Theories of motivation – what’s the background?

Exploring the potential of the human mind and body

So, what is motivation?

Motivation impacts an individual’s capacity to focus, and sustains, directs and channels human behaviour over an extended period of time. Indeed, a strong drive to achieve excellence is required to begin, and maintain training, and participate in ultra-marathon events. Ultra-marathoners frequently have full-time jobs and families. Increased motivation is likely to be a pre-requisite to focus on training and competition, and to balance dedication towards sport against family commitments, illness, injury, and work pressures. Despite its apparent importance, researchers do not yet understand the impact, of motivation on participation, or success, in ultra-marathon events.

Some of the key theories of motivation

Theory of Planned Behaviour

The Theory of Planned Behaviour is used widely to predict health-related behaviour i.e. why we adopt healthy lifestyles, exercise, and diet. According to this view, beliefs postively, or negatively, impact the attitude towards that behaviour. And, along with perceived social pressure, and behavioural control, create the behavioural intention to determine and control an individuals behaviour e.g. how much time and effort is invested (Ajzen, 1985, 1987).

Behavioural intention is influenced by three factors, the:

  1. positive or negative evaluation of participating in a human behaviour;
  2. social pressure regarding performing, or not performing that behaviour;
  3. perception of how difficult the behaviour is to perform

TPB has successfully predicted adherence to training in female netball players and has been used to identify links between positive attitudes and the behaviour of young sportsmen and women. However, despite its success, no research into TPB has been completed with ultra-marathoners.

Theory of Competence Motivation

The Theory of Competence Motivation (TCM), suggests that perceiving a level of mastery, or competence, in a behaviour, increases the likelihood that it will be repeated (Harter, 1978). Positive feedback leads to an improved self-perception, but negative feedback results in a fear of failure, and will reduce the likelihood of repeating the behaviour.  Removing, or reducing, the fear of a lack of success, through support and positive feedback, can lead to improvements in perceived success and competence, and a greater likelihood of repeating the behaviour. Initial research identified a connection between perceived competence, and motivation to participate in sport, and endurance success.

Social Cognitive Theory

The Social Cognitive Theory (SCT) is based on the premise that learnings, and behavioural adaptations, occur when others are observed in the context of social interactions and experiences (Bandura, 1986). The theory predicts that witnessing a person performing an action provides the observer with a useful cognitive representation and facilitates performance improvement. Furthermore, learning can occur without participating in the action but in response to forming models using verbal, or visual imagery.  A systematic review by Young et al. (2014) proposed that SCT is a useful model to explain physical activity behaviour but currently falls short of examining competitive, or endurance sport. Indeed, much of the research into SCT is within the field of social and health psychology and in particular behavioural change through media campaigns. To date, no research examining SCT has identified the impact of knowledge acquisition, and behavioural modification, in ultra-marathoners through the observation of others on endurance performance (Rosário et al., 2017).

Self Determination Theory – in the next section


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  1. […] Check out the earlier post on motivation for some background. […]

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