Why does the "fire" burn so brightly for some elite athletes and not for others? A good understanding of an athlete's motivation is critical to a coach designing an appropriate motivational environment that might enable an elite athlete to realize their physical talent. This paper examined the motivational processes of elite athletes in individual sports (i.e., track and field and swimming) within the framework of three major social-cognitive theories of motivation, namely, achievement goal theory, self-determination theory, and the hierarchical model of motivation. Elite athletes were defined as those athletes who had represented Australia in major competitions (e.g., Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games).
There were two major studies. Due to the lack of empirical research on the motivations of elite athletes, the first study used a qualitative methodology to explore the motivational processes of elite athletes. Qualitative data were collected using semi-structured interviews from five male and five female elite track and field athletes from Australia who had finished in the top 10 at either the Olympic Games and/or the World Championships in the last six years.
Inductive analyses revealed several major themes associated with the motivational processes of elite athletes: (a) they were highly driven by personal goals and achievement, (b) they had strong self-belief, (c) track and field was central to their lives. Self-determined forms of motivation characterized the elite athletes in this study and, consistent with social-cognitive theories of motivation, it is suggested that goal accomplishment enhances perceptions of competence and consequently promotes self-determined forms of motivation. Consistent with self-determination theory, integrated regulated extrinsic motivation was identified as a source of motivation for these elite track and field athletes.
The interpretive research of the first study provided a rich description of the motivation of some elite track and field athletes. To build upon the information gained from the first study, the subsequent study examined more specific research questions. Three research questions were examined. First, are there motivational differences between participants in individual sports at various competition levels? Second, is there a motivational profile that is predictive of international athletes? Third, does perceived competence mediate or moderate the relationship between goal orientation and motivation for elite athletes?
The second study examined the motivational processes of elite athletes using a quantitative methodology. The questionnaire package included the Task and Ego Orientation in Sport Questionnaire (TEOSQ), the Perceived Competence (PC) subscale of the Intrinsic Motivation Inventory (IMI), and an adapted version of the Sport Motivation Scale (SMS). The SMS was modified to accommodate an extra subscale, integrated extrinsic motivation. Confirmatory factor analysis of the modified version of the SMS supported the eight-factor model and specifically the additional subscale, integrated regulation. Hence this modified instrument was used in subsequent analyses.
A 2 (Sex) X 4 (Performance Level) MANCOVA with the eight types of motivation serving as the dependent variable and age as the covariate was conducted to examine differences in motivation. The international group, compared with the other three performance levels, reported significantly lower levels of introjection (p< .001). Motivational differences between men and women were not found. A discriminant function analysis found that introjection was the strongest predictor in discriminating membership of the international group from the other three groups (p < .001).
Correlations and hierarchical regression analyses were conducted to examine the role of perceived competence in Vallerand's (1997) motivational sequence. Perceived competence was not found to mediate or moderate the relationship between goal orientation and any form of motivation.
Overall, the two studies demonstrated that elite sport does not always undermine self-determined motivation or promote non-self-determined motivation. Contrary to public perception, elite athletes may not be driven by extrinsic rewards per se. What is of critical importance is the interpretation of that reward. For the elite athletes in this study, the rewards (e.g., medals, money) were informational rather than controlling, which is consistent with social-cognitive theories of motivation. Accomplishment enhanced perceptions of competence and self-determination that, in turn, promoted self-determined forms of motivation and inhibited non self-determined forms of motivation.