By Dr. Randy Borum
Why do you participate in martial arts? Knowing the answer will likely determine your degree of success and how long you stay active in the sport. There is not a single correct answer, although some motivations certainly will serve your goals better than others.
Motivation is not only important for the “outcome” of how well you perform, but also for the “process” of getting there. It will affect which martial art you choose, how much you enjoy it, how often you will train, how much effort you will devote, how you will handle setbacks, and how you will persist when it gets tough or things aren’t going your way.
What you think and how you feel about participating in a martial art is driven largely by how you interpret, understand or explain your experience. They are attributions – the explanations we create for ourselves about how and why things happen the way they do. Sport psychologists point to three kinds of attributions that will affect motivation.
The first category of attribution is stability – whether your performance was caused by some factor or condition that is stable (or permanent) or unstable (or temporary). Imagine, for example, you are rehearsing a complex kata to prepare for an upcoming belt test, but you consistently make mistakes. You might decide your poor performance is due to a relatively stable factor – like lack of coordination or athleticism – or an unstable factor – like not having sufficient practice or being tired.
The second category of attribution is locus of causality - whether your performance was caused by something you did (internal) – like devoting extra time to practice - or by something external to you (external) – like your instructor being in a bad mood on test day.
The third category concerns the locus of control - whether your performance resulted from something you control – like your preparation – or something beyond your control, like a slippery mat. Your attributions are important because they affect your emotional response to past performance and your expectations for future success.
Psychologists often talk about motivations being intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic rewards are those that come from inside ourselves, like feelings of accomplishment or fun. Extrinsic motivators are rewards given to us- such as prize money, belts, trophies or praise - for our participation or performance. Top athletes in nearly every sport possess a high degree of intrinsic motivation. They may also receive abundant extrinsic rewards, but if those become the primary reason for competing, it can suck some of their enjoyment right out of the sport. A fire needs to burn from within. But different fires produce different kinds of light.
In the 1980s, there was a surge of research in sport psychology on "achievement goal theory." Researchers found two main dimensions of achievement motivation in sports. They are commonly referred to as Task Orientation and Ego Orientation. Those with a high task orientation are motivated by feeling really competent at what they do, giving their best effort, and by constantly improving their skills. Those with a high ego orientation are motivated mainly by feeling they are better than others, showing their ability, and by the outcome of winning.
This is not an all-or-nothing distinction, but most athletes – particularly those who compete - o tend to lean more heavily to one than the other. The worst case is to be low on both dimensions. In some studies, athletes high on both have tended to be the highest achievers. As a martial artist, instructor or coach, knowing and monitoring the balance of goal orientations can pay huge dividends in training and in competition.
British Sport Psychologist Chris Harwood offers a set of statements based on existing sport questionnaires as a rough guide to assess your own achievement goal profile:
When do you feel most successful in your sport?
- - When I'm the only one who can do a certain skill
- - When I'm the best
- - When others mess up and I don't
- - When I'm clearly superior
- - When others can't do as well as me
Athletes with a high level of ego orientation, tend to agree strongly with the statements above. Those with a high task orientation tend to register strong agreement with statements such as these:
- - When I work really hard
- - When I perform to the best of my ability
- - When a skill I learn really feels right
- - When I show clear personal improvement
- - When I overcome difficulties
Here's another way to look at it: when you read the following two sets of words, which one immediately appeals to you more:
- - Learning, Improvement, Mastery
- - Winning, Ability, Superiority
The first set of words obviously relates more to task orientation, while the second is more resonant with ego orientation. The question is not so much whether you have a preference, but whether that preference is balanced in favor of your performance.
Having – or developing - a strong task orientation has some real advantages for the martial artist looking to excel. Research shows that task-oriented athletes are more confident, less anxious, have a more stable appraisal of their sport skills and abilities, set more challenging goals, and are more persistent in adverse circumstances.
From a coach's perspective, developing task orientation is worth the investment because it will cause a martial artist to more actively seek and better use instruction and feedback. Though temperament and early sport experiences may predispose a martial artist to lean in the direction of either ego- or task-orientation, these motivations also can be cultivated in training. Coaches, teammates, and training partners – even the overall atmosphere of a school or of a competition– can affect a martial artist’s perception of rewards, reactions, and sport-related values. These factors shape what sport psychologists call the motivational climate.
Remember why you first started training in martial arts, and reflect now, on why you continue. Let your motivation align with your goals.