to know' includes curiosity, exploration, and a desire to learn. Second, is the 'motivation to accomplish', which includes efficiency and mastery. Third, the 'motivation to experience' includes the pleasure of engaging in the activity and excitement (1).

The importance of motivation and differences between recreational and elite athletes. Photography by: Strava

Intrinsic motivation can backfire when engaging in an unenjoyable activity, e.g., a hard training session, and lead to disengagement (4). This is often when extrinsic motivation needs to step in to assist in pursuing the activity (remember that race you signed up for?). Specific coaching can also help grow the enjoyment of the activity, with the correct level of challenge and novelty, and cultivate the understanding of the “why” behind it.

Extrinsic motivation occurs when a person is motivated to act a certain way for something other than the act itself. Classic examples are recognition, qualifying for a race, prize money, or beating a competitor. Extrinsic motivation can also be further characterized into several types. For instance, an athlete may participate in a sport because of the sense of belonging within the community it provides (3). An athlete may strength train, even though they dislike it, as they understand that it helps their performance or for body compositional changes (3). Additionally, athletes may pursue competition for the praise they receive from their peers, coaches, and family. For most athletes, extrinsic motivation helps create a strong work ethic for facing seemingly insurmountable challenges (4).

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Extrinsic motivation that departs further from the act itself (e.g., to be recognized by parents) is more associated with depression, anxiety, and poor mental health (3). An athlete may feel obligated to compete in a race to avoid feeling ashamed or guilty (3). Or obligated to train due to fear of failure (4). For athletes, these factors can build a sense of low self-worth and mental health issues or cause the athlete to disengage from their sport.

Intrinsic motivation can backfire when engaging in an unenjoyable activity (e.g. a hard training session)... This is when extrinsic motivation needs to step in (remember that race you signed up for?)

“Amotivation” is the antithesis of motivation, in which a person has no connection to the relationship between their action and the outcome (1). Since a person is neither intrinsically nor extrinsically motivated, they would not have a “why” to engage in an activity (2). This prevents long-term participation or perseverance in an activity.

The importance of your training environment

Often, your coach (if you have one) is the greatest influence on your social climate. A coach can influence positive motivational types if they help you focus on tasks or create stepping stones in your process, assist you in building competence and autonomy (e.g., offer choices), actively listen to your perspectives, and provide empathy (3). A task-oriented environment grows healthy confidence and empowers you (4). A negative motivational environment can occur if your coach focuses on outcomes or comparisons, uses control or pressure, and distrusts your choices or opinions (3).

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Additionally, coaches who acknowledge their athlete's rigorous efforts can drive athletes to complete the task again as a form of extrinsic motivation (4). This works especially well for new tasks but should be completed sparingly or appropriately as it can create dependence, disappointment, boredom, and undermine intrinsic motivation (4).

Differences between Elite and Recreational athletes

Elite athletes naturally have more extrinsic motivators since it becomes a career they invest in. Opportunities for praise, bonuses, podium prizes, fame, and more are rampant. Elite athletes commonly seek competitions that amass the most competitive field to be regarded as the best in their sport. However, if an elite athlete becomes too extrinsically motivated, like winning at all costs, it can lead to cheating, acting unsportsmanlike, or depression (4,2). Elite athletes who are motivated primarily intrinsically are also prone to depression, which may be due to the increased demands of sports (3). A balance between motivators must be found for elite athletes to have successful careers.

Photography by: Jade Maas/

Recreational and elite athletes will have a sliding scale of motivation types. Both may be extrinsically motivated through praise and recognition. Recreational athletes may also be extrinsically motivated for the community, health benefits, finishing a race, or even body composition changes. However, recreational athletes may have fewer extrinsically motivating opportunities and must depend more on intrinsic motivators for perseverance in sports.

Which is More Important?

Both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation are important, with pros and cons (4). Intrinsic motivation is foundational for long-term engagement in a sport. You participate in your sport because you enjoy it. Extrinsic motivation may grow over time and help you reach higher levels in sports, but it is less necessary if you are participating recreationally (4).

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Being explicitly intrinsically or extrinsically motivated can cause plateaus or disengagement. Coaches should provide praise when credit is due, like when learning new skills, but not excessively all the time (4). Use extrinsic motivation for long-term goal planning, like visualizing yourself at your priority race. Intrinsic motivation is helpful for short-term, task-oriented goals, like practicing flow state while running or being curious about mastering new technical skills in your sport. Understanding extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, when to use them, and why can help lead to longer-term enjoyment, participation, and success in your sport.


  1. Bojkowski Ł. (2022). Psychological Femininity and Masculinity and Motivation in Team Sports. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 19(23):15767. doi: 10.3390/ijerph192315767.

  2. Fortier, M. et al. (1995). Competitive and Recreational Sport Structures and Gender: A Test of Their Relationship with Sport Motivation. Journal of Sport Psychology. 26: 24-39.

  3. Sheehan, R., Herring, M., & Campbell, M. (2018). Associations Between Motivation and Mental Health in Sport: A Test of the Hierarchical Model of Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation. Frontiers in Psychology. 9.

  4. Sulistianta, H., & Nanda, F.A. (2022). Review of Research Articles on Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation on Athlete Success. Journal of Physical Education, Health and Sport. 9 (2): 37-44.

  5. Tops, M., & Bakker, A. B. (2021). Go with the flow: A neuroscientific view on being fully engaged. European Journal of Neuroscience. 53(4), 947-963.

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