Psychologists have long been fascinated with the question of human motivation. Why do we do the things we do? How do we become motivated to do such things in the first place? How do we sustain interest and motivation over time? And how is it that we often see motivation as a quality of character, such that we describe some individuals as motivated and others as not? What informs the conclusions that we make regarding whether or not someone is motivated? It’s a pretty complex issue, non?
In reaction to the Freudians who perceived motivation as a product of unconscious instincts, behavioral psychologists conceptualized motivation as merely a collection of responses to the right stimuli. In fact, for several years, starting in the 1950’s, this behavioral perspective dominated. Behavioral psychology successfully marketed the notion that motivation was the net result of the right kind of reward system. Human motivation, they argued, was the mere product of behavioral conditioning.
I can’t overstate how this perspective influenced approaches to parenting. It also profoundly affected the way coaches taught tennis. It was assumed that the best tennis students would be those who could be conditioned to repeatedly hit balls. Nothing else explains the phenomenon of tennis factories, warehouses in which tennis success became the product and young children the unsuspecting blank slates that could be shaped and molded into achievement.
Andre Agassi perfectly captures this world in his autobiography, “Open”. Agassi describes living essentially inside a tennis concentration camp. At least that’s how it may have seemed from the perspective of the young boy uprooted from his family and planted in the glades of Florida. And in this tennis factory, players are given the occasional reward of visiting the local mall. Once Agassi’s talent became clear, he is given other rewards, such as being able to skip class.
Of course all systems that are based on rewards often include elements of punishment. And so the young Agassi is made to scrub toilets for certain infractions. Rewards and punishments, the hallmarks of a view of motivation that is based essentially on a view of human nature as malleable, capable of being shaped and formed, suspect to manipulation and parental control. The child is not allowed to have a mind of her own.
There are still today many tennis parents who hold to this view. To get their sons and daughters to play tennis, they offer them all kinds of rewards for continued effort. But many adult players who felt manipulated into playing tennis end up giving up the sport altogether. Or if they stick around, there is often an element of bitterness in their attitude. Tennis becomes just a distasteful job. There’s no joy in it whatsoever.
And I must admit that I have always worried about this when it comes to the William sisters. I don’t know how Richard motivated them to play tennis, but he made it clear from the beginning that his own motives were financial. And once his daughters achieved financial success, he wondered out loud why they were still playing tennis. He predicted that they would both retire quickly and live on their millions. And for a while there it looked as if he was right. It seemed as if the sisters became more interested in everything but tennis.
But then a curious thing happened. The sisters started playing tennis on their own terms. They played as often or as infrequently as they wanted to play. They played Fed Cup, or didn’t. They floundered from one interest to another. And then they seemed to re-commit to tennis. On their own terms of course. Next thing you know, they’re #s 1 and 2 in the world.
In the sisters’ actions can be seen the essence of our current understanding of psychological motivation. It’s called intrinsic motivation. Or self-determination.
The theory of self-determination maintains that motivation develops from within us. Not from dark instinctual places as argued by the Freudians. And not as a by-product of external shaping as claimed by the behaviorists. Motivation flows from a basic human need to develop our skills and abilities, to act on our own accord, and to remain connected with others and with our environment. And I will try to explain in Part 3 of this series why this theory more than any other explains why I believe that Federer is still motivated to achieve great things.
(Part 2 of 3)