Competitive Sport: Are You Motivated to Win or Just to Avoid Failure?

Rugby

There are many types of motivation in sport all of which can play a major role in how we handle the pressures and stresses of competition. One theory of motivation that is extremely relevant to competitive sport and is often seen effecting sporting performances just about everywhere we look is the theory of approach and avoidance motivation.

Approach and avoidance motivation is a biological trait of humans which plays a large role in how we learn. It is based on the pleasure/pain principle whereby we are drawn to act when there is the possibility of a pleasurable reward and we avoid action when there is an expectation of pain. Gray (1991) explains this theory with what was termed the behavioural activation system (BAS) and the behavioural inhibition system (BIS). The BAS is roused to action when there is an expectation of receiving a pleasurable reward, in a sporting context this can be anything from the expectation of fun and enjoyment, to winning and receiving praise from others. The BIS on the other hand responds to stimuli that signals the potential for pain, in a sporting context the BIS can be activated from the expectation or potential to experience losing, choking, criticism from others, and the loss of status. This theory can be linked to the fight, flight or freeze theory which is a survival mechanism that humans and animals possess, this theory explains that depending on what our BIS and BAS levels are we will either be motivated to fight back against the threat and see potential for reward if we are high on BAS, or we may be more motivated to run and hide if we are lower on BAS and are higher on BIS, the freeze response is also a product of a high BIS.

In sport it is clear to see how this plays a major role. For example how often do we see in football a team who are desperate to win and who take a lead in the game, following this lead they immediately sit back a try to protect it and the opposition usually equalise as a result. This is when the change in focus alters from wanting to win above all else to a fear of losing this lead and potentially the game. This change from BAS to BIS occurs when the fear of giving away the lead becomes more powerful than the drive to win, i.e. avoid the pain of losing more so than seek the thrill of winning. This may be something for the England football team to consider next time they are in a penalty shootout. If we consider individual players who may be good examples of this theory Tiger Woods could be considered high on BAS, this is because of his drive to win, he is aggressive and openly talks about his desire to crush his opponents, he also makes a point to wear a red shirt on the last day of a tournament as this is a colour that is seen as aggressive and predator like, perhaps the most telling trait of all is in the name, Tiger.

The motivation to avoid failure is something that is very common in competitive sport and can often stem from not wanting to let others down, the fear of what others will say if we perform badly, and not wanting a bruised ego. Often a performer is not even aware that this is happening as it can be a gradual process that has worked its way in to a performer’s way of thinking over time and begins to eat away at confidence.

Typical traits of someone who his high on BIS and lower on BAS levels will be that they feel most confident when there is no perceived threat of losing or failing, for example, playing against a much weaker opponent who couldn’t possibly beat them, or playing against such a good opponent that there is no real expectancy to win, however this player will feel worry and anxiety if there is the opportunity to lose, for example playing against an opponent with a similar ability level. On the other hand a performer who is high on BAS and lower on BIS will thrive from the challenge of battling against an opponent who is similar in ability, but he or she may become bored if there is no real challenge, such as an opponent being too easy to beat or an opponent who is out of reach. Research explains that it is more helpful to have higher BAS levels, but with BIS level not being too low that the performer becomes bored when there is no challenge.

So if anxiety, doubts, fears, and worries are having a negative impact on our performance what can we do in order to minimize our BIS level in performance and increase our BAS level? It is important that we keep the focus on what we want to achieve in the performance and what we want to happen, as part of the brains survival mechanism we have an innate drive to seek out the possible threats to us, instead we must consciously make the effort to consider what may be pleasurable about situation. For example when an upcoming match evokes worry or fear because the BIS has immediately looked for what might cause us pain, we must instead try to consider what will be enjoyable about the event and what it will feel like to win and perform well, seeing the event as an exciting challenge and an opportunity for success will start to change our outlook on the event. This conscious effort to think in a way which increases BAS will help lower anxiety, fear, doubt, worry and will help increase excitement, determination, and enjoyment.