Competition Is Bad For Motivation, by Justin Coulson

By Justin Coulson
School of Psychology, University of Wollongong

If you’re a competitive cyclist then one of your main goals is to win!

Would you believe me if I told you competition can be bad for motivation? What about if I told you that prizes, trophies, and cash can actually make some people less interested in riding their bike?

A friend recently made the following observation:

“I have some mates who love to race and racing is the only reason they ride their bikes. They don’t love cycling – just the self-validation on winning races. Going out for a morning ride in the hills as the sun is rising and the world is coming alive doesn’t interest them. In contrast, I just love riding.”

Are they kidding? Who wouldn’t want a morning ride through the hills on a perfect morning?

Yet psychologists have found, in dozens of studies, rewards make people less motivated to participate in tasks. Rewards can actually be counterproductive to motivation.

Here’s one reason why:

Rewards focus individuals on performance, rather than mastery.

Researchers have shown that rewards can drive us to either approach or avoid a situation based on our perception of what our performance will be. In a situation where we think we will do well, we approach it. Why wouldn’t we. We’ll smash everyone! But in a situation where we may not do so well against some strong rivals, we’ll avoid the race.

Here’s an example… A training buddy of mine won a handicap recently and his mark was moved back to scratch as a result. In the next race I promised to let him hold my wheel on the climbs (as climbing was not his strong point). But he was scared to ride off scratch, feeling that he couldn’t possibly repeat his performance from so far back. The race began and after only 6kms he dropped out, avoiding a performance situation. This training buddy consistently enters races only when he knows he can win. He consistently rides a grade below his ability and plays games so the handicapper never quite knows his ability (such as never competing in a TT).

In contrast, riders who choose not to focus on rewards are often oriented towards mastery and learning. These riders are not motivated by the extrinsic allure of the reward. Rather, for them it’s all about the riding, the strategies and tactics, and the chance to do better this week than last week. These are riders who know they cannot control the performance of other riders, but they can refine, enhance, and change their own performance. Doing the best they can is more important than doing better than everyone else. It’s the riders with a learning orientation who don’t suffer decreases in motivation.

Here are another couple of reasons why competition can be bad for motivation:

1. Related to approach and avoid is the issue of competence. If a rider is not sufficiently competent to win a race, motivation dwindles. We see this with all the DNF’s, or the late bunch that dawdles across the line. The attitude here is “Hey, if I can’t win I’m not going to bust myself trying to get 25th place.” Similarly, if a rider is enormously superior to the other racers, the motivation to work hard is also diminished.

2. Competition and rewards can rupture relationships. One of the hardest cyclists I know nearly gave up on the sport because after a hard-fought strong second place (not a win), other cyclists were cold, rude, and downright horrible to him. (And no, he’s not a pansy. He just appreciates a little bit of sportsmanship).

3. The presence of rewards can actually make someone feel compelled to race. Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that loss of autonomy reduces motivation. This may be a particularly relevant issue for professional cyclists. Riding and racing may once have been a passion. Now it’s a commitment, a requirement. If it isn’t done, the bills don’t get paid. Participation becomes motivated by external, rather than internal, factors. (Many professional athletes acknowledge this, such as McEnroe, Agassi, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Victoria Pendleton, and arguable Cavendish and Wiggins – perhaps even Cadel).

A personal anecdote: This is not only relevant to pro’s. When I first discovered prize money in racing, I was excited. Then I won some. The next couple of races I didn’t win any! The let down nearly saw me walk away from racing unless I knew I could place in an event. My focus had shifted from learning and mastery to performance. My motivation disintegrated.

Do rewards motivate us? Yes they do. They motivate us to get rewards!

I’m not suggesting that we should stop competitions. I personally am dying for the winter road season to start again, and am about to try my luck on track for the first time.

What I am suggesting though, is that those who love cycling will foster that love by being focused on what they love, and ignoring the rewards. And those who are only doing it for the rewards… enjoy them… while the rest of us enjoy the view from the top of our early morning ride in the hills.

Justin Coulson

 
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